Chocolate – the food of the gods

July 7th was World Chocolate Day, and as we know there are now so many different types of chocolate available, from milk chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate with fruit or other fillings, the list goes on. However, in acknowledging the variety of choice out there it is also important to understand that in terms of our health and well-being, not all chocolate is created equally. Many brands of chocolate tend to be very sugary with a high-fat content which as you can imagine is not what we are looking for.

The chocolate that will bring you the most health benefits is dark chocolate with a minimum of 75 per cent cocoa and no added sugar. This means that has more of a bitter flavour but with a hint of sweetness to it. Chocolate is made from cocoa beans that grow on the cocoa tree whose scientific name is ‘Theobroma cocoa’, which translated from Greek, means food of the gods, confirming that our love of chocolate is well-founded. Chocolate is made using the beans from a cocoa pod, which are then fermented and dried. The fleshy ‘meaty’ part of the bean is then separated from the shell, with the shell being ground up to become cocoa power and the meaty part becoming that chocolate that we all enjoy.

When it comes to anything food-related I think it is good to know what is best to avoid and what to include in your diet. People tend to think that anything sweet is bad for you, however, I like to look more at where the sweetness is coming from. Is it from refined and processed sugars which are found in white and milk chocolate or are a more natural source like fruits and dark chocolate, in which case Iam all in! This week we will look at the various health benefits of eating dark chocolate which contains many important natural compounds such as flavanols, plants sterols and antioxidants, these are important to mention so that people can understand what is beneficial for them and make the right choices.

Dark chocolate, like cocoa powder, is full of antioxidants, which as you may know are important in fighting cellular damage which happens naturally but is also caused by external factors such as pollution and the body products that we use. Dark chocolate also to contain flavanols, which are powerful plant chemicals. They have been linked to improving cardiovascular health by increasing the elasticity of our vascular system (veins and arteries), this may result in — helping to lower blood pressure; increase blood flow to the brain, therefore, improving cognitive functions; protecting the heart thereby reducing the risk of heart disease. So, eating a square or two of dark chocolate every day may be just what is needed! It is also interesting for those individuals who suffer from diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol as well as smokers, as their cardiovascular system is often comprised due to their health problems or lifestyle choices. So eating a little dark chocolate may be good for you.

Diabetics are often recommended to steer clear of chocolate because of its high sugar content, however, research has also been done that would suggest that these same flavanols would also increase insulin sensitivity, which could be beneficial in the long-term helping to prevent type 2 diabetes and for those who already have type 2 diabetes.

Cholesterol levels may also be affected by the consumption of dark chocolate as it contains plant sterols, these prevent the body from absorbing the dietary cholesterol in dark chocolate. Who knew dark chocolate could be so good for you?

Dark chocolat turtles

Not only is dark chocolate good to eat but you can also bake with it making the most amazing desserts such as this dark chocolate turtles, perfect to savour after dinner or simply to indulge in!

For the few out there who may not like chocolate, using cocoa powder in your cooking will provide you with the same health benefits, and you can use cocoa powder not only for baking, you can sprinkle it over some fresh fruit, add it to smoothies, pancakes and breakfast oatmeal.

Ideally, you would want to store in your chocolate in a dark, cool cupboard, however, with the weather we have you may want to keep it in the refrigerator. If you see that a small white powder has formed on the surface of the chocolate, although it does not look very appealing your chocolate has not gone off, it is simply the sugar coming to the surface due to the excess moisture in the refrigerator. Simply melt the chocolate in a saucepan, allow it to cool and then store in a glass container in a nice dark, cool cupboard.

Chocolate has a shelf life of about two years when stored correctly. When buying dark chocolate or cocoa powder always check the ingredients for hidden sugars and make sure that is unsweetened.

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Photo: Charisse Kenion