February is Heart Health and National Chocolate Month! It makes perfect sense to celebrate heart health and chocolate in the same month, because studies show that eating a small amount of dark chocolate daily can lower the risk of heart attack and stroke. It is not exactly clear how dark chocolate does this, but it is likely due to a number of factors including the high levels of antioxidants and magnesium.
Food of the Gods
First domesticated by the Mayans over 2,000 years ago, the word cacao means “Food of the Gods,” and is one of the most nutritionally complex foods on earth. Cacao offers a number of health benefits:
- Antioxidants: Raw cacao has an oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score of 95,500 per 100 grams, making it one of the best sources of antioxidants, which is helpful in preventing and repairing free radical damage. It is rich in polyphenols, flavanols, and proanthocyanidins.
- Magnesium: Rich in minerals including potassium and iron, cacao is also one of the best food-known sources of magnesium. Magnesium is required for over 300 enzymatic reactions, including the synthesis of fat, protein and nucleic acids, muscular contraction and relaxation, cardiac health and bone building. Magnesium improves blood flow and plays a key role in the metabolism of adenosine triphoshate (ATP). Low magnesium levels raise our risk of heart attack and stroke. It is estimated that most Americans do not get sufficient magnesium levels. The following symptoms can be an indicator of low magnesium levels: muscle cramping, migraines or headaches, restless leg syndrome, twitching, heart disease, and anxiety.
- Boosts Blood Flow: Raw cacao has been shown in studies to improve blood flow to the heart and the brain, and ahem…some other organs in the body. It also has been found in studies to reduce dementia, and even improve the brain’s ability to perform math problems. Cacao has protective effects on endothelial function, which is important for heart health.
- Boosts Mood: It is no wonder we celebrate Valentines Day with chocolate. Cacao contains phenylethylamine, a compound that is referred to as the “love chemical,” because our bodies produce it when we fall in love! Cacao contains a compound called threobromine, which has powerful mood-enhancing qualities, and also is a mild diuretic.
Cacao vs. Cocoa
Both have health benefits, but when given the option – go for the nutritionally superior cacao over cocoa. Because the whole beans are dried in low temperatures, the vitamins, minerals, enzymes in raw cacao remain intact. Whereas cocoa powder is heated when processed, this can degrade some of the nutrients.
When choosing chocolates, the darker the better. Dark chocolate has significantly more nutrients, and less negatives (like sugar). People with a very strong sweet tooth will need time to adjust to dark chocolate, but it is possible to develop a taste, and even a preference for dark chocolate. First give a 60% cacao chocolate bar a try, then move up to 70% cacao. Some people might even find that they like 80% or higher cacao.
Like many foods, cacao may not be universally good for everyone. Be sure to keep chocolate away from Fido. Dogs can not metabolize theobromine, which makes chocolate toxic to our furry friends. For those who suffer with migraines or acid reflux, it could potentially provoke symptoms and may be best avoided.
Want to incorporate raw cacao into your life?
One of the best ways to get the benefits of cacao is to add cacao powder or nibs into your smoothies and other recipes. The nibs offer a delicious, crunchy & nutty chocolate flavor and are great in pancakes, as toppings on smoothies and pudding. The powder imparts a delicious smooth chocolate taste.
About Sara Vance:
A dark chocolate aficionado, Sara Vance is a Nutritionist & the author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan. A sought after speaker, Sara educates through her television segments, corporate and group nutrition programs, school programs, and her writing. Download her free eBook called Cooking with Superfoods. Join Sara for her new Group Nutrition Lunch & Learn class beginning in March!