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Is Chocolate Good For Me?

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The average American consumes about 12 pounds of chocolate each year (some of us even more). I don't know about you, but I often rationalize my consumption with the health benefits of dark chocolate. 

The problem is, like most things, not all chocolate is created equal. Out of the $75 billion is spent annually on chocolate most of it is the sugary, unhealthy, processed junk.

How do you know when to indulge and make smart choices when it comes to chocolate? 

All chocolate starts out the same - harvested from the cacao plant. From that point, basically the more it is processed (or changed) or the more other stuff is added the less healthy it becomes.  

Raw cacao powder is the most natural form and has the most nutritional value.  Cacao or cocoa powder is made by heating the beans which loses some nutrients.  Dutch cocoa is further processed by being washed in a potassium solution. 

When it comes to solid chocolate, like in bars or chips, cocoa butter, sugar, and sometimes milk is added to cut the bitter taste of the cacao seeds.  Unforutanely, the more other "stuff" is added the less benefit you get from the chocolate.

Ideally, it's best to choose >80% dark chocolate to get the health benefits without the junk. The switch can be hard on the taste buds if you are used to indulging in milk chocolate. Some people slowly make the switch by starting at 60% and working up.

But, the health benefits may persuade you to jump right in. These are the benefits I'm going for when I enjoy a piece of dark chocolate . . . 

Brain Function

Flavanols are chemicals found in large quantities in cocoa and they have brain-boosting properties. They are shown in studies to increase blood flow to the brain and improve cognitive function. 

Heart Health

Flavanoid rich dark chocolate is shown to improve heart circulation, decrease blood pressure, and make blood platelets less sticky.  This decreases risk for cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and strokes. 

Skin Protection

Consuming dark chocolate is shown to decrease the impact of UV exposure by 25% resulting in stronger, smoother, healthier skin.  None of these benefits were seen though in chocolate with added sugar (which is actually damaging to the skin).

Antioxidant Power

Right up there with superfoods like blueberries and acai, dark chocolate contains high levels of antioxidants.  They work to fight free radicals that cause disease and protect our body from damage by toxins.  

The key to all these benefits - high levels of cacao and moderate servings.  Most experts suggest sticking to a portion size of one ounce per day. 

Dark chocolate or raw cacao powder are great options, but you'll get the most powerful health benefits from cacao nibs.  These are the actual cacao bean roasted, separated from the husk, and broken into pieces. 

They are great in smoothies, on top of yogurt, or in place of chocolate chips in recipes.  When nothing else is added they are pretty bitter so I wouldn't just pop 'em in your mouth like candy, but you get all of the health benefits.

Be sure to follow us on Facebook and keep an eye out for some cacao recipes this week.