It’s February, and if you need an excuse to eat chocolate you’ve probably found it this Valentine month. I hope to give you even more of an excuse to indulge in chocolate as well as point you to the best ways to eat chocolate for your health.
After learning a bit about the history of chocolate and where it comes from, we’ll explore some of its proven health benefits. By this point I know you’ll be wanting your own chocolate treats, so we’ll wrap things up by showing you how to make your own herbal dark chocolate truffles.
The Cocoa Tree
The processed chocolate bars that many of us know and love come to us from the cocoa tree. The scientific name for this tree is Theobroma cacao and it is a part of the mallow family (along with marshmallow, hibiscus, common mallow etc.). Theobroma means “food of the gods.”
The cocoa tree produces fruit pods as pictured below.
Inside the hard outer shell of these pods are individual fruits. There are around 30-40 fruits in each pods.
When ripe, these fruits can be eaten. I remember eating them years ago when I lived in the Dominican Republic. They have a demulcent and slightly sweet and sour taste.
Inside each of these fleshy fruits is the cocoa seed. It looks a lot like almonds. It is this seed that will be harvested, dried, fermented, roasted and then further processed into cocoa powder and cocoa butter.
The chocolate bars we buy for heavenly consumption are made of cocoa powder, cocoa butter and typically other ingredients like soy lecithin (to maintain emulsion between cocoa butter and cocoa powder), milk and sugar.
Cocoa butter is a substance often used in natural beauty and health products such as lotions, salves and suppositories. Historical use of cocoa butter includes healing burns and chapped skin, easing sunburn, and as a preventive against snake bite.
When standing in the chocolate aisle at the grocery store we may not know it, but we are looking at one of the most popular herbs of all time!
History of Chocolate
It is believed that the first cocoa trees grew in Venezuela and, over time, were spread by human cultivation throughout the amazon rainforest. We know humans have been using cocoa beans as early as 2000 BC as a food, beverage and medicine.
In time, cocoa beans became the currency of choice in these areas. The ruling Aztec empire was so enamored with cocoa that they required taxes to be paid in cocoa beans. In 1519 the Aztec ruler Montezuma offered a chocolate drink to Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes. Besides chocolate, this drink also included vanilla and cayenne spices. Cortes brought chocolate and vanilla back to Spain in 1528, where it became the drink of the elite.
“The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.”
–Cortés in a letter to Charles V of Spain speaking of cocoa
The Best Chocolate for Your Health
Most of us eat chocolate for our taste bud pleasure, but there are actually many wonderful benefits to eating chocolate. However, the type of chocolate you are eating is very important. The health benefits lie in the cocoa itself, so the higher the cocoa content the better.
Probably the most health-promoting way to include cocoa into your diet is to use 100% cocoa powder. Lacking the sugar content of chocolate, it will certainly not be as sweet but it is the way to get the most cocoa content.
In this way those who choose not to eat sugar can enjoy the health benefits. Unsweetened cocoa powder can be drunk as hot chocolate or added to smoothies. There are many savory dishes that use cocoa powder as well, such as mole sauce recipes from Mexico.
Chocolate is made from cocoa and is defined as having a content of at least 35% cocoa. It is generally recommended that chocolate eaten for health benefits should have a minimum cocoa content of 70%. Fine dark chocolate bars will list the cocoa content clearly on the front label.
The commercial milk chocolate is not going to produce the health benefits of rich dark chocolate. Another consideration is that in this day and age, not only is the cocoa content important but also the way in which it was grown, harvested and processed. Commercial chocolate has been implicated in using forced child labor and other unfair labor practices. And unless it says otherwise, it also has been grown with an array of pesticides.
I always look for organic chocolate that has been certified fair trade as well. If in doubt, you can contact the company directly for proof their chocolate footprint leaves this world as a better place.
So, now that we know the best chocolate to consume for our health has a cocoa content over 70% and was grown and processed in a good way, let’s discuss all those health benefits!
Health Benefits of Cocoa
Cocoa is extremely high in antioxidants. Similar to the polyphenols found in black tea and red wine, these antioxidants are proven to be beneficial for heart health.
Chris Kilham, herbalist and chocolate lover says this about cocoa:
“Cocoa demonstrates significant benefits for the cardiovascular system, helping to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, elevate HDL (good) cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, reduce the risk of high blood pressure, and even reduce the risk of cancer.”
Cocoa is often touted as an aphrodisiac and scientific studies show this to be true. One reason for this may be because it increases the amount of serotonin in the brain, helping to improve mood, sleep and other regulatory functions.
Furthermore, cocoa is nutrient dense, including amounts of calcium, magnesium and potassium, folic acid, B2, and B6. Being well nourished and in a good mood can open the door to amorous activities.
I know this was a long introduction to making truffles but I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about chocolate.
Herbal Dark Chocolate Truffles
I’ve been making a variety of herbal truffles for months to come up with the best recipe to share with you all (I know, it’s been rough!).
The following recipe attempts to use only small amounts of sugar and also incorporates other herbs into the mix. There are really so many possibilities for making your own herbal truffles. I hope this recipe gets you started on your own chocolate adventure. This is how to make chocolate truffles…
What you’ll need…
- 8 ounces chocolate (I use 4 ounces of 100% cocoa and 4 ounces of bittersweet chocolate)
- 2/3 cup organic heavy cream (try coconut milk if you can’t eat dairy)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon powdered nutmeg
- Powdered cocoa and powdered rose petals for rolling
Begin by chopping or pounding the chocolate into pea-size pieces. Place this into a medium sized bowl along with the vanilla, powdered cinnamon and nutmeg.
Warm the cream (or coconut milk) slowly until just before it starts to simmer. Pour this immediately into the bowl with chocolate.
Let this stand for one minute and then stir with a whisk until the chocolate is melted and it has a smooth consistency.
Note: Most of the time, when I make these, this process works great. One or two times I didn’t make the chocolate pieces small enough and it didn’t fully melt with the cream. When this happened, I placed the chocolate in a double boiler and heated it slowly until the chocolate melted.
Once you have the truffle sauce, it needs to cool to a semi-hard consistency. I don’t have a foolproof method for this. I suggest keeping it in the fridge or freezer and checking it frequently. It needs to be soft enough to form into a ball, yet hard enough to roll without falling apart.
Once the desired consistency is reached, you can start rolling. Scoop the mixture into bite-sized pieces and, using clean hands, roll into a ball.
Once they are all rolled, I suggest rolling them in a powder. I think it’s nice to have a variety of powders within a single batch. I suggest playing around with the following:
- Cocoa powder
- Cocoa powder mixed with cinnamon
- Cocoa powder mixed with powdered rose petals
- Powdered rose petals
- Powdered herbs: Many powdered herbs can be used in this dark chocolate truffle recipe. Ginger, cayenne, rose are just a few ideas.
- Orange zest: Can be added to the truffles themselves or even used to roll the truffles in.
- Coconut: To roll the truffles in.
- Baking extracts: These come in all sorts of flavors and can be added (mint, coffee, orange, etc.).
- Cream: You can infuse a variety of herbs into the warmed cream to impart different flavors.
- Earl Grey: Heat the cream and add a few teabags of Earl Grey. Let sit for five minutes, remove tea bags, heat the cream again and then proceed as per normal. You may need to add a bit more cream to this.
- Lavender: Add 2 teaspoons of lavender to the warmed cream. Let sit five minutes, strain off the lavender, reheat and then proceed.
As you can see, this is just the beginning of finding your own favorite truffle recipe.