First, a little history lesson. The Latin name for chocolate, Theobroma cacao, was first named by the famous botanist Carl von Linné. Theobroma literally translates as food for the gods, while cacao is similar to the names the people of Mesoamerica were using, such as ka-kaw. According to anthropologists, cacao was first used about four thousand years ago. In fact, we can see how important the Mesoamerican natives considered this food by the way it was emphasized in ritualistic traditions.
When the Spanish crusaders came to Mesoamerica in the 15th Century, they were initially greeted as guests of the Mayan and Aztec emperors. The crusaders could observe how servants of the emperor whisked up a brown drink made of cacao with a range of spices added to it, which was then consumed by the emperor frequently throughout the day. The traditional cocoa drink was bitter, and resembled coffee. When the crusaders, Columbus included, tried to drink this, they were quite disgusted by the bitter and spicy taste. Nonetheless, they brought the strange cacao plant back to Spain and Portugal.
Due to high taxes in Spain and Portugal, for a while, only nobility could afford to consume cacao, infused with cane sugar and honey to make it palatable. Later, it was sold as a medicinal drink, well-known for its aphrodisiac-like effect. Interestingly, Spain and Portugal managed to keep chocolate a secret from the rest of Europe for a long time. Only in late 17th century did chocolate become accessible to the rest of Europe, and its popularity quickly caught on.
Now, moving past the hitory of chocolate, and reflecting on culture and wellness today, we can ask – Is chocolate good for you? And is all chocolate created equal? When we go to the supermarket and stand in line to pay for our healthy organic vegetables and produce, we encounter rows upon rows of enticing packaging and varieties. Sometimes it requires a LOT of will power not to suddenly find your arm uncontrollably reaching out for that dark chocolate with caramel and chili.
While cacao itself has a whole range of beneficial effects to our health, I would say eating a Mars bar, lathered in sugars and refined products is definitely not healthy. In contrast to the healthy natural cacao, chocolate bars contain foods that are both addictive and unhealthy. The refined sugar in such products will directly and indirectly trigger the dopamine surge, giving you a rewarding feeling, the feeling of wanting more, while the sugar and dairy will also increase inflammation. In this form, chocolate becomes a complex food, making it hard to digest, and therefore further promote gut dysbiosis and inflammation.
Now, we then come into the subject of quality. The better quality of chocolate, the better it is in general. So, having a chocolate bar that is comprised of raw cocoa, with little or no sugar and no dairy is generally a very healthy choice. What is interesting is how healthy chocolate bars are popping up in the grocery stores. I have also advised many patients to substitute the dairy chocolate, with healthier choices, which has many beneficial effects, including lower inflammation, and easier weight reduction.
Chocolate is considered to be one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet, but what is most interesting about chocolate is that it contains particularly high amounts of antioxidants. Some research say that chocolate contain higher amounts of antioxidants than any other berry, including acai and blueberries. This was measured according to the ORAC score, measuring the capacity to mop up the inflammation promoting free radicals, thereby reduce inflammation.
So, what are the health benefits of chocolate? Here is a list of the medicinal properties of good quality chocolate:
- Improves blood flow, by relaxing the tension in the blood vessel walls through the production of nitric oxide.
- Lowers blood pressure.
- Reduces oxidized LDL cholesterol and other free radicals (Due to its high antioxidant and ORAC score).
- Helps prevent and manage insulin resistance, thereby balancing the blood sugar level.
- Improves brain function, by boosting the circulation to the brain and enhancing the neural connections in the brain. Also, chocolate contain theobromine (a form of caffeine found in cocoa beans, only weaker), which then can stimulate the mind.
- Improves the feel-good experience, by boosting dopamine and prevent breakdown of anadamide (also known as the “bliss chemical”). Some research say that some of this mood stimulating effect comes from the highly palatable taste of chocolate.
- Lowers the risk of heart disease. Regular consumption of cacao has shown to lower risk of heart disease by 1/3.
- Significantly lowers the risk of stroke.
- Improves athletic performance, by boosting the blood circulation and lower the viscosity of the blood (meaning that blood flows more easily). Also, chocolate contain good amounts of magnesium, which is very important for muscle function and regeneration.
- Treats obesity and make you stay slim.
- Because it is bitter, it has a lot of beneficial effects for the gut flora and the digestion. (Bitter herbs are commonly used to treat gut related disorders.)
So, do not feel guilty about eating chocolate. Rather focus on getting good quality of chocolate. For chocolate bars, having cocoa content between 70- 85 % is generally the best. And if you feel particularly adventurous, you can attempt to make your own chocolate.
So, how do you make your own chocolate version, you ask? Here is a suggestion – let´s make a delicious cup of hot chocolate. Note that you will need either bars of good quality chocolate (like Valhrona) or chocolate powder (do not use cacao powder as the quality is much worse), a milk substitute (coconut milk or almond milk (unsweetened) and spices such as cinnamon, vanilla or nutmeg.
How to make a cup of hot chocolate:
- Heat up the nutmilk in a pot.
- Add the chocolate bars or chocolate powder, and stir until it has completely dissolved in the milk.
- Then stir in the spices, and heat up the milk again.
- If you want a frothier hot chocolate, you could try to add the liquid in the blender and pulse for a few seconds.
- Alternatively, you could try hot matcha chocolate. Here you put about ¼ – ½ tsp. high quality matcha powder in a cup, add a small amount of the hot nutmilk, and stir until dissolved, add in some more nutmilk and whisk until frothy. Add this to the hot chocolate.
The idea here is to experiment. There is no absolute rule, although if you use better quality chocolate, you will get a richer chocolate taste. Enjoy!