No matter what nutritional trend or diet approach you’re following, there is likely one thing you can’t give up–or at least not for very long–chocolate! No need to feel guilty about that. A new study from the School of Allied Health Professions at Loma Linda University found that dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao (as opposed to fillers and sugar in milk chocolate) can help improve cognitive function, memory, mood, and even immunity.

The Many Health Benefits of Cacao

The flavonoids found in cacao are extremely potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, with known mechanisms beneficial for brain and cardiovascular health. High in antioxidants (10 times more than blueberries), the cacao bean also can provide healthy doses of fiber (which can help regulate metabolism), potassium, and magnesium (both essential nutrients that keep our bodies in peak physical condition), and if you need it, theobromine, a mild stimulant that can provide longer-lasting energy without the jitters and crash of caffeine. This is why some people with extreme sensitivity to caffeine cannot eat dark chocolate at night. A recent study has also shown that theobromine has significant anti-inflammatory effects as well as acts as a cardiovascular protector molecule.

However, your average chocolate bar is truly using only one part of the cacao plant – the bean. And there is much more than meets the eye to this nutritional powerhouse. So much so that Oded Brenner, at one point half of the well-known chocolate company, Max Brenner, now founder of Blue Stripes, started a company to promote and use the entire cacao fruit. On a trip to Jamaica, he discovered all the functional health benefits that were hiding in the “unknown parts” of the plant: the shell and fruit as well as the beans and felt called to share the wisdom and stories unique to the tropical cacao jungle tribes.

“There are endless culinary creations that can be made from the cacao fruit,” says Oded, who's brand sells products like cacao water, powder, espresso, butter, and more. When I asked him about his favorite recipe, he replied, “the Almond Butter Keto dessert bites which are 100% vegan and made using the whole cacao - shell, fruit, and beans. I just can’t resist them!” I’ve had them and I must say, I wholeheartedly agree. They are so good and low in sugar, using allulose as a sweetener. It’s a perfect way to satiate the sweet craving without the sugar crash.

Other Innovative Uses of Cacao

Perhaps the most unique way to use this versatile fruit is the shell from which Oded created a flour product that can be used just as you would any other flour and contains all the functional benefits of the cacao in a concentrated way with an earthy flavor. You can use cacao shell flour to bread, pancakes, waffles, cookies, and even his newest experiment – pizza crust - putting two of the world’s best foods together in one recipe!

In case you are not yet sold on this amazing fruit, cacao is a natural mood elevator, stimulating the pleasure centers of your brain and encouraging the release of hormones and “bliss chemicals” such as dopamine, serotonin, and anandamide, which can induce feelings of euphoria and relaxation. It is also rich in a substance called phenethylamine, also known as the “love drug” as it encourages the release of the same endorphins we experience when falling in love.

No wonder cacao was known as the “food of the Gods” by the Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Central America. Today, thanks to companies such as Blue Stripes and the resurrection of sacred cacao ceremonies, the cacao plant is returning to its status as one of Mother Earth’s sacred contributions to society’s healing and well-being.

Some great ethically-sourced chocolate brands both small and large that carry vegan options are Moka Origins, Blue Stripe, Endangered Species, and Hu Kitchen.

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