Easter gives us a great excuse to indulge in chocolate, and a small amount of dark chocolate daily can actually be good for you. But many Easter eggs are made from milk chocolate and are packed with sugar, fat and other not-so-healthy things. Many of us crave chocolate not for the cacao or caffeine it contains but because of the sugar and phenylalanine. Phenylalanine is an amino acid that is involved in making dopamine, the same chemical that is released when we are in love.
What is cacao?
Cacao (pronounced “ca-kow”) comes from the beans of the cacao plant and can be bought as a powder, nib or butter from health food stores or supermarkets. It has a slightly bitter flavour rather than the sickly sweet flavour most of our commercially produced chocolates have, thanks to the addition of sugar or palm syrup. Cacao helps to stimulate digestionby activating the bitter tastebuds on our tongue. This in turn sends a message to our brain and pancreas to stimulate the stomach juices, letting it know that food is on its way down.
Usually a raw-cacao chocolate will contain a sweetener such as agave or coconut palm sugar, perhaps some coconut oil and a flavour such as goji berries, orange, mint or coconut. That’s it – no added preservatives or other nasties. Raw-cacao chocolate doesn’t taste exactly like milk chocolate and may initially take some getting used to, but it’s worth it. The flavour is so intense that it’s hard to eat more than a piece or two. It’s much easier to eat lots of dairy-milk chocolate, as there’s not that much cacao in it. It’s mainly skim-milk solids, sugars, caramels, artificial colours and flavours.
Besides being scientifically proven to be the most nutritionally complex food on the planet, cacao contains a whopping 621 antioxidants, whereas blueberries contain just 32. A food that has that much power to fight free radicals should automatically be welcomed into your kitchen. On top of its virtues as an antioxidant, cacao has a wonderful effect on the cardiovascular system, particularly when it comes to lowering blood pressure. Recent studies have shown that it’s not so much cholesterol that needs to be kept in check in order to have good heart health, but your blood sugar that needs to be balanced. The high fibre content in cacao is great for this and will also help to achieve good digestive health.
Cacao is also a terrific food to include if you suffer from polycystic ovarian syndrome. This is usually accompanied by weight gain and sugar cravings – both symptoms cacao will help to reduce. For diabetics, it’s a viable alternative to sugary, processed milk chocolate that will send your blood sugar through the roof. And if your blood sugar isn’t peaking and crashing all day then you probably won’t be craving sugar or carbs either, your mood will be even and your brain alert.
How to use cacao
Here are some ways to use the gorgeous bean the Mexicans called “food of the Gods”.
1. Hot mocha: A hot mocha will soon become the new and improved version of your morning coffee – and a hit of super nutrients. Combine one teaspoon of raw cacao powder, one shot of espresso, warm oat milk and coconut sugar (optional).
2. Nightcap: Make a hot mocha (above) without the espresso, and for an extra hit of tryptophan, which helps sleep, add one teaspoon of nut butter.
3. Smoothies: Add a teaspoon of cacao powder or nibs to your smoothie for an antioxidant hit.
4. Face mask: Mix cacao with some coconut water (or just clean water) and brush all over your face and neck for soft, firm skin.
You might like to try this Cardamon recipe