Chocolate is magic. It sparks glimmers in eyes young and old. That spark — shall we call it pure joy — isn’t imagined. Rather, it’s all part of the chemical reactions triggered by the complex cacao bean. And you don’t need dairy (or all that much sugar) to enjoy the benefits of chocolate. Vegan chocolate options abound. Here’s everything you need to know.
What Is Chocolate?
The seeds of the tropical cacao fruit, cacao or cocoa beans, are buried inside the fruit’s white pulpy flesh. About the size of a small football, cacao pods grow in equatorial regions across Africa, Central, and South America.
Cacao enjoys a long history of value; the Aztec and Incan empires were big fans. Cacao beans were even used as currency in what’s now Guatemala and parts of Mexico, according to anthropologists.
In its whole form, cacao is rich in fats — creamy cacao butter solids hold the naturally crumbly beans together. But when separated, the cacao solids, also known as cocoa powder, form the basis of what we know and love as chocolate.
Cacao butter is often mixed back in with cocoa solids as part of the tempering process — the mixture is then combined with sugar, flavorings or add-ins, and, sometimes milk. Tempering heats and cools the chocolate until it creates the snap-break texture of chocolate bars.
But by itself, cocoa powder enjoys many uses — in baking mixes, primarily. You’ll also find this in hot chocolate mixes as well.
Benefits of Chocolate
Yes, benefits. As in, healthy.
Chocolate isn’t just candy. In fact, it’s a legitimate superfood — in the right setting, that is. Chocolate drenched in sugar and milk fat? That’s no different than any other candy bar out there. But chocolate where the cacao solids are at least 70 percent (aka “dark” chocolate), is loaded with healthy antioxidants and chemicals including anandamide (the “bliss chemical”). The name, if you’ve studied any Sanskrit, comes from the word “ananda,” which means “joy, bliss, delight.” If you’ve eaten chocolate, you certainly understand the sentiment. Cacao makes happy brains.
Chocolate is rich in anandamide, which triggers a serotonin response in the brain. Serotonin is the chemical we experience when we feel love or pleasure. It’s why chocolate is often associated with our love-filled holidays. It enhances the spirit of the seasons with its brain-altering boost.
That boost equates to improved mood and may help to mitigate stress and panic attacks in those at risk.
Beyond the love chocolate may make you feel, it’s also giving love to your body by way of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
According to a growing body of research, the flavonoids in chocolate can be beneficial to your heart health. Consuming chocolate has been linked to a 37 percent reduced risk of heart attacks and a 29 percent decrease in stroke risk.
Dark chocolate is a powerhouse for minerals including nearly all of your RDA for copper and manganese, and more than half the RDA for magnesium. It’s also a rich source of plant-based iron, zinc, selenium, and potassium.
Theobromine, one of the chemicals in cacao is also linked to a reduced risk of preeclampsia. A potentially serious pregnancy complication that can elevate the mothers’ blood pressure, preeclampsia shows a 40 percent reduced risk in women who enjoyed “high doses” of chocolate during pregnancy.
The antioxidant-rich flavonoids (which give cacao its dark color), are great free radical fighters. This may make it a benefit in reducing the risk of certain types of cancer.
The Aztecs and Incas rarely sweetened their chocolate. It wasn’t until the Spanish brought it back to Europe that iterations of the modern chocolate we eat and drink today began to emerge. But a growing number of chocolatiers are making chocolate with less sugar and without the dairy for a cleaner, healthier, and less cloying experience.
That doesn’t mean milk is out of the equation, however. A growing number of manufacturers are emulating the milk chocolate experiences of childhood with dairy-free milk like almond and oat. But just like with traditional chocolate, the real benefits come by way of the rule: the darker the better. Opt for a dark chocolate bar or a dark hot chocolate to reap the benefits of this magical fruit.
Vegan Chocolate Brands
Want to sink your teeth into a hunk of chocolate by now? These brands may help:
This chocolate is inspired by Mexican traditions, this organic and non-GMO certified vegan chocolate company works directly with chocolate producers for its artisanal chocolates. Flavors nod to tradition as well with chili, cinnamon, and vanilla in the mix.
2. Alter Eco
Indulge the senses and do a world of good with Alter Eco’s dark chocolate. Farmers are paid a premium and the company works to help build cooperatives. The chocolate is always organic and Fair Trade and flavors run the gamut from sea salt to mint.
With its bean to bar philosophy, Raaka makes sure each bar meets its high quality standards including organic and Fair Trade. While the dark options run aplenty, don’t miss out on the creamy coconut milk treat once in a while for something extra special. This three-pack includes the Coconut Milk bar as well as Sea Salt and its Bourbon Cask Aged bar as well.
Theo dreamed up a Fair Trade organic chocolate bar before there was one. It was the first in North American to deliver on its dream and it keeps pushing the industry further with its commitments to farmers and quality. The proof is undeniable once you take a bite. Start with the salted almond.
5. Endangered Species
Not only is Endangered Species committed to great chocolate, but it’s also committed to Fair Trade and supporting its growers and producers. Like its namesake, the brand is also a voice for the animals, spotlighting them on each package and donating a portion of proceeds to their protection. 10 percent of net profits go to its GiveBack Partners, supporting wildlife around the world.
Want even more chocolate? Check out the Vegancuts Chocolate Box.