Almost everyone loves chocolate. On my recent travels through France I saw the most beautiful Parisian truffles—like works of art — and wondered if there were chocolate treats that would help us all stay young and gorgeous. I know that chocolate contains some serious anti-aging FoodTrients, but it also contains fat and calories. Chocolate comes from cacao beans (or cocoa beans), large fatty beans that grow inside pods on cacao trees. Those trees grow in tropical regions of the world very near the equator. They are mainly cultivated in South America, Indonesia, and West Africa. The quality of the cocoa bean is determined by its variety and how it is processed.
In order to be eaten, cocoa beans must be first be fermented with their pulp, then dried, and then roasted. The beans are then cracked open and shelled, leaving cocoa nibs. The nibs are crunchy and delicious in this state, although somewhat bitter. At this point the nibs can be processed directly into chocolate. Or the nibs can be ground and dried so that the dark cocoa solids can be separated from the white, fatty, smooth cocoa butter. The dark cocoa solids have far more nutrients and antioxidants than the cocoa butter. White chocolate, being made from cocoa butter and sugar, has very few health benefits. Dark chocolate has more anti-aging power than milk chocolate. Dark chocolate contains tryptophan, and catechins. Cocoa nibs are high in theobromine.
Theobromine and flavonoids like epicatechin found in dark chocolate are heart-friendly. They dilate blood vessels to reduce blood pressure and they increase your heart rate. The resulting improved blood flow is good for your brain and other organs. Tryptophan, also found in dark chocolate, produces niacin in your body for energy. It also builds serotonin for healthy neurotransmitters in your brain. According to an article by The National Institutes of Health,
The past decade has seen many studies into the health effects of chocolate. “We have good science on chocolate, especially about dark chocolate on blood pressure,” says Dr. Luc Djoussé of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His research team found an overall drop in blood pressure among people who eat more chocolate. “The results suggest that chocolate may, in fact, lower blood pressure,” Djoussé says. “This effect was even stronger among people with high blood pressure to begin with.”
That’s not to say that every chocolate treat is good for you. Darker chocolate with less fat and sugar added is the best source of these beneficial nutrients. Here’s a recipe for Chocolate Pudding Cake made without eggs or butter from the American Heart Association. You can add a pinch of cinnamon to the recipe for an antioxidant boost and to help balance out the sugar called for.
You can also stir semisweet chocolate chips in your hot oatmeal in the morning. If you microwave 1/3 cup of rolled oats with 1/2 cup of water and a pinch of salt for a minute and a half (on high power), all you need to do is stir in a tablespoon of semisweet chocolate chips after it’s done cooking but while it’s still hot. The chips will melt as you’re stirring, creating a creamy, chocolaty treat. It’s a breakfast that seems decadent but is actually rather healthy, because you’ll only be adding about 8 grams of sugar to that fiber-rich, low-fat oatmeal.
Or you can just snack on dark chocolate sweetened with stevia. A company called Lily’s makes a range of chocolate bars and chips from fair-trade cocoa and stevia. You can use them for baking or for snacking. A company called Endangered Species Chocolate produces organic chocolate bars using ethically traded cocoa beans that don’t harm the habitats of endangered species. They have bars chock full of other antioxidant-rich ingredients like cranberries, almonds, pumpkin seeds, blueberries, and cherries. They even have holiday gift collections.