Healthy Food Bites to Go: Who Says You Have to Give up Chocolate?

Invariably, when the topic of eating well comes up, the inclusion of chocolate as a health food is met with mixed reactions. There is much confusion surrounding the health halo hanging over an ever expanding variety of cocoa-sourced products. As a treat, chocolate can be perfectly fine, but the sheer attempt to recollect the quantity of chocolate one may have consumed in the past week could be cause for utter embarrassment.

Chocolate contains a psychoactive ingredient responsible for releasing serotonin, the feel-good chemical in the brain which is good reason for desiring some when feeling stressed out.

Dr. Joe Manson of Harvard Medical School has done research to determine the ideal amount of cocoa flavanols in order to get the touted health benefits including reduced heart attacks, memory loss, strokes and other diseases.  600 milligrams is the magic number, but for good reason this target is most unrealistic. In order to reach that volume, one would be required to consume nearly ½ cup (4.4 oz) of semi-sweet chocolate chips or 5 tablespoons of cocoa powder or close to ½ cup dark chocolate or 2 lbs. of milk chocolate. That’s a lot of calories.

“After water, cocoa is the single healthiest substance you can put in your mouth. It can easily replace a number of psychiatric drugs for mood. It produces the same chemistry in the brain that occurs when we fall in love.” Chris Kilhan, international medicinal plant researcher dubbed “the Indiana Jones of natural medicine” by CNN.

What type of chocolate actually qualifies as good-for-you is a popular question among nutrition experts. Common lore is to steer in the direction of the darker kind – upwards of 70% cocoa, and for some inching toward 85%. More recently, a UK-based 100% cocoa chocolate bar called Montezuma’s has made its way onto the store shelves of Trader Joe’s. While this unsweetened bar may be an acquired taste, for those with special dietary needs and lifestyle goals a sugar-free, gluten-free, soy-free and dairy-free bar of chocolate is a welcome option.

Considered in Aztec culture as the Food of the God’s, chocolate is revered as sacred in its purest form – the cocoa bean plant (Theobroma cacao).  A nutrient giant, the cocoa bean is packed with minerals-  iron, magnesium, calcium and potassium, along with vitamins, A,B, C and D. Unfortunately, except for artisanal brands, the colorful, kid-friendly candy packages strategically situated by the register in most drugstores, have no resemblance to the cocoa bean plant that preceded it.

Most of the big brand chocolate these days is hyper-processed and the nutrition is cooked right out of it. With the increasing growth of authentic bean-to-bar chocolate, companies are dedicated to the preservation of nutritional integrity of their product and expanding consumer interest in health-promoting (functional) foods, these uber brands are bringing real chocolate into their portfolio. Hershey’s acquiring the San Francisco-based  ScharffenBerger chocolate company is an example of this trend.


The Myth: High cocoa percentage indicates quality

In her book Bean to Bar Chocolate, author Megan Giller sites that “Cocoa percentage simply measures the amount of the bar that comes from cocoa beans, whether that’s cocoa solids or cocoa butter. So a 70% chocolate means that 70 percent of the bar came from cocoa beans and 30 percent came from added ingredients like sugar, vanilla, soy lecithin, or other inclusions.  Cocoa percentage is NOT related to quality.”

The Myth: Milk chocolate is lesser chocolate. 

Much milk chocolate on the market is low quality, commercial chocolate. However, made with quality ingredients milk chocolate can have as much depth of flavor as dark.

Keep an eye out for dark milk chocolate which can include up to 12% dairy in it. These new bars generally contain a higher % of cocoa than classic milk chocolate bars – usually around 60%, compared with 30%. They retain all the complexity of traditional dark chocolate with a creamier consistency.

While recently contemplating a cup of tea and a square of dark chocolate, I discovered the delicious simplicity of combining the two to form CACAO TEA. Served hot this beverage merely requires a cup of boiling water and a tablespoon of roasted cacao nibs (available in local markets.)  The nibs get placed in a tea infuser and seep in the boiling water for 4-6 minutes. For iced chocolate tea, it will require two tablespoons of nibs per cup of cold water. Seep for 4-6 minutes, strain, and pour over ice.

Optional additions: Unsweetened dairy-free almond, hazelnut or walnut milk ( yes, google it!), natural sweetener and cinnamon and nutmeg. Infuse fresh mint leaves with your nibs and you might get the sensation of a York Peppermint Patty in your cup!

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