Chocolate originated in ancient Central America where the Maya and the Aztecs cultivated the cacao tree, or Theobroma cacao meaning ‘food of the gods’. Ancient healers have used cacao beans medicinally for centuries, yet traditionally chocolate has the reputation of raising bad cholesterol, causing acne, tooth decay and weight gain, and lacking nutritional value. The average American consumes 11.64 pounds of chocolate a year. That’s nothing compared to the 22.3 pounds consumed each year by the average Swiss. For most, chocolate is chocolate. However, the majority of chocolate most of us are accustomed to is cheap, heavily processed industrialized chocolate with ingredients far beyond just chocolate that gives it its bad reputation.
Chocolate Health Benefits.
In actuality, chocolate is largely antioxidant-rich, full of minerals, healthy fat and hundreds of compounds that protect our brain and nervous system, reduce inflammation, give us mood boosts and extra energy, as well as many other positive health benefits. The closer the chocolate is to its natural raw state, i.e., the darker it is or more cocoa solids it contains, the higher its nutritional value. White chocolate does not contain any cocoa therefore it has no antioxidant properties. Raw cocoa on the other hand, which consists of 100% cocoa contains over three times the antioxidant activity of roasted cocoa powder.
Don’t be fooled by the Label.
As with every food option, it’s always best to check the label before you purchase. Take for example this Hersey’s Special Dark Chocolate Bar. Even though it’s labeled as “Dark Chocolate” its very first ingredient is sugar! When buying a chocolate bar wouldn’t you expect its most predominate ingredient to be chocolate? In fact, Hersey’s Special “Dark” is 45% chocolate. That means ≥ 45% of the bar is sugar! The remaining ≤ 10% consists of ingredients such as emulsifiers and artificial flavors.
Are You Eating REAL Chocolate?
Sadly, most people have never tasted REAL chocolate, chocolate produced from wild, indigenous cacao. The chocolate readily available in our grocery stores is likely from a hybridized cacao plant that lacks the bold, rich flavors of wild varieties. The hybrid cacao plant is favored for mass production due to its high yield and disease resistant properties, causing wild production to decrease dramatically. Production of wild cacao is an incredible laborious and time consuming process, and the yield cannot compare to hybrid varieties. Therefore to meet the increasing demand for chocolate, farmers are planting hybrid varieties more frequently and have shifted towards using unsustainable, less environmentally conscious practices.
There are claims that wild cacao not only tastes better but has even greater nutritional properties. I have yet to see a study that confirms this, but it seems plausible considering wild cacao’s indigenous habitat and longer lifespan enabling its roots to deeply embed and feed off native, mineral-rich mud. Because hybrid varieties have shorter lifespans, there is a loss in soil fertility every time there is turnover on a production plantation. As the soil loses its nutrient-richness so does the cacao, depleting its health benefits for the consumer and impeding its growth and yield for the farmer. Additionally hybrid varieties can be harvested in just a few years after being planted so young plants have little time to deeply embed their roots and seep up the nutrients from the soil and into the cocoa.
Cacao is a shade dwelling plant which is why you will often find banana trees growing next to some plantation hybrids; hardly the understory of an evergreen tropical rainforest where you will find wild cacao. Additionally, some plantations have moved their crops entirely out of shade and into the direct sunlight. This practice yields a greater quantity in a short period but at the expense of lower quality. Unlike wild cacao which feeds off natural rainwater or floods its roots alongside riverbanks for extended periods, sun exposed hybrid plantations require considerable watering and fertilization. Heavy chemical fertilizers compensate for poor soil nutrients and direct sunlight, and the use of extensive herbicides, pesticides and fungicides help ward of infection and disease. All of which negatively impact the health of the land, water, and people.
The Bottom Line.
Chocolate has incredible health benefits. To reap its full rewards consume a high cocoa concentrated (≥ 70%) dark chocolate bar or better yet try raw. The most environmental, sustainable, and nutritious option is to choose REAL chocolate originating from wild indigenous cacao. You can still find wild cacao but it is hard to find, and you certainly aren’t going to see it on the shelves of any local grocery store. Regardless of chocolate type, make sure all your chocolate is certified organic or produced and grown using minimal chemicals and from a sustainable source.
Although not in its raw or wild form, one of my favorite go-to bars is Sweetriot’s Pure 85% Dark Chocolate Bar. This bar ranks high on the healthy meter with its high concentration of chocolate, 85%. The remaining 15% of its ingredients consist of organic cane sugar and organic vanilla as one would expect, and no other ingredients, additives or emulsifiers. Additionally, it’s certified USDA organic which is especially important given the heavy use of pesticides by chocolate growers, supports Fair Trade, and is soy and gluten free!
What is your favorite chocolate bar and cocoa concentration? Do you consume raw? How about a wild variety? Please share by COMMENTING below.
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Lauren Brinkac, founder of DC Healthy Bites, received a dual BS in Biology and Biochemistry from Syracuse University and a MS in Bioinformatics from George Mason University. She is currently a Lead Bioinformatics Analyst conducting bacterial genomics research of infectious disease at The J. Craig Venter Institute. Lauren hopes to use her scientific background and the latest in scientific research to guide others in making informed dietary choices to optimize their own personalized health. Click here to read Lauren’s Story.