What's the verdict on chocolate: good or bad? Some call it a superfood, others call it junk food. If it was good enough to use as an offering to Maya and Aztec gods, then it must have some health benefits, right?
Cacao, cocoa, Theobroma cacao - it's the plant used to make chocolate. Both superfood and popular candy, its origins are quite remarkable. The Maya believed that the cacao plant had divine origins and had a cacao god that they honoured in an annual festival. Similarly, Aztec mythology says that the god Quetzalcoatl discovered the plant and it was used as an offering to the Aztec gods.
It was through Montezuma, ruler of the Aztec empire in the early 1500s, that the cacao plant was first introduced to Europeans and the plant spread from what is now Mexico to Spain and the rest of the world. Its name cacao comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and Theobroma comes from the latin Theos, meaning God and broma, which means food. There you have it, Theobroma cacao, food of the Gods.
So then, what happened to this sacred plant? With the market we've created around it, it does't seem so sacred anymore. And is it really healthy?
The plant itself is one of the best food sources of magnesium, and it's also high in phosphorus, iron, zinc, calcium and potassium. If you crave chocolate, it may be your body's way of telling you you need more magnesium. Chocolate also helps lower blood pressure, enhance mood, and theobromine, an alkaloid, increases energy and also works as a bronchodilator in asthma.
Chocolate is also commonly known as an aphrodisiac as is contains phenylalanine, an amino acid that involved in the brain chemicals secreted when two people fall in love. Scientific claims however show that the amounts are really too low to have much of an effect. The effect of chocolate may be due to the romantic gesture of offering chocolate as a gift!
It's when we start mixing it with other things that we start to lose its nutritional value. Chocolate ice cream, chocolate milk, chocolate bars, chocolate chips, chocolate covered everything. Most of these items don't even have that much actual chocolate anymore, they're mostly sugar, milk and other fillers - so not so healthy anymore.
Here are my guidelines for eating chocolate:
Use chocolate prepared with the fewest ingredients possible.
The darker the better: Use chocolate that contains a minimum of 70% cacao. 85% is even better.
Savour it, have a small piece at a time - ie. don't eat the whole chocolate bar in one day!
Use organic if possible and fair trade too - it's better for our Earth, better for those growing the stuff and better for you.
There are many options for ethically sourced chocolate which respects both the producers and the Earth. It's really wonderful to see this product used to bring social change in many parts of the world.
My favourite hot chocolate recipe
On cold winter days, there's nothing better than hot chocolate, especially after playing in the snow. This is my favourite way to prepare it - it's dairy free, not too sweet and very creamy!
2 Tbsp raw cacao powder
1 cup coconut milk (full fat from the can)
1 tsp maple syrup, or more if desired
Optional add-ons: 1/4 tsp vanilla extract, pinch sea salt, pinch of cinnamon or a pinch of cayenne in true Mexican spirit.
Make it a health elixir: Add Reishi powder for immune system support and adrenal and nervous system support.
On the stovetop, warm coconut milk and add water to bring to desired consistency.
Add cacao powder, maple syrup and other ingredients as desired.
Use whisk to mix and enjoy in your favourite mug!
If we're considering food as medicine, the cacao plant is a wonderful food to incorporate into an every day diet and definitely high on the list of superfoods when enjoyed in its natural form. The history of this food and its current use as an agent for social change makes it a truly sacred food that deserves to be treated as such.