Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cacao: A Guilt-Free Indulgence!

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I'm a weird bird. I don't like chocolate. I was the kid religiously opting for vanilla milkshakes, avoiding M&M's like the plague and definitely not sticking my hand in the cookie jar when it was filled with the chocolate chip variety. Though my aversion is probably a blessing in disguise, I've always felt a little left out. It's no secret that for some, eating chocolate is a near spiritual experience. I'll be the first to admit that it looks so good; nonetheless, I just can't seem to wrap my taste buds around it.

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But today I'm going to 'take one for the team' because I'd be amiss if I didn't tell you about cacao. Cacao (not to be confused with cocoa) is the raw, natural form of chocolate. The cacao tree is a tropical evergreen found in Mexico and South America that bears leathery, football-like seed pods that grow up to one foot in length and can hold up to 40 seeds (called cacao beans)! All kinds of cacao products are made from these beans - powders, butters and pastes. Because these cacao products are minimally processed at low temperatures, they retain their amazing nutrient content.

Cacao is the basis of dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is made by crushing and liquefying the cacao seeds, then minimally processing them into bar form. It's when things like sweeteners and fats are added that problems start to arise. The health benefits disappear and the chocolate is only good for one thing - adding a nice layer to your waistline.

Though cacao is still fattening when not eaten in moderation, it has amazing benefits when you add a little to your diet...

CANCER FIGHTING - Cacao is one of the world's richest source of antioxidants. The ORAC scale (which stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity - a measurement of the food's ability to fight free radicals) gives cacao a score of 95,000 units per 100 grams. Blueberries, which we already know are packed with antioxidants, only rank 9,000 units per 100 grams. You get the idea...these things pack quite the punch.

MUSCLE RELAXING - Cacao is one of the best plant-based sources of magnesium. Ever wondered why women crave chocolate during that time of the month? Well, the body is hankering for some magnesium to aid in muscle relaxation and to relieve cramping. Such smart bodies we have!

MOOD ENHANCING - The theobromine and phenylethylamine in cacao work together to elevate your mood and give you a sense of well-being. Also, cacao consumption raises your body's natural levels of serotonin, making you feel more balanced and at peace. It's the ideal anti-depressant!

TOXIN ELIMINATING - The theobromine also acts as a mild diuretic, helping your body rid itself of toxins more efficiently! Just make sure to drink a lot of water when consuming cacao so that you don't become dehydrated! Flush those toxins on out!

You can find dark chocolate just about anywhere, but check your local Whole Foods or natural grocery for cacao nibs, cacao butter or cacao powder!

In a further attempt to take yet one more for the team, I spent my hard-earned cash on some cacao nibs at Whole Foods to make a homemade and healthy granola. I figured if the cacao nibs were mixed in, maybe I wouldn't notice! Here's the deliciously indulgent play-by-play...

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine 4 cups of rolled oats with 1/2 cup each of raw almond slices, raw pumpkin seeds and shredded coconut. All of these can be bought in the BULK section at Whole Foods, making it ridiculously cheap. It's pay by the pound, so you'll literally pay just a few dollars for all these ingredients combined!
Now add 1/2 cup of cacao nibs (which can be found on a shelf near the produce section in Whole Foods).
An aerial shot in case you were wondering what was going on in that mixing bowl.
Now grab a few things to jazz this baby up... add 1/2 tsp. sea salt, 1 Tbs. vanilla extract and 1/2 cup maple syrup
to make it all stick together.
Now get your hands dirty. Don't be shy. All those oats need some love.
Spread the mixture onto 2 baking pans (deep pans work better, but use whatever you have!) and pop into the oven
for 1 hour. Every 20 minutes or so, flip the granola around so that it cooks evenly.
Almost there....
BAM! Granola that everyone can agree on! You can even sprinkle chia seeds on top before eating for an added bonus!

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