Christmas day 2014. I’d arrived in Peru, feeling bewildered and anxious. I’d be staying with a tribe in the Amazon jungle. It was daunting. Then I was handed some fresh, hot cacao. And standing under the wondrous tree that it came from I drank it all in. The effect was profound.
It’s World Chocolate day on July the 7th. A time to celebrate this magnificent confection and the superfruit it stems from... chocolate’s raw state, cacao. The tree’s botanical name ‘Theobroma cacao’ roughly translates to ‘food of the gods’ - that’s understandable really.
I grew up under the illusion that all chocolate was bad for me, although I could never truly accept that; with so many moments spent feeling both spiritually and physically lifted, and at the same time being soothed and nurtured by even a single square of rich, dark chocolate.And recent research has validated my childhood instinct - cacao does indeed have many benefits.
Its aroma alone is invigorating, comforting… and in its chocolate form, there are such a breadth of flavours - easily rivalling the diversity and sophistication of wine. A specialist chocolate producer (like The Proper Chocolate Company) generally look for the following things from their bean suppliers: fermentation & drying practices, genetic breakdown, expected flavour profile and harvest year (climate can affect flavour). This helps them carefully select the very best bean for their bar! The process of chocolate manufacture is highly specialised - intricate and precise. Unfortunately, unlike the story, there's not a chocolate river in sight!
Cacao first shows up in history during the time of the ancient Mayans. They revered cacao, using it in many of their rituals, medicines… and sacrifices - where, if you were the star of the show and weren’t quite in the mood to play the part, you’d be given a cup of hot cacao combined with blood from a previous victim to encourage you along. The ancient equivalent of a nice cup of Barry’s Tea? Early explorers who discovered the fruit, recognised its healing abilities - reporting that it improved the nervous system, gout, digestive issues, tuberculosis and fever. At was even used as currencyin ancient Central American Cultures!
We’re the third largest chocolate consumers in the world (the Irish certainly love chocolate!) - so let’s make sure we are eating the good stuff! Forget Nestlé, Cadbury’s, etc… we are talking the over 70% cacao, high quality, rich and nourishing kind.
With more than 300 essential substances in 70%+ cacao, It holds a wealth of benefits.
Before we go into these - a quick tip… add chilli or cayenne to cacao! This widens blood vessels helping with its assimilation and journey throughout the body, allowing it to work its magic more effectively.
Sometimes referred to as ‘Nature’s Prozac’ chocolate contains various mood-boosting and stress-relieving chemicals.
These include Phenylethylamine - the ‘love drug’. It gets its name because it boosts dopamine - the natural amphetamine that’s released when we fall in love. When paired with Theobromine (a mild stimulant sometimes used to help with depression) and serotonin (another mood boosting neurotransmitter) - the effects are further magnified.
Some scientists argue that there are not enough of the neurotransmitters mentioned present in chocolate for the mood enhancing effects to be felt, but who could seriously debate its age-old reputation when research also backs it up.
Anandamide is a fat, named after the Sanskrit word for “bliss”. This brings us pleasure and calm when we are under emotional stress. B-vitamins and magnesium - help reduce stress and induce calmness. All of these are found in Cacao!!
‘The babies of stressed women who had regularly consumed chocolate showed less fear of new situations than babies of stressed women who had abstained’ (New Scientist).
Cardiovascular disease is one of the world’s leading killers. The flavanols in chocolate produce nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels, reducing blood pressure. Flavanols also lessen the blood’s stickiness, reducing the risk of atherosclerosis, helping to lower the build up of cholesterol and reduce inflammation. The regular intake of cacao is shown to improve the function of your veins and arteries.
And that’s not all - flavonols stimulate the body’s production of glutathione - ‘the master antioxidant’, shielding you against free radicals, detoxifying the body and protecting it against cardiovascular disease. And there’s more... they also protect against depression, liver damage, oxidative stress in the cell and improve gut health… the list runs on and on.
Flavanols actually give chocolate it’s bitter taste, but listen to the wise words of Bodo Raskolnikof and ‘‘find the sweetness in the bitterness’- (link podcast).
Cacao’s Phenylethylamine increases sexual desire, even though it has a limited presence in the fruit. The infamous lothario Casanova was believed to favour chocolate over champagne and the Aztec king Montezuma is said to have taken a cup of the good stuff before retiring to his harem each evening. And this holds true today - consider Valentine’s, chocolate and sensual still go hand-in-hand. There’s a reason why…...
Flavanols help balance our immune system. They boost white cell activation, promote anti-inflammatory activity and their antioxidant effects help protect against cancer. Cacao has been reported to be especially effective in supporting those with autoimmune or chronic inflammatory diseases.
As it’s one of the highest sources of antioxidants in food, it contributes to an overall reduction in wrinkle formation and protects collagen. It shields skin from UV radiation (equal to SPF 2) - after only 12 weeks of consumption of even a small amount of high-flavanol chocolate.
It not only has these physical and nutritional benefits, but for many it also has a spiritual impact.
Even one piece of good chocolate can lift us when we’re feeling down. It can be almost miraculous. It is certainly more profound than something purely physical.
It is a plant medicine and cacao ceremonies are becoming increasingly common in Ireland.
It helps us to reconnect with our emotions. It’s known as the medicine of the heart, giving it both physical and spiritual strength, opening it up, offering a deep emotional release. It’s subtle, yet powerful. No wonder chocolate often comes in a heart-shaped box - it harmonises with our very core.
It is also said to increase psychic ability, raise consciousness and help us to connect with our creative side - its rewards are seemingly endless.
If you fancy a cup of hot chocolate,try not to use cow’s milk as this can block cacao’s healing properties. Go for coconut instead, it tastes delicious and enhances rather than hinders the positive effects.
Savour the experience and treat chocolate with the respect it deserves. To gain maximum benefit, eat it slowly, allowing the flavours and aromas to be released.
To celebrate chocolate even more, we have teamed up with The Proper Chocolate Company, Dublin's finest chocolatiers, to produce the 'It's Properly Nuts' chocolate and peanut butter bar. They have lovingly combined our notoriously delicious and fluffy Peanut Butter with their mouth-watering chocolate to produce this outrageously delicious bar. This chocolate has the ideal qualities to make it a perfect match for our peanut butter. It will only be available for the month of July, so seriously, don’t miss out on it!
‘There’s more to life than chocolate, but not right now’ (anonymous)