The many health benefits of cacao and dark chocolate

Chocolate can be good for you - just make sure it's the good stuff

Almost everyone loves chocolate. But not all chocolate loves us back. However, there is a way to have enjoy our chocolate and reap health benefits at the same time.

Cacao is the world's most widely eaten nut but it's never actually eaten as a raw nut. Instead the cacao pods are cooked, processed and usually mixed with plenty of sugar and other not-so-good-for-us ingredients. It's not the cacao but how it's processed that's the problem.

Cacao and dark chocolate are the gift that keep on giving if we choose them carefully.

"Cacao powder is one of the highest natural food sources of magnesium, rich in cardiovascular protective properties and antioxidants, which enhance detoxification, reduce inflammation and promote longevity," says Northern Rivers based naturopath Ema Taylor.

"Cacao has been reported to have an antidepressant effect and have a positive impact on brain neurotransmitters.

"Cacao contains tryptophan, which is a precursor for the production of serotonin, our feel good hormone, which assists feelings of wellbeing and encourages resilience to stress and anxiety."

Other psychoactive ingredients identified in cacao include caffeine, theobromine, tyramine, and phenylethylamine (PEA). PEA has a stimulant effect which leads to the release of biogenic amines, including dopamine and serotonin.

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Phenylethylamines are also known as the "love" chemicals which deliver the mood-elevating effects. And they are one of the reasons why devouring good chocolate makes some of us swoon.

It has also been suggested that cacao can help reduce heart attacks and strokes lower blood pressure, increase blood vessel elasticity, improve insulin sensitivity, help prevent Alzheimer's, reduce LDL (the lousy kind of cholesterol) and possibly even slow down the aging process.

Another reason to love dark chocolate is that it feeds our good gut microbes, making them happy, too.

To reap the benefits of chocolate, try to eat it as close to its natural state as possible. Choose chocolate that is at least 70 per cent cacao and low in sugar.

Naturopath, chocolatier and founder of Byron Bay's globally successful Locolove chocolates Emica Penklis says it's important to be fully present when eating.

"It's a beautiful practice to make meals more of a ritual; for example using a care when presenting your food or having a special bowl or plate that you love," Penklis says.

"Remember how lucky you are to be able to experience the bounty of food we have available. If you are feeling vulnerable and use food as a way to deal with this, call a friend, go for a walk, meditate, journal; do something that will help you to process the emotions and not temporarily suppress them."

Think about what you are really craving. And if it is really chocolate then enjoy the good stuff. Slowly, mindfully and most of all, guilt free.

This story Chocolate can be good for you - just make sure it's the good stuff first appeared on Northern Rivers Review.