Ladies, I’m ending the chocolate-loving shame right here and now. The truth is, chocolate isn’t unhealthy. Well, more specifically, cacao isn’t unhealthy. The sugars and fillers mixed with it in most chocolate bars are unhealthy.
If you’re a chocolate fiend, this post will give you a checklist of “I told you so” facts for all those doubters. If you’re on the fence or wary of chocolate’s bad rap, hopefully this information will help you feel more comfortable allowing your body’s natural chocolate cravings an occasional indulgence, guilt free.
Read on to learn how cacao is processed, why it’s a superfood, where to find ethical and high-quality chocolate bars, and a decadent chocolate recipe.
Cacao is Not Cocoa Spelled Wrong
There’s a big difference between Dutch cocoa powder and raw cacao – one is a female body’s bestie, the other is the most common form of chocolate found in our sweet treats and is more like a frenemy.
Both begin as the same bean.
The earth’s equatorial regions – mainly Latin America, Indonesia and West Africa – grow big, beautiful cacao trees called Theobroma Cacao, “fruit of the gods”. The coconut-sized fruits from these trees hold the tree’s seeds inside.
Farmers remove the seeds, or beans, from the cacao fruit and dry or ferment them in the sun or cold-press them. Then, the hardened beans are chopped into cacao nibs or crushed into cacao powder.
As with most ingredients, the less the cacao bean is processed, the more nutrients it can hang onto and pass onto you.
But if that cacao powder is roasted and mixed with processed sugars and chemicals to lessen its bitterness and darken its color, then you have cocoa – a nutrient-barren faux-chocolate has-been. Between 60-90% of cacao’s nutrients are lost when cacao becomes cocoa!
Can you tell I’m not a fan of cocoa? Your body isn’t either.
When your chocolate craving hits, look for cacao, not cocoa.
Why Your Body Loves Cacao
Why do you crave chocolate, though? Is it just a bad habit you should never give into?
Or… Is it your genius body telling you which compartments need more fuel? (Read more about trusting your body’s genius)
Let’s take your period, for example. Chocolate cravings don’t necessarily mean you’re PMSing, but it is often related. We crave chocolate when we bleed and cramp because cacao replenishes diminishing iron and soothes muscles (like your continually flexing uterus) with magnesium.
Here are 12 reasons why you crave chocolate (read: why nutrients lacking in your body are triggering your brain to want those nutrients):
Cacao is the highest plant-based source of iron with 7.3mg per 100g – even beating out the 3.6mg from spinach! Iron is an essential building block for blood and transporting oxygen through your body. Because it’s a plant-based iron, it’s best to pair it with vitamin C to improve absorption. (Chocolate covered strawberries, anyone?)
This is one of the most commonly deficient nutrients in people living in Western society. Why should you actively seek it out? It prevents inflammation in the immune system, keeps your nervous system calm, it turns glucose into energy so your brain can focus, and it supports the health of your bones, heart and muscles. Cacao is one of the highest plant-based source of this essential mineral.
3. Tryptophan, tyrosine, serotonin, dopamine and phenylethylamine (PEA):
Some call these the bliss neurotransmitters because adequate levels may protect against depression. Tryptophan goes on to produce serotonin and allows serotonin and dopamine to circulate the bloodstream longer, giving an extended duration of wellbeing feelings. PEA produces the same brain chemistry that fires when you feel in love. Perhaps this can all explain why cacao is said to open your heart and make you feel more in love with your surroundings.
4. Epicatechins and Anthocyanins:
These flavanols are antioxidants that neutralize free radicals which can damage cells and may increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, dementia, and premature aging. They can also help protect your skin from sun damage and improve your skin’s circulation and hydration. Plus, cacao is 40 times more antioxidant-rich than blueberries.
5. Theobromine and caffeine:
These methylxanthines act as simultaneous muscle relaxants and energy boosters. They stimulate the central nervous and cardiovascular systems, metabolism, and secretion of gastric acids. Plus, they aren’t addictive like the caffeine found in coffee.(1)
Your bones and muscles need calcium to grow and function, and raw cacao holds more calcium than even cow’s milk.
This mineral helps regulate gene expression, immune response, and protein integrity. It’s also critical for thyroid health.
Bone growth and bone and muscle function rely greatly on potassium.
9. Manganese and Copper:
Help your enzymes function properly with these two minerals.
10. B Vitamins:
Cacao holds B1, B2, B3, B5, and B9. They all work together to properly break down food for energy and cellular maintenance.
These essential nutrients improve blood flow to the brain, and the cognitive function and memory capabilities of that precious brain.
12. Heart Health:
Atherosclerotic plaques can build up in your arteries and blood vessels, making it harder for your blood to move through them and your blood pressure to increase. Cacao decreases these plaques, and its proanthocyanidin compounds decrease the bad LDL cholesterol that can lead to serious cardiovascular issues.
Not All Chocolate is Created Equal – Which Brands to Buy
Unfortunately, it isn’t enough that we select to buy and consume cacao over cocoa. With chocolate being a hot commodity worldwide since 1000 BC(2), the forests and people that grow them are major targets for exploitation.
- An estimated 250 million child slaves work with dangerous tools and chemicals to grow and harvest products like cacao, according to the International Labour Organization.(3)
- Adult slaves and women are other common cacao farm workers due to their low or nonexistent wages.(4)
- Over 70% of the world’s cacao is grown and harvested by indigenous people who are compensated so unfairly that their communities are poverty stricken, according to Oxfam International.(5)
- Non-organic cacao is treated with toxic pesticides and GMO chemicals.
When shopping in the candy aisle, look for fair trade and direct trade (the buyer pays the grower directly, thus putting more profit directly in the grower’s pocket), as well as organic and non-GMO.
Keep an eye on the other ingredients, too. All you really need in a chocolate bar is cacao, cacao butter, and vanilla beans. You’ll come across soy or sunflower lecithin in many chocolate bars, which are the cheap alternative to cacao butter. If you have to choose, go with sunflower lecithin over soy lecithin (Read about the risks of consuming soy).
Here are 23 chocolate brands that pledge to be fair-trade, organic and non-GMO, as well as on a mission to advocate for cacao farmers and the land they use:
- Viva Naturals
- Zazu Bean
- Trader Joe’s
- Mast Brothers
- Dick Taylor
- Dandelion Chocolate
- Alter Eco Foods
- Theo Chocolate
- Sweet Riot
- Rescue Chocolate
- Equal Exchange
- Endangered Species Chocolate
- Loving Earth
- Divine Chocolate
- Wildly Organic
- Navitas Organics
- Tony’s Chocolonely
Decadent Chocolate Mousse Recipe
Makes 2 servings
*Use organic ingredients for as many items below as possible
- 1 medium avocado
- 1 small or medium banana
- ½ cup full fat coconut milk or cream
- 3-4 pitted dates
- 1 heaping tbsp of raw cacao
- 2 tsp of gelatinized maca (optional)
- ⅛ tsp of RealSalt
- ½ tsp of organic vanilla
- ½ cup water or organic whole fat milk*
*If you’re going non-dairy, keep in mind that women’s bodies can use more vitamins and minerals found in flax and oats (especially during their period), so try making flax milk or oat milk. Both recipes take 5 minutes and less than 5 ingredients to make.
- Soak the dates in warm water for at least 20 minutes so they blend easier.
- Add all ingredients to your blender and blend away!
- Scoop the goods into 2 serving glasses.
- Lick the spatula. One does not waste chocolate!
- Garnish with something fancy like raspberries, cinnamon, and crushed walnuts or hazelnuts.
For a pudding consistency, serve right away or after refrigerating for about 20 minutes. For a mousse consistency, place it in the freezer for at least 1 hour.
How did your mousse turn out? Do you have other go-to cacao recipes? Tell us in the comments below!
1. Franco, R., Oñatibia-Astibia, A., & Martínez-Pinilla, E. (2013). Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate. Nutrients, 5(10), 4159–4173. http://doi.org/10.3390/nu5104159 2. Henderson, JS, Joyce, RA, Hall, GR, Hurst, WJ, McGoven, PE. 2007. Chemical and archeological evidence for the earliest cacao beverages. Proc Natl Acad Sci; 104(48):18937–40. https://goldabar.com/blogs/news/raw-cacao-powerful-antioxidant-and-superfood 3. Khan, S., Murray, U. 2007. Rooting out child labour from cocoa farms paper no. 3: Sharing experiences. International Labour Organization. www.ilo.org/ipecinfo/product/download.do?type=document&id=6446 4. Farnworth, C; Goodman, M. 2008. Growing Ethical Networks : The Fair Trade Market for Raw and Processed Agricultural Products (in Five Parts) with Associated Case Studies on Africa and Latin America. Washington, DC: World Bank. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/9124 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO. 5. Cappelle, J. 2008. Towards a Sustainable Cocoa Chain: Power and possibilities within the cocoa and chocolate sector. Oxfam International. https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/towards-sustainable-cocoa-chain