From blueberries to broccoli, antioxidants show up in so many different fruits and veg. But it’s not just your greens that contain these essential vitamins and phytochemicals. Cacao – a raw and unprocessed form of chocolate – also boasts impressive nutritional credentials, including bucket loads of antioxidants. And the best bit? It tastes delicious too.
What are antioxidants?
You’ve no doubt already heard of antioxidants, but do you actually know what they do? Put simply, antioxidants help prevent or slow down cell damage caused by oxidants (hence the name). Also called free radicals, most of these oxidants are natural by-products of our metabolism. However, some of these potentially harmful chemicals are formed when the body breaks down toxins found in the environment.
Left to multiply, free radicals can cause havoc in the body, leading to premature aging, cancer and other serious diseases. On top of balancing out oxidants, antioxidants help to prevent changes in platelets and target inflammation – a major factor in diseases ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer's.
Why is raw cacao so good for you?
Not all chocolate is created equal. In fact, raw cacao is completely different to the chocolate you find in the grocery store, not just in taste but in nutrition too. Whereas milk chocolate is heavily processed and packed full of milk and sugar, cacao’s journey from tree to shelf is much shorter. Simply roasted and fermented, cacao nibs and powder retain all of the goodness of the cocoa bean. And that means they lock in all of those antioxidants too. If you were in any doubt of the effect of intensive processing on nutrition, a USDA Agricultural Research Service proved that antioxidant levels plummet as cacao undergoes processing.
Lots of powerful flavonoids
You know the slightly bitter taste of dark chocolate? That comes from flavanols – a type of flavonoid and antioxidant that is abundant in raw cacao. Once the cacao is turned into regular chocolate, the amount of flavanols decreases sharply, which is why it’s super important to enjoy cacao that’s undergone as little processing as possible.
Proven to both boost immunity and neutralize free radicals, flavanols have been shown to help reduce the risk of serious conditions such as heart disease. And it gets better. According to research from the Linus Pauling Institute, flavanols could even stem the development of cancer. While more studies need to be carried out on humans, laboratory mice were found to react positively to the anthocyanins present in flavanols.
Cacao is not the only superfood to boost an impressive amount of antioxidants. In fact, green tea, red wine, and even coffee offer a healthy dose. However, research suggests that cacao may well be one of the best sources, with a 2003 study suggesting that chocolate beats tea and red wine as the food richest in flavanols. Add onto that the fact that cacao contains a plethora of nutrients, vitamins and minerals, and you have the perfect reason to stock up on this tasty superfood.