February is Heart Awareness Month and has Valentine’s Day – two reasons to talk about chocolate! The health benefits of chocolate have been known for centuries and proven with various research studies.
But I am not talking about your average candy bar. The superhero here is cacao.
What is cacao?
The cacao bean is the seed of the fruit of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao. This tropical tree, native to South America, grows in wet lowlands. Its thick trunk has large, leathery leaves and small, pinkish flowers on the branches and trunk, followed by the fruit, or pods. Each pod yields about 20-40 seeds or cacao beans.
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Cacao is a true superfood. It is a naturally rich source of antioxidants and dietary fiber. It is considered to be one of the highest sources of flavonoids and polyphenols. Cacao is also rich in minerals such as magnesium, iron, copper, potassium, calcium, and zinc. The fat present in raw cacao is monounsaturated, similar to olive oil and avocado. These properties help improve heart health, reduce inflammation in the body and rid the body of damaging free radicals.
After harvesting the cacao bean, it is dried. It is very rare to find a whole cacao bean in the market. Usually the beans are cracked and shelled and sold as cacao nibs. The nibs are also ground and sold as cacao powder. This raw powder has all the benefits of the whole cacao bean. Cacao powder is very versatile and can be added to a variety of recipes.
Cocoa liquor: A paste made from ground, roasted fermented cacao beans. This is what is used in making chocolate bars.
Cocoa butter:The fat that remains after cocoa solids have been removed from cocoa liquor. It is 100% fat and is used in a variety of products in food and cosmetics.
Cocoa powder: Consists of the cocoa solids left after the cocoa butter is removed from the liquor. It is the most commonly available form of cacao. It is low in fat and still contains some of the nutrients present in the cacao bean.
Chocolate bars: Made by mixing cocoa liquor with cocoa butter. Other ingredients such as sugar, milk, nuts and spices are added for flavor and taste.
Dark chocolate: The darkness of chocolate depends on the quantity of cocoa liquor present. Studies show that to really get the benefits of the phytochemicals and antioxidants present in chocolate, look for 70 percent or higher content.
Baking chocolate: Also known as semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, baking chocolate bars typically contain about 35% cocoa liquor.
Milk chocolate: A mixture of chocolate plus condensed milk or powdered milk and sweeteners. It only contains less than 10% cocoa liquor. Plus it has extra sugar, fat and artificial ingredients. This is your average candy bar.
White chocolate: Has no cocoa and so does not have any health benefits. It mostly contains cocoa butter mixed with sweeteners and dairy ingredients.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Charles Schulz, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt.” So choose your chocolate wisely. It may actually help your heart!
Parul Kharod is a clinical dietitian at WakeMed Cary Hospital. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org