Why Is Chocolate Good For You?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

  1. Heat up the nutmilk in a pot.
  2. Add the chocolate bars or chocolate powder, and stir until it has completely dissolved in the milk.
  3. Then stir in the spices, and heat up the milk again.
  4. If you want a frothier hot chocolate, you could try to add the liquid in the blender and pulse for a few seconds.
  5. 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!





Drink Tea Like A Zen Master

In recent times this tea has by far become my favorite tea. The reason for this is the fact that this green, delicious drink contain rich amounts of antioxidants and other healthy nutrients, far more than any other tea. While feeling invigorated, it also gives a great sense of peace.

In Matcha tea, we actually drink the powdered tea leaves. The tea leaves are first ground to a very fine powder, and then a small amount is added to hot water (or other liquids such as milk or milk substitutes). Traditionally a whisk called Chasen is then used to properly dissolve the powdered tea leaves in the water, before being consumed in its entirety.

The tradition of grinding tea leaves and having it directly in the hot water for consumption started in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) in China. Zen Buddhist monks brought this tradition to Japan in around 1181 A.D., where the process of harvesting the tea leaves and making the stoneground tea leaves was refined, giving birth to what we now called Matcha tea.

Originally this was consumed amongst Buddhist monks, but it soon spread in popularity throughout East-Asia. While Matcha tea contain rich amounts of antioxidants, the sought-after effect of Matcha tea was the invigorating and relaxing effect. Buddhist monks cherished this tea because it enabled them to stay focused in meditations for a longer time.

There are greater amounts of caffeine in this tea. This caffeine called Theophylline is not as strong as what you would find in coffee, but it still will give an invigorating effect. What counterbalances this invigorating effect is what researchers have now discovered to be L-Theanine, an amino-acid that leave you with a relaxed and invigorated state. Since the actual tea leaves are used to make the tea, and not just the brewing of the tea, Matcha has rich amounts of L-Theanine. This can therefore explain why you would feel a great sense of ease, while at the same time mentally alert.

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So, how can you make yourself a tasty cup of Matcha tea? In the tea-shop ask for premium or ceremonial grade of Macha tea. Ceremonial grade is of better quality, but also much more expensive. The nutrient contents are the same, and if you are not a Zen monk, who consume this regularly, you probably would not notice the difference. While in the shop you could also ask for a whisk called Chasen in addition to buying the tea. If you do not have this whisk, no problem. The only reason for using a whisk, is that it makes it easier to dissolve the matcha, and giving a more frothy and lighter feel to the tea.

Now, take ¼ – ½ teaspoon of Matcha in a cup, and add a small amount of hot water (not boiling), whisk or whip the mix of Matcha and hot water around until the tea has been dissolved. Add more hot water and whisk this in some more, until you get a frothy consistency in the tea. As an extra tip, I sometimes add turmeric to this tea, to make an even more potent drink…or, why not try out a matcha-turmeric-latte?

Matcha tea can be drunk throughout the day, but probably not late at night, due to the stimulating effect from the caffeine in it. I recommend you try this out. Maybe you can even substitute the cup of coffee in the morning with an invigorating cup of Macha tea?