Cocoa: The Food of the Gods

I grew up in Pennsylvania and one of the highlights of my summers was the annual trip to Hershey Park. The lampposts are topped with Hershey Kiss shaped streetlights and the air in the town is infused with a pleasant chocolate smell. There is a museum/factory where you can take tours and learn all about chocolate but the real fun is the amusement park and the Sooper Dooper Looper!

Funny thing is that I have never been much of a chocolate eater and it is only in recent years that I have added cocoa to my arsenal of nutrient dense foods. I am sure that everyone has heard somewhere from someone that chocolate is “good for you” but what exactly does that mean? How much, what type and really what does it do?

While you might flag this and say “conflict of interest”, Hershey has an entire Center for Health and Nutrition devoted to studying the health benefits of this food. The site is full of great information and is worth a look For instance, cocoa powder is the end product after much of the fat or cocoa butter is removed, natural cocoa powder has no modifications, and alkalized or “Dutch” cocoa is treated to raise the pH and reduce some of the bitterness.

Research on the health benefits center on the antioxidant compounds in cocoa. Think of antioxidants as substances that counteract damage to your cells caused by environmental pollutants, substances in our food and water, aging, and even exercise. This is where the concept of nutrient density enters the equation again. Food choices that are whole and unprocessed and include fruits, vegetables, teas, beans, and seeds that are rich in antioxidant activity can help to minimize the damage our cells undergo on a day to day basis. While still in their infancy, studies on the compounds in chocolate and cocoa have revealed benefits for the heart, brain, managing blood sugar and decreasing the signs of aging.

Both dark and milk chocolate contain flavanols but dark chocolate has more and white chocolate has none. If you want to add this food to your diet as a way to increase the quality of your nutrient intake, then I would suggest using organic unalkalized cocoa powder and/or cacoa nibs. Cacao nibs are made from crushed beans and are the original chocolate chip. They are crunchy and flavorful. For the organic cocoa I buy NOW brand as they list the actual flavanol content. Nativas Naturals is a brand of the nibs that can be found at Whole Foods

So the next question is: how much cocoa is needed to provide health benefits? Most studies used much more than you would want to add to your diet so there are no clear guidelines as of yet. And don’t get confused by the recommendation to add cocoa flavanols to your diet and translate that into “eat more chocolate.” Chocolate is high in saturated fat, sugar and calories. To reap the health benefits of the flavanols stick to unprocessed cocoa powder, bittersweet chocolate, unsweetened unprocessed dark chocolate and cacao nibs.

Here are some suggestions for adding this nutrient rich food to your diet:

· Add 1 tablespoon cocoa powder to your recovery smoothie

· Add 2 tablespoons cocoa powder to your favorite black bean soup recipe

· Add 1 tablespoon cocoa powder or nibs to hot cereals

· Add ¼ cup cocoa powder to pancake batter or muffin batter

· Get out of your recipe rut and try a recipe for mole – chocolate is a key ingredient

· Stir a tablespoon cocoa powder or cacao nibs into your yogurt

· Add cacao nibs to salads, trail mix, anywhere you would use chocolate chips

This Valentine’s Day why not treat yourself to this luscious recovery smoothie:

2 Tbs organic cocoa powder

1 cup frozen cherries (also full of antioxidants)

1 scoop protein powder or 1 cup high protein yogurt like Greek yogurt

1 cup low-fat chocolate dairy or soy milk

Enjoy adding this nutritious food to up the quality of your diet!