“A Dairy Milk a day keeps the doctor away……”
Now how many people wish that was true?!
Sadly for them this is nothing more than a convenient rhyme, however if you would like to join me I now plan to track back to the distant, forgotten origins of this tantilising treat and reveal how daily consumption of a seemingly guilty indulgence may actually increase your longevity rather than your waist circumference.
Chocolate’s first historical appearance was as a much revered ritual beverage within Mayan culture. ‘Xocolatl’ translates as ‘bitter water’ as this drink was made from pure cacao beans, chilli and water to be included within betrothal and marriage ceremonies (providing what is believed to be the first link between chocolate and romance). Cacao was so important to the Mayans that the walls of their temples bear images of the prize pods, with kings and gods indulging in copious quantities. Although held in such high esteem cacao was not limited to the upper echelons of society however, but rather consumed by all Mayans to mark its sheer importance.
Throughout the ages cacao beans continued to rise in value to the point they were kept in locked boxes and enterprising Aztecs attempted to create counterfeit ones. When the Aztecs eventually conquered the Mayans they were forced to pay taxes in cacao beans and due to their highly prized nature these were referred to as ‘tributes’.
Now this is all hugely interesting and I could continue on with the history lesson through the Spanish obsession, all the way up to modern day society but I think it is probably more in our interests to concentrate on how this actually relates to our lives today.
So one of the main reasons cacao in its pure form was so desirable was due to its medicinal properties. It was reported to alleviate fever, anemia, poor appetite, mental fatigue, poor breast milk production, tuberculosis, gout, kidney stones and low virility. This brilliant bean was also famous for healing the nervous system and improving digestion and elimination.
Jump to the modern day and the shiny metallic wrapped products we see adorning the shelves of every shop in the land, talk about apples falling miles from the tree! The arrival of sugar into our diets spelled disaster for this traditional medicine as we adulterated the beans with our favourite fiends; sugar and dairy. Thus begun the mass production of the sensationally sweet treats that most people now love to indulge in.
And that is all I have to say on that subject, as I continue to refer to chocolate I am talking about the proper stuff; dark, bitter and beautiful, nothing whatsoever to do with milk or white chocolate (which contains no cacao at all and is just sugar and fat…..). If however you find a Mars bar every now and again brings you more joy than you could ever imagine forgoing by all means have it (deprivation is absolutely not my game) all I ask is that after reading the following you consider a dalliance over to the dark side of things, I promise you shan’t be disappointed.
The recent resurgence in artisan chocolate production has seen our shelves flood with exciting new products that both allow us to create our own cacao based masterpieces or simply indulge in a ready made bar packed full of some of that original Mayan magic. And with the following stella credentials to boot I’d say it’s definitely worth exploring. “Have your cake and eat it madam?” I most certainly will!
1. It really does make you happy: Cacao contains the mood enhancer Anandamide (known as the bliss molecule) which creates a feeling of euphoria.
It also boosts brain levels of Serotonin helping to restore feelings of well-being. This has been seen to be particularly effective in women experiencing PMS symptoms (so that’s why we crave chocolate obviously….!)
Then there’s Phenethylamine (PEA for short), this guy triggers the release of endorphins and pleasurable opium-like neurochemicals. These are the ones we release naturally when we fall in love and during sexual activity. (The only other food on Earth that contains PEA is blue-green algae, I know which one I’d choose….!)
2. It protects your heart: Bursting at the seams with flavanols, an anti-inflammatory and cardio-protective antioxidant, cacao helps prevent heart disease, stroke and improves circulation.
Battling for you alongside the flavanols are another group known as polyphenols which help to reduce LDL cholesterol and prevent atherosclerosis.
Then when you thought it couldn’t get any better scientists discovered that cacao thins the blood helping to prevent blood clots and naturally lowers our blood pressure. It is now suggested that eating raw cacao can be just as beneficial as taking an aspirin a day.
3. It’ll make you full of beans: Cacao has one of the highest concentrations of Magnesium which is vital for proper metabolic function and to combat fatigue. It also helps to protect against osteoporosis, reduces type II diabetes and lowers blood pressure.
4. It can help with appetite regulation: due to Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (sometimes written as MAOIs) which prevent the breakdown of Serotonin helping us feel fuller for longer. Stick to no more than 4 tablespoons a day however.
Plus the bitterness of proper chocolate means you will naturally feel satisfied with a far smaller quantity, you can still have your chocolatey treat but you will find you stop halfway through the bar where that whole Dairy Milk would’ve disappeared.
5. To reduce stress: A Swiss 2009 study found that in just under two weeks daily cacao consumption significantly reduced the stress hormone Cortisol. Long term high levels of which are implicated in a number of health concerns. Nice calming hot chocolate anyone? Mood mediating mocha?
6. It’s the secret to eternal youth (sort of): those polyphenol antioxidants belong to the same group as the ones you find in green tea and red wine. Anthocyanins (found in dark colored fruits) and Catechins (found in green tea) protect our cells from oxidative stress which is what causes us to age.
7. It’s a sensational Sulphur source: Promoting shiny hair and strong nails whilst taking care of your liver and pancreas to boot.
8. To reduce Type II Diabetes risk: the high potency antioxidant properties of cacao have been shown to reduce insulin resistance and sensitivity in people with impaired glucose tolerance.
9. For skin support: Studies have shown the inclusion of 326mg of flavanols a day from cacao improves skin texture, microcirculation, oxygen saturation and skin hydration.
20g of cacao for 12 weeks will also double the amount of time you can spend in the sun without getting burnt, super stuff!
10. It improves cognitive function: a Harvard study by Dr. Gary Small showed that middle-aged people who drank two cups a day had improved memory and increased blood flow to the brain.
11. It’s full of fibre: which aids our digestive function, feeding our gut bacteria and stimulating our body’s digestive enzymes.
12. For fabulous fats: by now you know I’m a big fat fan, the ones found in cacao are similar to the much harped about monounsaturated fats found in olive oil.
13. Because it’s better than cough syrup: Theobromine, a compound in cacao, was found to halt coughs better than codeine or commercial cough suppressants with the equivalent of two cups.
In fact the UK based study by the British Lung Foundation discovered codeine was only slightly more effective than the placebo!
15. Because it’s delicious: and who needs anything more than that in a food really 🙂
- Raw Cacao Powder: This is the pure ground cacao; it makes beautiful hot chocolate, is great for baking with or add a spoonful to a smoothie or blended frozen banana for a sensational chocolatey hit.
- Cacao Nibs: Basically the raw equivalent of chocolate chips, these are unprocessed, chopped cacao beans. Sprinkle on porridge, yoghurt, muesli or anything you fancy, add to cakes, desserts, biscuits……the list is endless!
- Raw Chocolate: Now available as bars, truffles, giant buttons, you name it! You might find they are slightly more expensive than your usual choice but this is due to the painstakingly careful process that begins with harvesting the pods by hand, to preparing the beans, processing at low temperatures so that all those wonderful health benefits remain intact and finally resulting the product you see. Remember however you will need far less to satisfy your chocolatey urges so a small bar will go a lot further.
A few brands to get you going: The Raw Chocolate Company, Ombar, Doisy & Dam, Booja Booja, Conscious.
All are available in shops such as Planet Organic, Whole Foods, Revital and Holland & Barrett as well as major supermarkets and online.