Contributor: Rachel Swanson
Whether you ingest cacao's polyphenols (i.e. catechins, epicatechins), chemicals (i.e. anandamide), and methylxanthines (i.e. caffeine) to tap into your brain's pleasure centers, or to improve cerebral vascular function,1 just keep in mind there is such a thing as 'too much of a good thing.' Try out these neurochemical effects: make the brownie recipe provided below to tap into dark chocolate’s analgesic properties. These may just activate the same target as THC2. Only illegal for the amazing taste... if you catch my drift.
A match made in Heaven the GI tract
Here’s the skinny on the research updates: (pun intended: regular consumers of dark chocolate do, in fact, weigh less):3,4
The human gut microbiome has been proven to rapidly respond to alterations in diet.5 A hot area of research is seeking to identify how to optimize our natural gut flora with our food choices. Here’s an example of how you can get started (by eating dessert): when dark chocolate/cacao is consumed (unfortunately, our beloved Cadbury creme filled eggs don’t make the cut), beneficial microbes found in the GI tract produce anti-inflammatory compounds (their fermentation and metabolism byproducts). These compounds are then absorbed, leading to lessened inflammation of cardiovascular tissue.6
Guys: Think you’re too manly for chocolate? A 14-year cohort study of Dutch men who ate about 10 grams (approx. the size of two Hershey kisses) of dark chocolate or about 4 grams of cocoa per day, conferred an impressive 50% reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.7
Translation: long-term risk reduction of stroke... that’s even better than finding the golden egg.
Making the Selection
Let’s get down to business: making the purchase. Think outside the candy aisle to fill those baskets. After all, protecting your heart8, 9 should always take priority.
Benefits are attributed to dark chocolate. Select one that indicates a cacao content of at least 70%. Or select pure cacao powder, unsweetened, for use in smoothies or recipes. Comparing your usual milk chocolate to a dark chocolate varietal is like comparing grape juice and Pinot Noir wine. It’s an acquired taste.
Processing makes all the difference. Check the label... is it alkalized? (Known as dutch-processed cacao). This process destroys a significant amount of polyphenols and flavanols10 —bioactives which set this decadence apart from the rest. Best choice: select non-alkalized, or non-Dutch-processe dark chocolate.
Bonus: expose yourself to a variety of cancer-fighting phytonutrients by considering artisanal varieties that are meticulously interlaced with combinations of spices, flowers, herbs, nuts,11 or super fruits like acai or goji berries. While you may think these exotic combinations are only for aesthetic appeal, the main reason is exposure to bioactive synergies that exist when these ingredients are combined.
It keeps getting better! Pair your chocolate with a concept called mindfulness, and grant yourself a satisfying tasting experience that may improve both lipid profiles and insulin sensitivity.12, 13
Put These Benefits to the Test: Brownie Recipe
Activate that microbiome and brain pleasure center! This brownie batter contains cancer-fighting ingredients: veggies. Read below of how this benefits the entire family. These scientifically backed ingredients combines the taste of brownies with a hint of that coveted carrot cake.
Veggie Bonus: Carrots - Not Just Bunny Food.
One of the easiest vegetables to incorporate, and yet remains one very heavy hitter against an array of cancer subtypes. To give you a sampling, we’re talking head and neck cancer,14 lung cancer,15 Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,16 and urothelial cancer.17 The significant risk reductions observed in these cohort studies include anywhere from about 35,000 individuals (Iowa Women’s Health Study), to upwards 500,000 (NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study). All you need is about a handful per day. Here’s one option:
To amp up for the morning egg hunt: combine carrot, orange, and ginger into a juicer and serve. It’s delicious, delivers a kick, and is really that simple to make.
Recipe: Rachel’s Eat to Beat Brownies
Vegan (with the exception of honey), Gluten Free
Serving size: Choose wisely
Stick to one small brownie as a serving, one square of dark chocolate, or a few teaspoons of cacao powder per day. For more information on chocolate dosages used in study interventions or monitored in study cohorts, feel free to read through the 17 literature references I’ve provided below.
¾ cup gluten free oats (you can put in a food processor- however, I like mine chewy so I keep them whole)
½ cup Justin’s Vanilla Almond Butter (personal favorite)
½ cup dark chocolate chips (I use Lily’s dark chocolate baking chips which are vegan, fair-trade, organic and have no sugar added)
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (non-alkalized)
½ cup unsweetened apple cinnamon applesauce
¼ cup honey
1 ½ cup shredded zucchini (needs to be patted very dry or your brownies will have too much liquid)
¼ cup shredded carrot (needs to be patted very dry as well)
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
Your choice of: chopped nuts (i.e. walnuts), chopped dried fruit (i.e. dried cherries), flax seed, or all of the above (my preference).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Blend oats in food processor, if desired. (Not necessary, I use them whole).
Combine all ingredients into a mixing bowl, saving the chocolate chips for last. (Use additional chocolate chips to sprinkle on top, if desired). Fold in the grated carrot and zucchini after patting completely dry on paper towels.
Pour batter into an 8x11 pan and bake for 25-30 minutes. Enjoy!
1. Sorond, Farzaneh et al. Neurovascular coupling, cerebral white matter integrity, and response to cocoa in older people. Neurology. 2013. 81(10):904-9.
2. Watson Ronald, et al. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Springer Publications, New York. 2013.
3. Golomb B, Koperski S, White H. Association Between More Frequent Chocolate Consumption and Lower Body Mass Index. Arch Intern Med. 2012. 172(6):519-521.
4. Jakubowicz, D et al. Meal Timing and composition influence ghrelin levels, appetite scores, and weight loss maintenance in overweight and obese adults. Steroids. 2012. (77); 323-331.
5. Lawrence D, et al. Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome. Nature. 2014 . 505(7484):559-63.
6. American Chemical Society. The precise reason for the health benefits of dark chocolate: mystery solved. March 18 2014. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2014/march/the-precise-reason-for-the-health-benefits-of-dark-chocolate-mystery-solved.html
7. Buijsse B, Feskens EJ, et al. Cocoa intake, blood pressure, and cardiovascular mortality: the Zutphen Elderly Study. Arch Intern Med. 2006. Feb 27;166(4):411-7.
8. Buijsse B, Weikert C, et al. Chocolate consumption in relation to blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease in German adults. Eur Heart J. 2010 Jul;31(13):1616-23.
9. Janszky I, Mukamal KJ, et al. Chocolate consumption and mortality following a first acute myocardial infarction: the Stockholm Heart Epidemiology Program. J Intern Med. 2009. Sep;266(3):248-57.
10. Miller K, Hurst W, et al. Impact of Alkalization on the Antioxidant and Flavanol Content of Commerical Cocoa Powders. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2008. 56(8527-8533).
11. Sola R, Valls RM, et al. Cocoa, hazelnuts, sterols and soluble fiber cream reduces lipids and inflammation biomarkers in hypertensive patients: a randomized controlled trial. Plos One. 2012;7(2):e31103
12. Hooper L. Effects of chocolate, cocoas, and favan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012.(95): 740-751.
13. Desideri G, Kwik-Uribe C, et al. Benefits in cognitive function, blood pressure, and insulin resistance through cocoa flavanol consumption in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) study. Hypertension 2012. 60(794–801).
14. Freedman ND, Park Y, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and head and neck cancer risk in a large United States prospective cohort study. Int J Cancer. 2008 May 15;122(10):2330-6.
15. Wright ME, Park Y, et al. Intakes of fruit, vegetables, and specific botanical groups in relation to lung cancer risk in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2008 Nov 1;168(9):1024-34.
16. Thompson CA, Habermann TM, et al. Antioxidant intake from fruits, vegetables and other sources and risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma: the Iowa Women's Health Study. Int J Cancer. 2010 Feb 15;126(4):992-1003.
17. Zeegers MP, Goldbohm RA, et al. Consumption of vegetables and fruits and urothelial cancer incidence: a prospective study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2001 Nov;10(11):1121-8.