By beauty and wellbeing guru Liz Earle, MBE
My lifelong philosophy is that looking good and feeling great starts from within and eating superfoods is a winning way to help create healthier skin, bones and bodies. A wide variety of nutrient-rich food needs to be the mainstay of our daily diet – and with so many fantastic superfoods so widely available now, it’s never been easier to make delicious, nutritious meals. As well as providing a complete range of energizing nutrients, some foods also make us feel physically better too. Chocolate is renowned to be a reliable mood-lifter, but is also well-known for being not so good for us. However, there is a simple way to enjoy the delicious taste and feel-good factor of chocolate without the added refined sugars and fats that make it so bad for us. The key ingredient in chocolate is cacao, actually one of the most nutritious and healthiest foods of the planet.
So what makes cacao so good? Well, it is considered to be a perfect food, containing many plant-based nutrients including Vitamins C and E, B-complex vitamins and the minerals iron, zinc, copper, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Cacao also contains dietary nutrients such as fibre and a range of interesting phyto-antioxidants including flavonoids, flavanols, xanthenes, polyphenols, theobromine, phenylethylamine and anandamide, among others. It has been used for thousands of years by the indigenous people of its native South America and West Africa both as a stimulant and as a protector of the cardiovascular system. Modern medicine is now endorsing folklore, with studies showing that eating cacao can reduce the oxidative stress that leads to heart disease, lower blood pressure and even help reduce levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL) whilst boosting our beneficial blood fats (HDL). The antioxidants found in cacao also help maintain healthy levels of nitric oxide in the body. Although nitric oxide has heart-healthy qualities, such as relaxing blood vessels and reducing blood pressure, it also produces toxins. The antioxidants in cacao have been shown to neutralise these unwanted compounds, so helping to protect our heart and potentially helping to prevent heart disease. Studies have also shown cacao to be beneficial for those with diabetes and obesity – provided we focus on the rich, dark stuff and not commercial chocolate laden with refined fats and sugars.
Over the centuries since it was first introduced into Europe, the demand and popularity for chocolate and the cocoa it comes from has led to many changes in the way this original superfood is processed. Coming from the seeds of the fruit from a tropical evergreen tree, Theobroma cacao, pure cocoa beans have a slightly dry texture and bitter taste. This is why, over the years, pure cacao has been increasingly mixed with sugar, milk solids, vanilla, syrups and other additives to alter both its texture and taste. The dilution of its original flavour has also meant the dilution of its powerful phytonutrients too. Most commercial chocolate bars, for example, have under 10 percent pure cacao, with very few of the original wellbeing benefits remaining. Dark chocolate contains a little more of the original health-giving properties than milk or white chocolate, but you do need to look for at least 70% cocoa solids or more on the pack. An easy way to ensure you obtain the full benefits is to choose pure cacao, available either as nibs (tiny chips) or powder (similar to cocoa powder).
Why Fairtrade is important
As an ambassador for the Fairtrade Foundation, I have seen first-hand the tremendous difference buying Fairtrade produce makes to the local communities who produce it. There are around 180,000 Fairtrade cacao farmers around the world, with the top producing countries being Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador. However, there are also Fairtrade cocoa producers in 15 other developing economies, including Belize, India and Papua New Guinea. Fairtrade makes a tangible difference to real lives in many important ways. Firstly, it creates a commercial opportunity for trade, with transparency and accountability reducing levels of corruption and promoting fair trading practices. Fairtrade buys for a fair price – and it pays an additional premium into community bank accounts to provide for schools and healthcare. It bans child labour and is committed to empowering women in the workplace. Fairtrade also encourages safer working conditions for both workers and the environment. It establishes producer groups that can grow in scale with improved businesses and production, sustainable replacement programmes for older trees and investment in better facilities for crop collection, storage and transport. All in all, buying Fairtrade cacao makes a very real difference to many disadvantaged lives. It’s a really important label to look for when buying cacao.
Watch my video for more on cacao and also check out this short film made by the Fairtrade Foundation to support women cacao workers: Fairtrade Foundation Support
Liz Earle’s cacao recipes
One of the easiest ways to enjoy pure cacao powder is with a health-giving hot chocolate brew. This is one of my favourite wellbeing recipes as the days get chillier and there’s nothing more comforting than a big, steaming hug in a mug.
- 2 cups almond milk (or oat or cow’s milk)
- 4 tbsp Naturya cacao powder
- Sprinkle of chilli flakes (optional)
- Honey or agave syrup to taste
- In a saucepan, gently heat up all the ingredients. Stir well until the cacao powder has dissolved. Turn up the heat until just before it reaches boiling point and pour into a mug to enjoy!
Cacao and hazelnut butter
This simple yet tasty recipe is a firm family favourite in my house – and a healthier option than commercial spreads.
- 300g hazelnuts
- 5 tbsp Naturya cacao powder
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
- 5 tbsp runny honey
- Naturya coconut oil (optional)
- Pre-heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Place the hazelnuts on a baking tray and roast for 8-10 minutes. Turn the toasted hazelnuts into a clean, dry cloth, fold up the sides to form a bundle, then rub the hazelnuts together with the cloth until all their skins have come away.
- Place the nuts into a food blender and whizz to form a nut butter. This can take a few minutes and you may have to push the ground nuts down from the sides of the blender bowl occasionally. The hazelnuts will form a smooth, glistening paste as their oil is released. Then add the rest of the ingredients, tasting and adjusting for the desired sweetness and flavour.
- Spoon into clean jars and seal with a tightly fitting lid. Stores well in the fridge for up to 4 weeks.
Top nib tips
Nibs can be sprinkled onto many dishes to provide a tasty crunch. Try mixing in with muesli , yoghurt or sprinkled over a bowl of porridge, or added to homemade granola bars, shortbread or brownies.
This fabulously rich recipe uses both cacao powder and nibs – very morish and totally delicious!
- 100g walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts or almonds
- 200g dates
- 2 tbsp Naturya coconut oil
- 2 tbsp Naturya cacao powder
- 2 tbsp almond or cashew nut butter
- 1 tbsp Naturya cacoa nibs
- Raw cacao for dusting
- Place the nuts into a food processor and grind to a paste. Pit the dates and add to the food processor – give them a quick blitz. Stir in the coconut oil (you may need to gently melt first to make this easier to work with), cacao powder plus the almond or cashew nut butter and whizz together to make a thick paste.
- With wet hands, roll into small balls before rolling in cacoa nibs to coat each truffle. This gives the truffles a nicely textured crunch. Alternatively, dust with a sprinkling of cacao powder. Put onto a tray in the fridge for several hours to set hard (or freeze for half an hour to speed the process if you’re in a hurry). These truffles also freeze well for storage, so keep a supply stored up ready to reach for a healthy treat that will satisfy even the sweetest tooth.