Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, so let’s take a moment to talk about chocolate! Nearly everyone is familiar with chocolate, but what do you really know about it? Let’s begin with the basics. For starters, chocolate begins as a bean from the cacao (pronounced ka-KOW) tree, which likes to grow very close to the equator. The cacao tree produces about 40 pods per year and inside the pods are seeds called cocoa (pronounced Ko-ko) beans. Mayans and Aztecs were likely the first cocoa farmers, and used the beans as currency. With 100 beans you could buy a turkey. For the Aztecs, money really did grow on trees! The Aztecs also made some of the first chocolate drinks, but the drinks were bitter and unpopular with foreigners until Spaniards began mixing it with honey or cane sugar. This early version of hot chocolate quickly became a fashionable drink throughout Europe.
Naturally, history may not be your top concern related to chocolate. Instead, you may be wondering, is chocolate good for me? The answer is fairly simple. The less processed your chocolate is from its original form, the cocoa bean, the more health-promoting components it is likely to have. For instance, cocoa beans contain flavanols, which help your body’s cells resist damage. Darker chocolates, like those containing 70 percent cacao or higher, tend to have more flavanols. But as cocoa beans are made into chocolate, they are roasted and ground up to be mixed with other ingredients like sugars and additional fats. This is why moderation is key! Just because a little bit of chocolate can be good for you doesn’t mean eating lots of it is going to make you healthier. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. Chocolate is calorie-dense, so a little bit goes a long way. For example, about three small rectangles, or 1.4 ounces of chocolate, contain around 210 calories.
Since moderation is so important for enjoying sweets and other treats in our life, let’s look at what professional chocolate tasters recommend to get the most out of your chocolate tasting experience. First, take it slowly. If you unwrap a piece of chocolate and eat it quickly, are you really enjoying that experience? Remember to pay attention to your senses while you taste the chocolate. For example, look at the color. Milk chocolates are lighter in color and chocolates with higher percentages of cacao are typically darker. Take time to smell the chocolate and take in the aroma; compare the smells of different chocolates! Do your best to eat the chocolate slowly to take in all of the flavors. Pay attention to the chocolate’s texture. Does it melt quickly or slowly? Is it smooth and creamy? When we slow down and pay attention to our senses, we tend to enjoy the experience more.
You can probably see that these suggestions work for everyday meals as well. Eating slowly gives your stomach and brain enough time to communicate, which helps you to know when you are full. If you have never taken the time to enjoy your food through actively using your senses, try it today and see if it makes a difference in your enjoyment of the meal and the amount you eat. If you’re able to, sit down with your family or friends and try practicing this form of mindful eating together. Adding conversation to your mealtime also helps you to slow down and it gives you the opportunity to connect and have fun.
As a final note, February is heart health month. Practicing mindful eating and moderation is a free and easy way to promote overall health, so this is the perfect month to start a new heart-healthy routine! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sara Meeks is an OSU Extension Family & Consumer Sciences Program Assistant and may be reached at 330-264-8722.
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