Chocolate is a guilty treat for most of us but what if there was a way to eat it and not feel bad about it?
You’re in luck -there is a type of chocolate that actually seems to be pretty good for you!
Raw chocolate is getting more popular these days and for good reason. Studies have shown that raw chocolate has a whole heap of health benefits, which means you can indulge with none of the guilt you might feel about tucking into its processed counterpart.
Here’s what you need to know about raw chocolate and what it can do for your health!
What is Raw Chocolate?
Cacao beans come from the cacao tree, which is native to Central America. The Aztecs considered cacao to be the food of the gods!
Cacao is the main ingredient in chocolate but in most cases, it is roasted and this can change its molecular structure. Most of the goodness then disappears and what you’re left with isn’t nearly as healthy … especially when sugar and fat are added into the equation.
This doesn’t happen with “raw” cacao. It’s called “raw” chocolate because the cacao beans aren’t roasted at the same kind of temperatures. Instead, they’re dried at much lower temperature, which helps to maintain their original molecular structure and keep a lot more of the nutrients intact. They can then be consumed whole as cacao nibs or ground to produce cocoa powder.
The cacao beans in processed chocolate are usually roasted at high temperature, which can destroy most of the goodness in them. You won’t get the same impressive health benefits from eating the kind of chocolate you’ll readily find on the supermarket shelves for this reason.
Pure cacao has a pretty bitter taste, which also means it contains more of the good stuff that I’m going to highlight in the next section. Most processed chocolate contains very little cacao and even worse, the phytonutrients are compromised during the processing procedure.
Cacao Versus Cocoa
There is a bit of confusion about the differences between cacao and cocoa. They’re quite similar but cocoa is more processed than cacao and doesn’t have the same health benefits.
It’s usually heated at much higher temperatures than cacao and loses a lot of nutrients in the process. It does tend to contain a lot of the antioxidants though. You’ll often find that cocoa has some added sugar whereas cacao is unprocessed. This means that cocoa is usually less expensive to buy than cacao.
The Health Benefits of Raw Cacao
So, what’s so good about raw cacao? Here are some of the things to know about it:
#1 It’s Very Nutritious
Raw cacao contains vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and fibre.It’s particularly rich in magnesium and also contains some iron and even a little bit of calcium.
Cacao beans are also a great source of antioxidants, which fight against free radicals that can damage the body.
#2 It Improves Cardiovascular Health
Studies have suggested that cacao can have a very positive impact as far as cardiovascular health is concerned.
Research from Australia indicated that eating dark chocolate on a daily basis could help to protect against developing cardiovascular disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, even in people who are considered to be high risk.
The effects of cholesterol were also shown in another study, in which 15g of dark chocolate per day led to a reduction in systolic blood pressure after just over a fortnight.
Another study found that drinking cocoa that had been roasted, cracked and ground by the researchers themselves and tested to ensure it hadn’t lost a significant amount of antixoxidants during this process (as is often the case) for 12 weeks led to a 24 per cent increase in “good” HDL cholesterol levels. There wasn’t any significant change in levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol but tests showed that the mens’ LDL cholesterol was a lot more resistant to oxidisation (which can encourage a build up of LDL cholesterol within arteries if it happens in the body) than the men who drank no cocoa at all.
This study’s results were backed up by the findings from a similar study, which found that a diet rich in flavanoids from cocoa and chocolate slowed down the rate of oxidisation for LDL cholesterol by up to 8 per cent and also encouraged a slight increase in HDL cholesterol.
Other studies have found that the polyphenols in dark chocolate offer more protection against coronary artery disease than green tea.
Studies have looked at the Kuna islanders, the indigenous people of Panama and Colombia. Two groups were examined: those living on the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama, and those living on the mainland in Panama City.
The former have been shown to have lower blood pressure than their counterparts on the mainland, along with fewer deaths from heart disease and cancer.
In particular, they had a tendency to drink an average of 5 cups of cocoa per day, with the cocoa being freshly picked and left to dry in the sun before being ground and used in their diet. Over on the mainland, they drank fewer cups of cocoa and were much more likely to drink the processed type.
Urine samples confirmed that the Kuna islanders had a lot more flavanols in their urine and this led to a tentative theory that this is strongly linked to their lesser rates of heart disease and cancer.
#3 It’s Good for The Brain
Raw cacao can boost your mood. It contains phenylethylamine, the chemical that our brains’ release when we fall in love. It also encourages your brain to produce feel good endorphins.
However, it’s not all good news when it comes to boosting your mood. Research from the Journal of Affective Disorders found that when it’s eaten as “self medication” for low mood and depressive symptoms, chocolate can actually prolong these feelings and have the opposite effect to what was intended.
Research from Harvard University found that drinking 2 cups of cacao per day led to more blood flow to the brain and better memory in middle aged people over the 30 day study period. There is potential for using cacao to improve cognitive function.
Another study published in Hypertension journal in 2012 found that older adults who were experiencing relatively mild problems with memory and thinking (which put them at higher risk of developing dementia further down the line) and drank flavanoid-rich cocoa did better on tests measuring their mental function compared to those who only drank cocoa with far fewer flavanoids.
Both of these studies have given researchers hope that cocoa can potentially have a role to play in protecting the brain. It’s even suggested that the flavanoids in cocoa could help to protect against the development of Alzheimer’s Disease.
#4 It Improves Skin Health
Studies have shown that cocoa that is high in flavanoids can help to improve skin health, particularly with regards to hydration and texture.
#5 It’s Full of Antioxidants
Research from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that polyphenols (a plant chemical that is linked to good health) are particularly rich in cocoa. It actually contains more polyphenols than black tea, coffee, red wine and green tea.
Cacao is known to have 4 times more antioxidants than processed dark chocolate (which many people believe to be healthy) and a whopping 20 times more antioxidants than blueberries.
#6 It Could Fight Periodontal Disease
Studies on rats have suggested that cocoa can reduce oxidation stress relating to periodontitis and that this could actually help to slow down the progression of the condition.
How to Use Raw Cacao
Raw cacao can have a very bitter taste and this can be off putting to many people.
If you’re not a fan of this but still want to incorporate it into your diet, one of the easiest ways to do this is to add a teaspoon or two to things like smoothies, salads and shakes. Any more than this can be lead to side effects.
Cacao nibs (the beans that are roasted and separated from the husks and then broken up into smaller pieces) are a popular way to consume raw cacao. You only need 4-5 cacao nibs in the average day; any more than this and you risk getting side effects.
Dairy Counteracts the Positive Effects of Raw Cacao
Here’s a quick word of warning if you’re planning to use raw cacao in smoothies or shakes – dairy has been shown to have a big effect on the ability to absorb antioxidants. Nut or soya milk is therefore a better alternative for smoothies and shakes that contain cacao.
A Word of Caution
Because raw cacao is a lot more potent than your average processed chocolate bar, this can lead to some health issues that you should be aware of when deciding whether it’s for you or not. This is why you shouldn’t go overboard with eating raw cacao – studies have suggested it can have a lot of benefits for health but a lot more research needs to be done on the side effects before we really know how much we should be eating.
For now, it’s best to only eat it in moderation. A handful of cacao nibs is usually more than enough; 4 or 5 is generally considered to be the maximum you should have per day. If you’re using cacao powder, 2-3 teaspoons per day is plenty.
The central nervous system can be particularly affected by cacao as it contains fairly high amounts of theobromine and caffeine compared to processed chocolate. These act as stimulants and can lead to problems such as increased anxiety, feeling “on edge”, insomnia and faster heart rate. If you already suffer from anxiety, you may therefore want to give raw cacao a miss as it’s likely to make your symptoms worse.
Studies on mice have suggested that high doses of phenylethylamine could result in depression but more research needs to be done on this and on humans to confirm.
As you can see, raw cacao can be great for your health – just be careful to enjoy it in moderation! Ready to start reaping the rewards? Try adding a teaspoon or two of cacao powder to smoothies or snack on a handful of cacao nibs. That should be enough to get the benefits without also getting any potential side effects.