In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I would spread some love this month and talk about chocolate! All chocolate comes from the Theobroma cacao tree, which is native to South America, however not all chocolate is created equal. While dark chocolate has many health benefits, the milk chocolate in most commercial candy bars is heavily processed and full of sugar. No, I’m talking about dark chocolate, with at least 65% cocoa (or some labels may say cacao).
It’s heart-healthy. Cacao beans, which are used to make chocolate, are full of flavonoids that help lower blood pressure and improve blood flow to the heart, helping to reduce the risk of heart disease. The Aztecs called chocolate "yollotl eztli,"which means “heart blood.” Some studies have shown that dark chocolate may lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL. At worst it’s cholesterol-neutral and at best it may improve your cholesterol numbers.
It’s a great source of antioxidants. We’re constantly exposed to toxins in our food and the environment that can lead to the release of free radicals in our body, which in turn can lead to diseases like cancer.Chocolate provides antioxidants which help neutralize free radicals.
It’s a good source of magnesium, which is needed for over 300 chemical reactions in your body. Magnesium helps with nerve and muscle function, is needed to keep your bones strong, contributes to heart health, and can support stress reduction and healthy sleep.
It’s brain food. Those flavonoids I mentioned earlier also improve blood flow to the brain, which can help improve cognitive ability. Epicatechin, the main flavonoid in cacao, can help with cognitive function and improve mood. Chocolate has also been shown to release endorphins and serotonin, our “feel good” neurotransmitters.
It can help with blood sugar regulation. Both epicatechin and magnesium are thought to enhance insulin sensitivity to better manage blood glucose levels. Replacing sugary snacks with dark chocolate can also help curb sugar cravings.
It may be an effective cough suppressant. The part of your brain called the vagus nerve can trigger coughing fits and cacao contains a chemical called theobromine, which is thought to deactivate this activity. This is based on a very small study of 10 people where dark chocolate was found to be more effective than codeine, but hey, it’s worth a try to chew a square or two of dark chocolate next time you’ve got a cough!
When you’re buying dark chocolate, note that the higher the percentage of cacao, the more bitter the chocolate will be. It may take some trial and error to find your chocolate sweet spot, but as long as you keep it above 65%, you’ll be on the receiving end of some great benefits.
The recipe this month is for Spanish hot chocolate. Instead of reaching for the hot chocolate packets full of sugar and artificial ingredients, try making your own. I’ve subbed arrowroot for corn starch in this recipe because I try to avoid GMO corn, but if you happen to have organic corn starch, you can use that too.
Spanish Hot Chocolate Recipe
Total time: 15 minutes
1 cup boiling water 4 ounces high quality bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa), finely chopped 2 cups unsweetened almond milk mixed with 2 teaspoons cornstarch 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder 1/2 teaspoon Stevia 1 two-inch orange rind
Combine boiling water and chopped chocolate in a medium saucepan, stirring until chocolate melts.
Add the rest of the ingredients and cook over medium-low heat, stirring with a whisk for 5 minutes or until tiny bubbles form around the edge of the pan (do not boil).
Remove orange rind and ladle hot chocolate into six small mugs; serve immediately.