Chef and nutrition expert Christina Pirello is a regular contributor to Wellwellwell, where she shares her expertise on how readers can look and feel their best with natural, organic foods.

Most of us may never know what nirvana is—maybe the Dalai Lama (I hear he loves chocolate, too)—but chocolate is about as close to ambrosia as we mortals will ever experience.

A mere taste of chocolate on the tongue can trigger a flood of fond memories—one’s first candy bar, licking a dripping chocolate ice cream cone during summer, dipping a finger into rich chocolate frosting meant for a birthday cake—but hardly any of us think of chocolate as good for us. Sinful? Surely. Decadent? Definitely. But healthy? Never.

You’re going to love being wrong.

I am enchanted by all chocolate, but when I embraced healthy eating many years ago, I was convinced that chocolate had to go. I gave up on my favorite indulgence for almost ten years before I discovered the truth.

But wait, you’re thinking, “Isn’t it loaded with fat, sugar, dairy, additives, preservatives and caffeine? Won’t it make us fat and sick?” Well, if your idea of chocolate is the cellophane-wrapped junk you pick up in the checkout line at the convenience store, you might be right. But not with real chocolate.

Real chocolate can actually be good for your health. Recent studies show that dark chocolate can actually do everything from protect our heart to alleviate depression and symptoms of both PMS and menopause. A rich source of antioxidants and other trace minerals, chocolate is one of the richest sources of magnesium in the plant kingdom. On top of that, chocolate has compounds that release serotonin, our ‘feel-good’ hormone that makes us feel content and relaxed.

Christina Quote

Tropical in nature, chocolate brings a warm and dry energy to our bodies. With its astringent character, chocolate is the perfect catalyst for digesting fat and protein. This warm and dry energy aids our bodies in moving stagnant energy, improving digestion, alleviating sluggishness and calming the body—all at the same time.

But what about the caffeine? Trace amounts only, my friends, so unless you are supremely sensitive to the effects of this natural stimulant, you won’t be kept up at night from the chocolate you had at lunch.

So how did chocolate get such a bad rap? In its pure state, chocolate is bitter. Originally consumed as a hot liquid, laced through with hot spice and cinnamon, chocolate tasted nothing like the sweet candy we call chocolate today. This version, however, had little appeal for European taste, so sugar was added…then butter…and frankly, it was downhill from there. As chocolate became a common food, the quality of it was compromised and artificial flavorings were added to ‘create’ a depth of flavor.

Cooking with Chocolate You can still enjoy chocolate without compromising your health. First, remember that something this rich and delicious is calorically dense, and calorically dense foods will make us fat if we eat them in excess. Next, if the chocolate you are eating is loaded with refined sugar, dairy fat and other additives, it has crossed the line from good quality indulgence to junk food.

Choose a chocolate that is dark and bitter, unsweetened, sweetened with stevia, or is 70% cocoa or more. Also look for a chocolate free of dairy products, as studies have shown that dairy fat neutralizes all the benefits of cocoa. And of course, choose a chocolate free of additives or preservatives—anything you can’t pronounce.

You can go further. Choose certified organic chocolate to ensure that you are treating yourself to a pesticide-free indulgence. And if you’d like to be particularly conscientious, look for chocolate that also carries the ‘fair trade’ label. Fair trade allows for farming communities to be paid fairly and become self-sustaining. Indulge and do good in the world—ya’ gotta love that.

Chocolate is also great to work with—richly flavored, sensuously textured and beautifully enhanced by strong flavors. Cinnamon and hot chili peppers stimulate the palate, enhancing the flavor of chocolate. Sea salt has become a favorite compliment, as it creates the perfect balance of savory and sweet. Citrus zest balances the fatty nature of chocolate with a touch of sour taste so it sparkles on the tongue. Some chocolatiers are hearkening back to ancient culinary triumphs, adding lavender, jasmine and other flowers and herbs to chocolate to add a touch of perfume to the decadence.

In whatever way you enjoy chocolate, enjoy it well, choosing the best quality and savoring each sensuous bite, remembering that less really is more. A few bites of great chocolate will do the trick.

In the mood to make your own chocolate treat? Try one of my recipes below.

Asteroids

Christina Pirello's Charms of Chocolate
Everyone I know adores this natural snack. Easy and fun, this is a satisfying treat that kids love to make.

1 cup nut butter (organic almond, peanut and cashew are my faves)
1 cup brown rice syrup or maple syrup
1 cup non-dairy dark chocolate chips
3 cups crisp brown rice cereal

Combine nut butter, syrup and chocolate chips in a saucepan and place over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring until creamy and smooth, with the chocolate completely melted. Remove from heat and stir in brown rice cereal until well combined. Allow to cool slightly (so you can handle the mixture). With wet hands, form the mixture into golf-ball size spheres. Arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Asteroids will set up in 15-20 minutes. Do not refrigerate as this makes them hard. They will keep for about a week in a sealed container. (Makes about 40 asteroids)

Cook’s Tips: You can roll each Asteroid in cocoa powder, chopped nuts or coconut to create a truffle-like candy. You can also press the mixture into a 9 x 9-inch baking dish and cut into squares after it sets.

 

Chocolate Espresso Cookies
Even grown-ups need a treat during the holidays! Try these rich, chocolate chip cookies that have a hint of coffee flavoring for the energy you need to get all your shopping done.

1 stick (8 tablespoons) vegan butter substitute, softened
3 tablespoons coconut sugar
½ cup brown rice syrup or maple syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons espresso grind coffee
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
Pinch sea salt
½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1 cup non-dairy, dark chocolate chips or chunks

Preheat oven to 350°F and line 3 baking sheets with parchment paper. 

Combine butter substitute, coconut sugar, syrup, vanilla and espresso in a mixing bowl. Using a hand mixer or a whisk, whip until creamy. Add flour, baking powder and soda, and salt. Using a wooden spoon, mix together until a soft dough forms, but not sticky. Fold in nuts and chocolate.

Spoon walnut-size bits of dough onto prepared sheets leaving room for the cookies to spread. With damp fingers, flatten cookies slightly. Bake for 13-14 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer to a cooling rack. (Makes about 36 cookies)