Chocolate is one treat that I have few qualms prescribing. For millennia, Mesoamerican civilizations knew chocolate to be an herbal medicine and sacred food—an important component of many of their ceremonies, considered to be a “food of the gods.” Today we tend to think of it as an often too-sweet treat. That’s when it’s done wrong. When done right, high-quality dark chocolate (more on that later) is akin to a bittersweet multivitamin, capable of reducing oxidative stress (a root cause of illness and aging), countering inflammation, lowering blood pressure, boosting mental focus and cognitive longevity. Score! And we’re even coming full circle back to the sacred part, too. Turns out, really good chocolate, mindfully eaten, can induce waves of optimism and calm. Small wonder so many people love it. But all that good feeling isn’t a function of chocolate’s sweetness. It’s actually born of its essential nutrient-rich ingredient, cacao.
What else is in your chocolate? Good stuff, as in disease-fighting plant compounds including flavanols, which have heart-protective effects as well as antioxidant and anti-cancer properties. You’ll also get a nice does of iron, fiber, and magnesium to boot. To take advantage of this tasty elixir’s numerous benefits, feel free to get into a chocolate habit, and by that we mean taking modest (one or two small squares) daily doses of super-high-quality chocolate. Look for the kind that’s undergone as little processing as possible, and, assuming you aren’t sensitive to chocolate’s stimulant effect (yup, there is caffeine in there), you can get all the pleasure with none of the guilt. Here’s the lowdown on how chocolate is made so you can suss out the best bars to enjoy on the regular:
The chocolate journey begins with the beans, which are grown in regions close to the equator. The seeds – aka the beans— of the theobroma or cacao tree (from the Greek for “food of the gods”) are tucked inside football-shaped, shell-like pods on the tree. Cacao is abundant in chemicals produced by the body but rarely found in food. One such chemical is anandamide, a bliss-inducing hormone your body normally produces after exercise, and it’s plentiful in cacao beans. The pods are harvested from the trees, the beans extracted and then fermented, dried, and roasted. This process turns the beans into cocoa ‘nibs’—bitter and intense, loaded with beneficial flavonoids and essential minerals like magnesium.
You say cocoa and I say cacao…
In case you were wondering, the classic cocoa powder you’ve used forever for baking and cacao powder, gaining in popularity, are extremely similar, not only in name but in origin too. Both come from the same tree, from the same pods and, yes, the beans are the same too. The main difference is that cacao is made from beans that are fermented, roasted at low temperatures, and then ground into powder, whereas cocoa powder comes from beans that are fermented, roasted, subjected to much higher temperatures, and will often have some sugar and milk products blended in as well. So, cacao is a great option for vegans and vegetarians or anyone looking for unsweetened, dairy-free, less processed options.
From beans to bar.
Nibs are ground, mixed into a paste, and separated from cocoa butter to deliver cocoa solids. Sugar is added at this stage to balance the bitter taste, but most mass-market chocolate, unfortunately, overdoes it, creating a needlessly way-too-sweet product. To get a healthier bar, always go low on the sweet stuff and grab a bar that touts a 75% cacao content. Enjoy the more grown-up, not-so-sweet taste and naturally boost your happy chemicals while you’re at it.
Enjoy chocolate, minus the bar.
If chocolate bars aren’t your thing, or are too hard not to binge on, try using ground or powdered cacao as a crunchy power food to add to smoothie bowls or chia puddings, or, eat it on its own as an energizing snack. You can also have a cacao ‘cuppa’ and drink ground roasted beans (from brands like Crio Bru) like coffee—just steep and sip. The theobromine delivers a sustained lift without the caffeine jitters.
Take your chocolate without milk and sugar.
When you’re strolling the chocolate section at your local market, the options are virtually endless, but from a nutritional benefits perspective, always think dark. The higher the number on the wrapper, the “darker” and more intense the chocolate, and the less sugar it will contain. Anything marked 75% or higher is a good bet – a high cacao concentration is what you’re after. Also, look for dairy-free chocolate, as some studies say that the milk (or milk powder) in chocolate, even in many dark chocolate brands, binds with the antioxidants and prevents full absorption.
Be a chocolate bar minimalist.
When faced with a wall of chocolate, grab a few options, and give the ingredients list a close read. See how many ingredients are in each and choose bars with the fewest. The best dark chocolate always has chocolate liquor or cocoa listed as the first ingredient. Next, it may list cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, and cocoa butter. Last on the list should be sugar, ideally with no more than 4 grams per serving.
Shop for earth and farmer-friendly bars.
Look for the best, darkest, low sugar chocolate bars, and also treat this queen of plant foods with some respect by buying chocolate from ethical sources. Don’t be fooled by nice-sounding but somewhat nebulous (and unregulated) phrases like ‘forest-friendly’ or ‘green.’ Instead, look for certifications from third parties like Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, or UTZ, who are working to improve conditions in the industry: higher wages for farmers and more sustainable practices in growing regions. A “Fair Trade” stamp is also a good indicator, though a “Direct Trade” designation benefits cacao farmers even more.
Or take your chocolate with a twist.
While most of us grew up with chocolate bars whose only point of difference might have been a few imbedded almonds, now there’s no end to exotic add-ins. Artisanal chocolatiers are going wild with superfood and medicinal ingredients, anything from spices and medicinal mushrooms to (yes) kale chips, all to give the bar extra-good health properties and to keep all your senses engaged. Go as adventurous as you care to, but choose organic, to avoid unwanted additives less scrupulous makers can slip in under the “flavors” tag.
Manage and savor your dose.
No matter how you take your daily dose, chocolate is a functional-food luxury. Savor it, one small brick at a time – not for nothing, chocolate is a popular food for mindful eating practices. So, commit to using it with a bit of reverence. Do that by slowing down and sinking into the chocolate eating experience, becoming fully present with how it changes the way you feel and think. The other trick is to not overdo it – saying yes to healthy, low-sugar dark chocolate isn’t a hall pass to indulge multiple times a day. One or two small squares every day is enough. Also try to consume yours before late afternoon, long before bedtime, so as not to impact your sleep.
Not a chocolate bar person? Here are two other delicious ways to enjoy your dose:
Chocolate Energy Smoothie
- 1 serving vanilla protein powder (if using whey, preferably from grass-fed cows)
- 3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
- 1/4 cup brewed organic coffee or 1 teaspoon organic instant coffee powder (optional)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons raw cacao
- 1/4 avocado
- 1 tablespoon almond butter
- 1 tablespoon flax, hemp, or chia seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 6 to 8 ice cubes or approximately 1/2 cup room- temperature water
Combine in your blender, flip on a medium-high setting, blend, pour and enjoy. If you like yours on the less thick side, you can thin out your brew by adding water or a touch more coconut milk.
Chocolate Energy Balls
- 1 cup leftover almond “pulp” (from making almond milk) or 1 cup almond flour
- 1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut flakes
- 1/3 cup almond butter or coconut butter
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil (room temperature or softened over low heat)
- 3 heaping tablespoons cacao powder
- 3 tablespoons cacao nibs
- 3 tablespoons hemp seeds
- 2 tablespoons ground almond meal (store-bought)
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract, or more to taste
- Few pinches cinnamon, to taste
- Up to 2 tablespoons maple syrup to sweeten, optional
Add all the ingredients to your food processor and process until it’s the consistency of fudge; taste and add more cinnamon and vanilla if needed, to suit your preference. If you use the maple syrup, add just a little to start— you may not need as much as you think—and then add more dry ingredients if necessary to achieve a fudge-like consistency. Roll the mixture into small balls and store in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, or in the freezer for up to 2 months.