Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Superfood Spotlight: Raw Cacao

It's no secret that I love chocolate.  Ask me what my favourite food is, and pretty much without missing a beat, I'll say "chocolate" with a big smile on my face.  Sure, there have been other contenders for the top spot on my ever-evolving list of favourite foods, but my heart unwavering belongs to chocolate.  And the (chocolate) icing on the (also chocolate) cake?  Chocolate - real chocolate, raw cacao, not the processed, cheap crap that commercial chocolate-flavoured candy bars are made of - is loaded with health benefits.

First, raw cacao scores high on ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) lists for antioxidant activity.  Antioxidants fight free radical damage that can play a role in the development of health issues such as atherosclerosis, inflammation, premature aging, and even cancer.  Raw cacao is high in antioxidant polyphenols, particularly flavonoids.

Second, it's high in minerals iron, calcium, magnesium, copper, and zinc.  Iron forms the backbone of hemoglobin in red blood cells.  Calcium regulates muscle contraction, buffers acidity in the body, and makes up bone and tooth tissues.  Magnesium tends to be an underrated mineral, even though it performs over 300 functions in the human body, including regulating muscle contraction in conjunction with calcium, alkalizing tissues, balancing absorption of calcium, cleansing the blood, and fighting migraine and muscle pain by causing blood vessels to dilate.  Copper and zinc need to be in balance in the body, affecting mental and reproductive health - possibly why it's considered an aphrodisiac, and a symbol of fertility in ancient cultures!

Third, it's a good source of the amino acid tryptophan, which aids in muscle repair, as well as converting to the neurotransmitter serotonin.  Serotonin is one of your feel-good, happy, calming neurotransmitters, and acts as a natural antidepressant.  Further, serotonin converts into melatonin, which is needed to help regulate your circadian rhythms and tell you when to sleep.  The catch: cacao is also high in stimulant caffeine, which can help improve focus and mental clarity during the day, but inhibits sleep, so it's best to indulge earlier in the day.  The good news: if you do have trouble falling asleep when you need to, indulging in tryptophan-rich foods like raw cacao earlier in the day (i.e. morning and early afternoon) can help your body produce enough serotonin to convert to melatonin when it's supposed to, meaning sleep should come easier when you do try.

So, other than a high-quality organic dark chocolate, let's look at some great ways to include raw cacao in the diet.

Raw cacao nibs (Camino, organic)
1) Smoothies.  Add 1 tsp. to 1 Tbsp. raw cacao powder to your morning green smoothie for chocolaty flavour, as well as energy and antioxidants.  If your blender can handle it, try cacao nibs instead.  One of my favourite combinations:
PB Cup Smoothie
- 1 organic banana (fresh or frozen)
- handful organic leafy greens (e.g. baby spinach, spring mix, kale...)
- 1 to 2 Tbsp. peanut, sunflower seed, or almond butter
- 1 tsp. to 1 Tbsp. organic raw cacao powder or nibs
½ tsp. organic cinnamon
- 1 to 1½ cups unsweetened almond or coconut milk
- 2 to 3 ice cubes (optional if using frozen banana)

2) Baking.  Replace regular cocoa powder with raw cacao to give your baked treats an extra health boost.  Brownies, zucchini bread, muffins, cookies... yummy!  Add raw cacao nibs instead of nuts or chocolate chips for crunchy chocolate flavour combo.

3) Cooking.  One of my favourite chili recipes calls for a tablespoon of cocoa powder!  Cocoa adds an earthy depth to cooked dishes.  Why not use raw cacao for an extra dose of minerals?  Other ways to use cacao in your cooking include stews, mole sauces (these are very complex traditional Mexican sauces), and marinades or rubs for protein entrees.

Banana Nut Bread Oatmeal
4) Oatmeal.  If you haven't checked it out yet, my recipe for Banana Nut Bread Oatmeal uses cacao powder and optional nibs for a chocolaty craving-satisfying breakfast or snack.

5) Chia pudding.  Chia pudding is made by adding chia seeds to a liquid or plant milk and allowing it to set in the fridge.  Add a spoonful of cacao nibs to the initial mixture.  If you want to add cacao powder to your chia pudding, do so after it has set, and add the powder with a little bit of extra liquid to help it mix in smoothly.

6) Trail mix and energy balls.  Add a handful of raw cacao nibs to your bag of raw nuts, seeds, and organic sulphite-free cranberries to make a delicious energy-packed trail mix.  Add a spoonful or two of raw cacao powder and/or nibs to a batch of Coco-Cranberry Energy Balls or Raw Brownies for a tasty pre- or post-workout snack.  Now hit the trails!

7) Hot beverages.  The next time you stop in at your favourite cafe, top your plain latte with a sprinkling of cacao powder for a mocha flavour without adding sugary flavoured syrup.  A little goes a long way!  And did you know that "chocolate" as we know it was once an unsweetened beverage, spiced with chilis and enjoyed either hot or cold, as a health elixir for stamina and energy?  I love to make my own version of spiced hot cocoa in the colder months - so much so that my recipe for Spiced Hot Cocoa is the November Recipe of the Month on my website!

What are your favourite ways to enjoy cacao?

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