Dark chocolate is pretty much considered health food, but it's the cocoa content of dark chocolate that's responsible for its purported health benefits. Cocoa beans are rich in flavanols, natural chemicals that give it its dark colour and bitter taste. (Flavanols are a subclass of phytochemicals called flavonoids.)
Research suggests that flavanols serve as antioxidants, lower inflammation, reduce cholesterol, keep arteries elastic, enhance blood flow, inhibit blood clots and improve insulin sensitivity – all of which are related to better heart health.
The flavanol content of chocolate can vary considerably depending on the amount of cocoa solids it contains. The more cocoa solids – indicated by a percentage on labels of dark chocolate – the more flavanols.
Cocoa powder delivers plenty of flavanols with fewer calories than dark chocolate. Look for cocoa that isn’t Dutch-processed, a processing method that reduces flavanol content.
Research also suggests that the fibre in cocoa powder may boost its heart benefits by acting as food for good gut bacteria that reduce inflammation.
Besides its flavanol and fibre content, cocoa powder is also a good source of many minerals including magnesium, iron, manganese and potassium.
Per 2 tablespoons (25 ml) unsweetened cocoa powder
Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference (Release 28, September 2015)
To make cocoa powder, cocao beans are fermenetd to develop their flavour and colour. Then they're dried, roasted and ground into a paste. Once the cocoa butter (fat) is removed, unsweeteded dry cocoa powder is the end product.
Cocoa powder imparts a reddish brown colour and rich chocolate flavour to baked goods. It's available in two forms: natural (untreated) and Dutch-processed (alkalized), both of which are unsweetened.
Due to the chemical differences between natural and Dutch processed cocoa, it's important that you use the type of cocoa that a recipe calls for.
Dutch-processed cocoa powder is treated with an alkali to neutralize the natural acidity of cocoa. Because it is neutral, Dutch-processed cocoa must be used in recipes that call for baking powder. It has a mild flavour and dissolves easily in liquids. Dutch-processed cocoa is best used in cakes and pastries where its delicate flavour can compliment other ingredients.
Natural cocoa powder has a bitter taste and a lighter red colour. Many baked goods rely on natural cocoa's acidity to activate the baking soda that makes them rise. Its intense flavour is best suited for brownies, cookies and some chocolate cakes.
Cocoa powder is also sold sweetened.
Cocoa powder is available in sealed containers in the baking section of grocery stores. It's also available at bulk stores. As always, if buying cocoa in bulk make sure the product has a high turnover and is free from any moisture (visible as clumps).
Store cocoa powder in an airtight container in cool, dark place for up to two years.
Cocoa doesn't require any preparation and can be added directly to recipes and dishes.
Cocoa may conjure thoughts of warm hot chocolate or oven-fresh brownies, but its much more versatile than you might think. Cocoa can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. A little goes a long way - adding just a tablespoon or two to a recipe will give the dish a rich chocolate colour and taste.
Healthy ways to enjoy:
- Give your morning latte a hit of flavanols and taste of chocolate by sprinkling a teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa powder on top. Or stir in a tablespoon cocoa powder.
- For a variation on your favourite pancake or waffle recipe, add one to two tablespoons (15 or 25 ml) cocoa powder for a chocolate twist.
- Enjoy a chocolate protein shake: Blend one banana, 1/2 cup of silken tofu, 1/2 cup of milk (or unsweetened soy milk), 1 tablespoon of unsweetned cocoa and 1 tablespoon honey.
- Add two tablespoons (25 ml) of cocoa powder to your favourite chili recipe - it'll add a rich flavour that'll have your guests guessing the secret ingredient.
- Use cocoa powder in marinade recipes. Here's one for fish or chicken: Combine 2 tablespoons each of cocoa powder, canola oil and chopped fresh cilantro. Combine with the juice of 2 limes, 1 tbsp of sugar and 1/2 cup of salsa.
- Use natural cocoa powder to add a rich chocolate flavour to baked goods, including brownies, cookies and chocolate cake.
- Warm up with a mug of hot chocolate. Combine 1 cup of milk (or unsweetened soy milk), 1 tablespoon of cocoa and 1 tsp of sugar. Sprinkle with cinnamon.
Did you know?
- Researchers from Harvard Medical School studied the Kuna Indians in Panama and discovered that people living on islands where cocoa was grown and consumed had significantly lower rates of heart disease.