By Susan Burke March, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE
I love my work! I get to research and write about my passion – how food and health are intimately and deliciously entwined – how what you eat can keep you healthy and happy too.
This week’s topic is especially fun – it’s about chocolate – and the health news is good.
A recent report from the American College of Cardiology reviewed a small study that showed that chocolate consumption is linked to an increased capacity for exercise and higher energy levels, and showed eating chocolate may help to lower blood pressure, blood lipids, insulin resistance, and inflammatory markers (inflammation).
Researchers analyzed blood samples, exercise endurance tests and skeletal muscle biopsies from 17 volunteers before and after a 3-month period in which they were randomly assigned to eat a small amount of dark chocolate or a placebo daily. The dark chocolate-eaters saw a 15% increase in performance.
Yes, this study was small, but it follow previous studies, including a study by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) which shows that in the general population, people who regularly consumed chocolate had fewer heart attacks.
Wait a minute, though. Does this mean that all chocolate will promote better health? Including M&Ms? Chocolate ice cream? Nope. The research shows that it’s dark chocolate and not milk chocolate with added sugar and dairy fat, or full-fat ice cream, or even the chocolate syrup you might drizzle over that ice cream, that offers health benefits. But as part of your overall strategy to stay healthy, a little dark chocolate can make life even more pleasant.
In the NHLBI study, no health benefit was seen for those consuming non-chocolate candy…in fact, eating non-chocolate candy increased heart attacks compared to no candy. And of course, eating even dark chocolate won’t prevent the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.
Dark Chocolate Is Healthy Because…
Dark chocolate is rich in plant substances called polyphenols, and the most potent of them are called catechins and flavonoids. A study published in The Lancet showed that chocolate contained four times as much catechin, a type of flavonoid, as tea.
Flavonoids are one of the largest nutrient families known to scientists – who have already identified more than 6,000. Flavonoids help protect plants from environmental toxins and help repair damage. They’re found in a variety of fruits and vegetables and black and green tea. Scientists have identified anti-viral, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and anti-oxidant benefits – and when we eat foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that we also benefit from this “antioxidant” power.
Flavanols are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. In addition to having antioxidant qualities, research shows that flavanols have other potential influences on vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and apt to clot.
ClevelandClinicWellness.com details additional health benefits of dark chocolate: a 1.5 ounce serving of dark chocolate provides 15% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of magnesium (important for energy production, strong bones, relaxed muscles, and effective nerve transmission), and 34% of the RDA of copper (which helps the body create the chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters and is associated with a lowered risk of developing cardiovascular disease).
SFGate details that cocoa naturally has a very strong, pungent taste, which comes from the flavanols. When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce this taste.
The more chocolate is processed, the more flavanols are lost. Most commercial chocolates are highly processed. So, be careful about the type of dark chocolate you choose. Chocolates loaded up with marshmallow and caramel, or tons of calories from added candy chips and/or nuts – even if it’s dark chocolate – become a liability instead of a benefit.
So how much cocoa or dark chocolate is Healthy?
Experts advise enjoying a one-ounce portion (about 28 grams) of good-quality dark chocolate a few times per week as part of a healthy diet, and by the way, it’s a good idea to include other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, red wine, tea, onions and cranberries. To learn more about flavonoid-rich foods click here.
If you are caffeine-sensitive, cocoa contains caffeine – a 100 g bar of dark chocolate contains 80 mg. of caffeine – most shouldn’t exceed 200 mg of caffeine daily. Check caffeine amounts here.
ARAWI Ecuadorian Chocolate: The Best In The World
It’s lucky for us that some of the most delicious and nutritious chocolate can be found right here in Cuenca! Carlos Davila and his father founded ARAWI, which means “poetry” in Quechua, about eight years ago.
Ecuadorian cacao was named the best in the world at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris, France and the best Ecuadorian chocolate comes from Balao, in the Guayas province, where ARAWI’s Finca Guatemala is located.
As with wine, all cocoa is not equal; the beans from Ecuador are renown.
Ecuador’s native cocoa beans are known as “Nacional” or “Arriba”, a name believed to derive from the location of its discovery. Arriba means “up”, as in up river, and many cocoa plantations were located along the Guayas River, which flows towards the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city.
The National Arriba Cocoa is known in Ecuador as the “Cacao Fino de Aroma” because of its high quality, species of trees, taste and flavors. Carlos notes that the trees and flowers that grow around and among the cocoa-producing trees have a direct impact on the smells and flavors of the cacao beans.
ARAWI’s Finca Guatemala in Balao has more than 300 acres under cultivation and produces USDA 100% Certified Organic National Arriba cacao, plus they grow an array of fruit trees.
It is no simple task to obtain the USDA National Organic Program certification, but Carlos says that this certification is one of the ingredients that sets AWARI apart. ARAWI takes extreme care to maintain quality during each step of production.
From the selections of the best seeds, to the sowing, growing, harvesting, fermenting, drying and packing, and then the roasting, grinding, pressing, chocolate making and the manufacturing of their products, Carlos says that the mission is to make the best and most healthful cacao products in the world. None of ARAWI’s products contain chemicals, additives, or preservatives.
ARAWI also has a “no waste” policy, which means everything from the dried pods to the cacao peels has a place in the marketplace. Roasted cacao peels are used for various soft drinks, teas and herbal infusions – the dried cacao pods are for artisan and/or decorative purposes.
ARAWI’s “semi-manufactured” cacao products include cocoa butter, cocoa powder and chocolate liquor, also known as cacao paste.
Cocoa butter is in high demand for cosmetics and cocoa butter is an ingredient in white chocolate candy.
Cocoa powder is known to contain the highest amount of antioxidant flavonols, and ARAWI’s is 100% pure without any additives or chemicals.
Cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been roasted, separated from their husks, and broken in smaller pieces. One ounce of cacao nibs has 9 grams of fiber, and nibs are also a good source of iron. Read more about the range of health benefits of cacao nibs here.
Once the beans have been shelled and roasted (or roasted and shelled), the nibs are ground into a paste. The heat generated by this process causes the cocoa butter in the nibs to melt and creates “chocolate liquor” (not to be confused with alcohol – chocolate liquor is also known as cacao paste), an ingredient that is solid at room temperature and is used in chocolate manufacturing. I’ve included the recipe for my friend Regina’s most special brownies below: they’re made with ARAWI’s 100% Licor de Cacao.
And of course, there are the dark chocolates. ARAWI offers a variety of pure cacao – 60%, 70%, and 100% – they come in individually wrapped one-ounce pieces.
My favorites are dark chocolates wrapped around the dried fruits grown right there on the plantation – USDA Certified 100% Organic tropical trees – banana, pineapple, oranges, strawberry, and cherry.
And if you like a slightly sweeter chocolate, you can choose the 60% or 70% cacao, and know that the sugar they use to sweeten the chocolate is also certified 100% organic.
On the chocolate Horizon: Tours in Balao and paute
Soon, AWARWI will be offering chocolate lovers first-hand tours to learn how chocolate is made, from bud, to bean, to bar.
Working with a local tourist agency, ARAWI will host overnight trips to the Hacienda Guatemala, on the ARAWI cacao plantation, located in the pueblo Balao, about three hours west of Cuenca.
As part of this experience you’ll be right there in the fields and learn from the experts about the important first stages of production – the planting, growing, harvesting, fermenting and drying, and finally, the roasting of the beans. You’ll take part in a fresh cacao tasting, learning that each cacao variety has its own unique taste and flavor. It’s so interesting to see where foods that we take for granted are grown and treasured.
See more of the Finca Guatemala experience on this video on YouTube
Also in the planning is a trip to Paute, a lovely town about an hour east of Cuenca, to visit La Cabaña del Chocolate, ARAWI’s processing and manufacturing facility. There, you’ll observe how the beans are transformed into the different products we enjoy – nibs, cocoa powder, chocolate liquor, and chocolate candies.
At La Cabaña del Chocolate, you will be able to design chocolates to your own specifications. Satisfy your personal taste and texture desires by ordering unique combinations of dark chocolate, to include varieties of ARAWI’s dried organic fruits and other ingredients.
Check back frequently on their website for tour dates and more information, and become friends on Facebook. Carlos says the website and Facebook page are the best way to keep up with ARAWI news and upcoming events.
Visit ARAWI in Cuenca and sample some favorites – 100% cacao cocoa powder, dark chocolates (orange, mint, piña flavored, etc.) nibs, and cocoa butter in bars. Did you know that pure cocoa butter is used as the primary ingredient in moisturizers; lip balms, natural soaps and skin care products? It has been known for centuries for its antioxidant, moisturizing and as a great ally of beauty.
Stock up on chocolate-covered nibs for a healthy snack, and don’t forget to pick up a bag of Licor de Cacao, and whip up a batch of Regina’s dynamite brownies.
Take a walk north up Benigno Malo from Parque Calderón, turn right on Gaspar Sangurima, and you’re at ARAWI, on the south side of Malo. The exact address is Gaspar Sangurima (8-89) y Benigno Malo.
Call for more information or pay them a visit: +593 (0)7 284 6083. They speak English.
Regina’s Best Brownies
Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C)
In a saucepan, place:
½ c. butter
2 oz. Licor de Cacao (unsweetened chocolate): ARAWI sells 1-lb bags of one-ounce (28-gram) squares.
Melt over low heat. Remove from stove.
Add 1 c. sugar:
Add 2 eggs.
Mix in ½ tsp. vanilla and ¼ c. flour and ½ tsp. cinnamon.
Mix in 1 cup of chopped nuts – I use chopped pecans, optional.
Pour into an 8 x 8 greased baking pan
Bake for approximately 35 min.
Cool on rack.
To learn more about cacao and Ecuador, see: Brief History of Cacao in Ecuador by Jeffrey Stern.