The Greek name for cocoa, theobroma, means “food of the gods.” Cacao is the purest form of chocolate you can consume, and has played an important role in many ancient South American cultures due to its health properties.
It is well known that cacao is an excellent source of flavonoids (phytonutrients found in almost all fruits and vegetables). These powerful antioxidants are associated with prevention of coronary heart disease, certain cancers, and neurodegenerative disease.
Although we have talked about the health properties of cacao in previous bulletins, this bulletin provides an update on the most recent studies regarding the benefits of eating cacao.
Benefits for Gut Microbes:
Cacao’s effect on the microbial ecosystem of your intestines is similar to that of prebiotics and probiotics. The dietary polyphenols found in cacao help maintain gut health by stimulating the growth of beneficial bacteria and preventing the growth of pathogen bacteria.
Eating cacao over long periods may induce pancreatic B-cell regeneration, stimulate insulin secretion, have a hypoglycemic effect, and improve glucose tolerance. Studies have shown that the flavonoids in cacao may improve insulin resistance by improving endothelial function, altering glucose metabolism, and reducing oxidative stress.
Recent research shows that eating chocolate significantly improves visual acuity and contrast sensitivity for two hours. The study compared these factors after consumption of dark chocolate versus milk chocolate. The duration of these effects is not yet clear and more research is needed.
Reduced Arterial Stiffness:
Consumption of flavanol-rich cacao is linked to improvements in dilation and arterial stiffness. It is also linked to reduction in blood pressure, which may lead to prevention of cardiovascular complications. More studies are needed to confirm results and establish a dose-response.
The methylxanthine caffeine and theobromine found in chocolate may have a positive impact on neurocognitive function. In the short-term, eating dark chocolate can improve blood flow, mood, and cognition. In the long-term, it may lead to better cognitive function, decreased risk of dementia and cognitive decline, lower rates of cognitive impairment, better cognitive evolution over a 10-year period, and better dose-dependent cognitive performance in normal aging.
For all the reasons listed above, eating cacao can be part of a healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet. Just make sure you choose chocolate with high flavonoid content. The amount of flavonoids in chocolate varies based on the cacao concentration, and dark chocolate has more flavonoid content than milk or white chocolate. Dark chocolate contains 50-90% cacao solids, cocoa butter, and sugar, whereas milk chocolate contains 10-50% cacao solids, cocoa butter, milk in some form, and sugar. Lower quality chocolates are closer to a candy bar than a healthy food. This is because butter fat, vegetable oils, and artificial colors and flavors may be added to them. White chocolate can fit in the “low-quality chocolate” category since it does not contain ANY cocoa and is made of cocoa butter, sugar, and milk.
Recipe of the Week: Cranberry-Walnut Dark Chocolate Bar
16 oz. dark chocolate (60% cacao or higher), coarsely chopped
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or dried tart cherries, dried blueberries, or dried currants)
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped walnuts (or pistachios, almonds, or pecans)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt (optional)
Line a rimmed 15" x 10" baking sheet with wax paper. Place the chocolate in a glass bowl and melt in the microwave on medium power for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds at first. Once the pieces start to soften, stir every 15 seconds. Be careful not to microwave longer than needed.
Stir 1/2 cup cranberries and 1/2 cup walnuts into the melted chocolate. Pour the mixture onto the baking sheet and spread into a 1/4" layer. Sprinkle the top of the chocolate with the remaining 2 tablespoons of cranberries and walnuts. Sprinkle with the sea salt, if using. Let the chocolate cool for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Once hard, break the bark into about 15 pieces. Store in a container with a tight-fitting lid.
Nutrition per piece: 213 calories, 25 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 4 g protein, 13 g total fat, 6 g saturated fat, 63 mg sodium
*Recipe via RunnersWorld.com
Have a great weekend!
Karen Alexander, BSND, MSCN