Almost everyone loves chocolate. On my travels through France I saw the most beautiful Parisian truffles—like works of art — and wondered if there were chocolate treats that would help us all stay young and gorgeous. I know that chocolate contains some serious anti-aging FoodTrients, but it also contains fat and calories. Chocolate comes from cacao beans (or cocoa beans), large fatty beans that grow inside pods on cacao trees. Those trees grow in tropical regions of the world very near the equator. They are mainly cultivated in South America, Indonesia, and West Africa. The quality of the cocoa bean is determined by its variety and how it is processed.
In order to be eaten, cocoa beans must first be fermented with their pulp, then dried, and then roasted. The beans are then cracked open and shelled, leaving cocoa nibs. The nibs are crunchy and delicious in this state, although somewhat bitter. At this point the nibs can be processed directly into chocolate. Or the nibs can be ground and dried so that the dark cocoa solids can be separated from the white, fatty, smooth cocoa butter. The dark cocoa solids have far more nutrients and antioxidants than the cocoa butter. White chocolate, being made from cocoa butter and sugar, has very few health benefits. Dark chocolate has more anti-aging power than milk chocolate. Dark chocolate contains tryptophan, and catechins. Cocoa nibs are high in theobromine.
Theobromine and flavonoids like epicatechin found in dark chocolate are heart-friendly. They dilate blood vessels to reduce blood pressure and they increase your heart rate. The resulting improved blood flow is good for your brain and other organs. Tryptophan, also found in dark chocolate, produces niacin in your body for energy. It also builds serotonin for healthy neurotransmitters in your brain.
That’s not to say that every chocolate treat is good for you. Darker chocolate with less fat and sugar added is the best source of these beneficial nutrients. Here’s a recipe for Dark Chocolate Mousse (see below), which is a vegan version of a chocolate mousse that offers the same satisfaction as its richer, less healthy sibling. Contributed by my colleague Dr. Lynn Blair, it has all of the same creaminess, the satiny, melt-in-your-mouth pleasure, and the full, no-holds-barred taste you expect from a dense and rich chocolate mousse.
You can also stir semisweet chocolate chips in your hot oatmeal in the morning. If you microwave 1/3 cup of rolled oats with 1/2 cup of water and a pinch of salt for a minute and a half (on high power), all you need to do is stir in a tablespoon of semisweet chocolate chips after it’s done cooking but while it’s still hot. The chips will melt as you’re stirring, creating a creamy, chocolaty treat. It’s a breakfast that seems decadent but is actually rather healthy, because you’ll only be adding about 8 grams of sugar to that fiber-rich, low-fat oatmeal.
Or you can just snack on dark chocolate sweetened with stevia. A company called Lily’s makes a range of chocolate bars and chips from fair-trade cocoa and stevia. You can use them for baking or for snacking. A company called Endangered Species Chocolate produces organic chocolate bars using ethically traded cocoa beans that don’t harm the habitats of endangered species. They have bars chock full of other antioxidant-rich ingredients like cranberries, almonds, pumpkin seeds, blueberries, and cherries. They even have holiday gift collections.
Dark Chocolate Mousse
8 oz. high-quality dark chocolate, broken into pieces
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tbs. soy or almond milk
¼ cup water
⅛ tsp. vanilla extract
2 Tbs. Grand Marnier liqueur
¼ cup Xylitol or sugar
¼ cup honey 1 package (9–10 oz.) or 1¼ cups silken tofu, well drained
½ cup sliced kumquats, as garnish
1. In the top of a double boiler, melt the chocolate, cocoa powder, milk, water, vanilla, liqueur, and Xylitol or sugar, stirring constantly until the chocolate is fully melted.
2. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey. Set aside.
3. Blend the tofu in a food processor for 2–3 minutes or until very smooth.
4. Fold the tofu into the chocolate mixture.
5. Spoon the pudding into serving bowls and chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours.
6. Garnish with the sliced kumquat