The answer is, as always, it depends.

Let’s define cacao, cocoa, and chocolate.

  • Cacao is the raw beans of Theobroma cacao, dried, fermented, and cracked into nibs or ground; vitamins and phytochemicals are still intact.

  • Cocoa is made by fermenting and roasting the cacao beans to reduce the bitter flavor. Cocoa powder has had most of the cocoa butter removed. Dutch processed cocoa powder has been treated with alkali to further reduce the bitter taste and increase solubility in water.

  • Chocolate is cocoa to which sugar, cocoa butter, and possibly other ingredients have been added. Lesser quality chocolate contains less cocoa solids, more sugar, various vegetable oils, lecithin, milk solids, and flavorings.

Raw cacao beans naturally contain interesting and beneficial chemicals. These compounds can help to decrease pain perception, produce a transient feeling of well being, reduce insulin resistance, improve vasodilation, and reduce oxidation. They include:

  • theobromine, an alkaloid similar to caffeine.

  • small amounts of caffeine, about 1/10 of that contained in coffee.

  • anandamide, a cannabinoid that is also naturally produced in the brain.

  • catechins and other flavonoids which improve our internal antioxidant production.antioxidants to reduce aging.

  • magnesium and potassium, minerals that are needed generally but are needed in greater amounts just prior to menstruation. This may be another reason many women crave chocolate before their periods.

Cocoa butter, the oil of cacao, contains 24-30% palmitic acid, a precursor to palmitoylethanolamide (PEA). PEA is known as the "love drug" and is thought to be the reason why chocolate is said to be an aphrodisiac. Though it contains very little actual PEA, the palmitic acid in chocolate may help the body produce PEA. Read this month’s blog by Dr Joan to learn more about PEA.

My advice is to use moderation and only eat very high quality organic cacao nibs, or chocolate that is more than 80% cacao solids (Pascha, Righteously Raw, Tcho, and other artisanal brands). An adequate serving is one ounce. I prefer unsweetened 100% cacao or brands sweetened with only stevia such as Pure Love Handmade Chocolate. 100% cacao is bitter and slightly sour due to the fermentation, and may take some getting used to. Avoid milk chocolate entirely since it contains too much sugar and recent research indicates that milk in chocolate or consuming milk with dark chocolate interferes with absorption of its beneficial antioxidants.

So if you are buying chocolate for your valentine (or yourself) make sure to get the good stuff. Maybe they will share it with you.