From the milky-high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden-barely-enough-to-really-taste-it to the pure, whole, organic cacao bean, one thing is undeniable: it's chocolate. The chocoholic, while satisfied often with just the tiniest speck of the rich, creamy and bitter bean, has been bombarded in recent years with scores of organic, Fair Trade, super dark and flavored chocolate options. The selection is incredibly expansive in virtually every supermarket, heath food store and bodega. And then, there's raw chocolate: whole beans, nibs, powder and of course, those decadent bars all boasting super chocolate flavor and health benefits. But is raw chocolate really healthier for you than cooked? What's the difference, anyway?
Most of us don't need much to get excited about eating chocolate. We were nibbling and gnawing on it long before research proved that there are profound health benefits in eating chocolate, especially the pure, unadulterated cacao bean. The benefits seem too good to be true: from boosting mood to free radical fighting antioxidant-power to weight loss and even cavity prevention (really!). And the list goes on...
The USDA lists the ORAC antioxidant rating as highest--as in higher than virtually any other food--in raw cacao powder. Per 100g, raw cacao powder tested at 100,000 on the ORAC scale versus roasted cacao, which only amounted to 25,000 (for scale, blueberries are about 5,000). And while cacao provides many benefits including the potent mood enhancing chemicals anandamine and theobromine, it is the antioxidant content that has been the most heavily researched: flavanols have been linked with stroke prevention; polyphenols showed a reduced heart disease risk; flavanol-rich cocoa drinks reduce oxidative damage from free radicals; and proanthocyanidins could even decrease the risk of diabetes.
But benefits still exist in cooked cacao. Researchers have concluded that the most profound health effects come from a chocolate bar where the cacao content is at least 70 percent. And when the sugar content is low, even better. Ultimately, your best bet is a healthy mix. Indulge in the sweetened chocolate sparingly. The medicinal quality of cacao may also be inhibited by the addition of dairy products and trans fats, so look for organic, naturally sweetened and dairy-free options. Use raw cacao beans and nibs in baked or raw desserts, trail mixes or by themselves. Add raw cacao powder to a power smoothie, or make it into the best hot chocolate ever. And always, make enough to share!
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