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Beyond Trim

Go for the Cocoa

It’s February and Valentine’s Day is close at hand. For many people (me included) that means chocolate! You may have heard that chocolate has some potential health benefits, but since February is also Heart Month, I should point out that by eating a lot of chocolate you also end up consuming quite a bit of fat and sugar. Not so healthy for your heart.

Chocolate begins with the seed of the cacao tree. The seeds are fermented, dried, cleaned, and then roasted. The shell of the bean gets removed to make cacao nibs, which are ground into pure chocolate, usually in liquid form (chocolate liquor). The liquor might then get further processed to separate into cocoa butter and cocoa solids. The cocoa butter is a saturated fat, the kind that raises our bad cholesterol and may also depress your good cholesterol.

Chocolate liquor and cocoa butter are used to make chocolate bars, chips, etc. Dark chocolate has the highest concentration of cocoa liquor, plus cocoa butter and sugar. Milk chocolate has those ingredients plus milk or milk powder. White chocolate has no cocoa liquor at all, only sugar, cocoa butter and milk or milk powder.

While most of the chocolate we eat is in the form of sweets, there is one way to get the health benefits of the cacao bean without the baggage of fat and sugar and that is in the form of cocoa powder. Cocoa powder has had much of the cocoa butter removed, so it’s mainly cocoa solids. It contains a fair amount of fiber which is good for our gut health. It also contains compounds called flavonols, which scientific studies have shown to help lower blood pressure and improve the health of your blood vessels. Some research has even shown that one of these flavonols may improve brain health.

Cocoa powder can be used in many ways that don’t necessarily require a lot of sugar. I like to add it to my oatmeal along with frozen cherries and blended dates. I make smoothies with very ripe frozen bananas, cocoa powder, and almond milk. Cocoa powder can also be used in savory dishes. I’ve added it to my chili recipe on occasion and the chicken mole on the menu at Mexican restaurants is another example.

I enjoy a piece of dark chocolate on occasion as a special treat, but I always have a bag of good quality cacao powder in the pantry and use it often.