Now, it is that time of year when we need to talk chocolate. That’s right – Easter is approaching and we are once again surrounded by chocolate eggs of all shapes and sizes. If you have a sweet tooth then following a Paleo/Primal lifestyle at this time of year has probably never seemed more testing.
Cacao contains phenylethylamine, a chemical released by the brain and associated with pleasure, which can also give you the same feelings as when you are in love.
I am often asked by my non-Paleo friends as to whether chocolate is “allowed” on the Paleo diet as the concept of dairy and sugar-free chocolate does not sit well with the mass-produced options that we see on sale everyday. I actually grew up living above a news agents, so I am more than aware of the ingredients used in chocolate bars and I can safely say that none of them are Paleo friendly. But that does not mean that chocolate as a concept is off the table, far from it.
As with most Paleo friendly options we need to go back to basics, and when it comes to chocolate this means introducing yourself to cacao. You will most likely have come across cacao in your Paleo cookery; it is used in a wide range of dessert recipes, and was even one of the ‘food trends’ of 2015. Although you probably know that it is Paleo friendly, and good for making treats, it is often confused with its similar sounding counterpart cocoa.
The names are usually used interchangeably and many people do not actually know the difference between them – or if there even is any difference at all. This is not surprising as they look the same, are nearly spelled the same, and can both be used in cooking and baking. In reality however, they are very different in many aspects including taste, health benefits, and cost.
What’s the Difference?
Cacao is a raw, unprocessed food product that is created by cold pressing unroasted cocoa beans. The process preserves the nutritional content of the raw cacao whilst removing the fat (you will know this as cacao butter) and the outer husks (known as cacao nibs) which are the most important ingredient when it comes to making any form of chocolate.
At the other end of the spectrum, cocoa is heavily processed and is created by roasting raw cacao at high temperatures. The heating process removes many of the health benefits of the cacao as well as altering its overall nutritional profile. The end product that you buy in the supermarket almost always has sugar, additives, fats, and dairy added.
From a health perspective, and the view-point of a Paleo/Primal lifestyle, raw cacao is the clear winner. Although it is often considerably more expensive (show me a raw, unprocessed product which isn’t) than cocoa powder it does come packed with health benefits. As with all things Paleo, it is about considering what is best for you on your own personal budget. We take a look below at some of the health benefits that you might want to consider…
Health Benefits of Cacao
Raw cacao is in the prestigious superfood category, unsurprising given the amount of health benefits that it boasts. When it comes to vitamins and minerals, cacao has an impressive checklist including calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and zinc, alongside vitamins B and E. It also contains high levels of fibre, as the cold pressing process means that the nutrients from the entire cacao bean remain intact. In addition cacao is a great source of monounsaturated and saturated fats, as well protein.
Cacao contains flavonols; a particular type of flavonoid which act as an antioxidant. Raw cacao actually contains more flavonols than any other food including the powerhouses of antioxidants; blueberries and green tea. Once the cacao is roasted, ground, or generally interfered with the levels of flavonols start to decrease. The more processed the cacao becomes the less beneficial it is for you.
Antioxidants help to prevent free radicals from forming (dangerous by products of cellular metabolism that attack healthy cells) and prevent them from creating oxidative stress in the body (the cause of many chronic and degenerative diseases). It also helps to support the cardiovascular and nervous system, lower blood pressure, enhance circulation, as well as helping to reduce the risk of certain cancers.
Raw cacao is also known to aid in boosting your mood and general well-being. Cacao contains phenylethylamine, a chemical released by the brain and associated with pleasure, which can also give you the same feelings as when you are in love. A good chocolate bar should therefore certainly be able to lift the spirits! It is also known to raise levels of serotonin which is the ‘feel good’ hormone often associated with antidepressants, and to stimulate endorphins that we often associate with a post-exercise high.
The higher the cacao content, the more bitter the chocolate – but this also means a higher level of antioxidants – making this a good reason to go for the darkest chocolate that you can find, suitable for your palate that is. You should be aware that a high proportion of commercially produced dark chocolate is also packed full of sweeteners and additives, and is often so highly processed that many health benefits are lost.
Making Good Choices This Easter
So, when it comes to choosing your chocolate this Easter, look for options with high cacao content that are ideally dairy and sugar-free. The higher the cacao content then the fewer sweeteners will be used so aim for at least 70% or higher (if this is to your taste). There are some fantastic Paleo friendly chocolate brands (some even use coconut sugar); check out Ayni, CocoCaravan, Gorge, KamAlive, Lovechock, Ombar, Rawr, Raw Halo, and The Raw Chocolate Co. for a delicious selection of raw chocolate treats this Easter.
What are you going to be tucking into this Easter? Cacao or cocoa? Why not share your thoughts by dropping a comment using the comments box below.
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- Wintle, A. (July, 2011). For chocolate’s true benefits, it’s time to ditch the foil and get ‘real’. In The Daily Mail. Retrieved 19 February, 2016, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2020555/For-chocolates-true-benefits-time-ditch-foil-real.html
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- Levin, J. (April, 2014). Raw cacao vs cocoa: what’s the difference? In I Quit Sugar. Retrieved 19 February, 2016, from https://iquitsugar.com/raw-cacao-vs-cocoa-whats-the-difference/