In the last few decades, research has identified some of the benefits of ingesting cacao: it stimulates the nervous system, modulates inflammation, supports digestion, and aids in the protection of brain and heart health.
And it is often labeled as an aphrodisiac – but is it?
Clinical studies indicate that regular use of cacao can provide excellent support for cardiovascular health including stroke and heart disease prevention, blood pressure modulation, and improved circulation. Cacao contains a small amount of caffeine, and the bitter alkaloid, theobromine, both stimulating compounds which increase heart rates and dilate blood vessels. For most people, this is beneficial but some people may experience side effects like nausea, sweating, trembling, and digestive issues.
Cacao’s fiber increases digestive enzymes that contribute to the creation of fatty acid chains that improve the digestive process. Cacao may also help create good bacteria in our guts.
One of the more interesting medicinal benefits revealed in two clinical studies is cacao’s help in preventing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Researchers believe that cacao’s antioxidants and its capacity to moderate inflammation help to increase insulin sensitivity.
Mood Elevator & Stress Reducer
Many people notice an energy boost when eating chocolate and clinical research supports this effect. Energy boosts can influence brain activity and moods and one clinical study suggest that a regular dosage of cacao can decrease anxiety. Drinking a cup of 100% cocoa at night may help with stress-related insomnia by lowering blood pressure. Multiple studies show that cacao benefits cognitive function in the areas of alertness and memory.
Now for the big question: Is chocolate an aphrodisiac? The Aztecs certainly thought so (noted in my article on cacao’s history)! There is no scientific research supporting the idea that cacao stimulates sexual desire but the medicinal benefits of nervous system stimulation, reduced anxiety, mood elevation, and energy boost would likely contribute to romantic conditions. The sensual pleasure of its taste and the cultural tradition of giving chocolate to our beloved is just more fuel for the fire.
Cacao beans are loaded with flavonoids, polyphenols, and oleic acid as well as:
The Best Chocolate to Eat
Before you head online to order a case of your favorite chocolate bar for its powerful medicinal gifts, it’s important to understand how chocolate is made and what type offers the most health benefits. Not all chocolate is equal.
I encourage you to buy chocolate that is labeled organic or sustainably grown and Fairtrade. Heavy metals have been found in cacao that is grown with high amounts of pesticides and fertilizers on larger farms. And as described in my article, The Bittersweet Story of Cacao, children and slaves do much of the harvest and processing, especially in West African plantations.
Chocolate is made using varying levels of cacao, sugar, and dried dairy products. For the most optimal benefits, ingesting 100% cacao with no additives is the best choice. Learning to drink pure cocoa with little or no sweetener and chocolate bars that contain 85% or more cacao are the healthiest ways to enjoy cacao. But unsweetened chocolate tastes very different from the sugar-laden candy bars of our childhood.
Types of Chocolate
Understanding how commercial chocolate is made is key to choosing the chocolate with the highest medicinal benefits.
Unsweetened – 100% cacao and no sugar (Bitter and the most beneficial)
Bittersweet – 63% to 85% cacao and the rest is sugar
Semi-sweet – 52% to 62 % cacao and the rest is sugar (Semi-sweet chips are often used in baking and cooking.)
Milk chocolate – 36% to 46% cacao, sugar, and dried dairy products (Most common chocolate used in candy manufacturing.)
White chocolate – Made with cocoa butter, sugar, dairy products, contains no cacao beans. Actually a chocolate confection, not chocolate.
Cacao nibs – Fermented, dried, and roasted beans that are chipped into unsweetened small nibs. These do not melt and can be used in herbal tea blends, smoothies, sprinkled on oatmeal, and used in trail mixes & granola. They are a healthier option than semi-sweet chocolate chips and offer a bitter, chocolatey flavor.
Cacao powder – Nibs are ground into a paste, the cacao butter is extracted and the remains of the bean are dried and ground into a powder that is unsweetened, bitter, and alkaloid-rich, making it naturally acidic. Large producers often call this cocoa powder. The pre-made hot cocoa mixes are loaded with sugar and preservatives. It’s easy to make your own hot chocolate.
Dutch-processed cocoa powder – Cacao’s natural acidity has been neutralized by a wash with potassium carbonate solution maing it less bitter & less acidic. Offers a more “chocolately” taste.
“Raw Cacao” – The last few years there has been a lot of marketing hype about a product called raw cacao that supposedly has “superfood” powers. Once I learned about how cacao beans are processed, I wondered how raw cacao was different. The first thing I discovered was that there was considerable confusion about what raw cacao actually is.
Raw cacao is made with beans that have not been roasted. They are cold-pressed and often sold as nibs or powder form. Because they are not roasted, they do contain higher levels of nutrients. But most raw cacao is fermented, a process that creates the chocolate taste and breaks down phytic acid, which can block the body’s absorption of minerals. “True” or real raw cacao is not fermented.
How to Make Healthy Homemade Chocolate
My local market carries an array of ethically sourced and organic brands and my favorite is 85% dark chocolate with quinoa (love that crunch). It’s not cheap; $5 a bar but it is a medicinal treat for me – not a sugary indulgence. Still, that price is too much for my homestead budget so I have learned to make my own dark chocolate.
Recipe: Homemade Dark Chocolate
1 cup cocoa butter*
1 cup organic cocoa powder
½ cup raw honey or pure maple syrup (alters the taste) or 1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Optional: cinnamon, ginger, cayenne, dried fruits, coconut flakes, chopped nuts, seed, sea salt flakes
Melt cocoa butter over low heat (grating it will help it melt faster). Add cocoa, sweetener, vanilla, and any spices you are using. Using a metal whisk, blend until smooth and glossy. Continue to whisk until creamy.
Ladle into silicone candy molds. Add any additional ingredients.
Allow the chocolate to cool to room temperature. Then place the mold on a plate and put it in the refrigerator for an hour or two.
Pop-out the chocolate (or peel the mold off) and store in a covered container.
*You can use ½ cup of cocoa butter and ½ cup of coconut oil but the chocolate pieces should probably be refrigerated because coconut oil melts at 76°