Ohhh Valentine’s Day. The one day of the year that pretty much everyone has romance on their mind. The love notes, candy hearts, flowers, romantic dinners and, oh yeah, CHOCOLATE! Don’t get me wrong. I am the first to admit that I am a chocolate lover. I don’t know too many people that actually dislike it (unless maybe you have a chocolate allergy or are sensitive to caffeine).
Chocolate contains many ingredients that are known to stimulate the pleasure centers of our brains (some even call it “addictive”). In fact, it has been considered to be the most craved substance in the United States. Most commercial chocolate contains a highly palatable mixture of fats and refined sugars, as well as naturally occurring stimulants like caffeine and theobromine (a bitter alkaloid of the cacao plant which has been dubbed as one of the contributors to chocolate’s supposed role as an aphrodisiac). The consumption of highly palatable foods (aka high fat/high sugar) like chocolate have been found to increase several neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, which can contribute to food liking and craving – therefore, making you more prone to overeating. Additionally, chocolate is also calorically dense (about 250 calories, 8 g saturated fat, and about 22 g sugar in a 1.5 oz bar) – not a very ideal combination if you’re watching your wasteline. On the other hand, chocolate in its natural state (cacao or cocoa) is actually heart healthy if eaten in moderation because it contains several antioxidants, no added fats, sugars, or preservatives, and is dairy-free.
Being that February is Heart Health month, here are some healthy alternatives to your typical American chocolate treat that you can enjoy this Valentine’s Day to help you satisfy your sweet craving without sabotaging your heart healthy diet.
5 Healthy Alternatives to Chocolate
1. Cocoa powder
Cocoa powder is a mixture of many substances that are left over after cocoa butter is extracted from cacao beans. One tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder contains about 10 calories, and has virtually no fat, cholesterol, or sugar. And because it is 100% cacao, it is jam packed with antioxidants.
Try mixing cocoa powder with almond or coconut milk for a homemade hot chocolate, or add a scoop to plain or vanilla Greek yogurt or as an addition to your favorite smoothie. Cocoa powder can be used in savory dishes as well – especially in many traditional Mexican dishes (cocoa and chili pepper!). For a crunchy snack, try cocoa dusted almonds (lightly drizzle almonds with honey and roll them in cocoa powder).
2. Cacao nibs
Cacao nibs are basically the cocoa beans themselves, which have been roasted, removed from their husks, and broken into small pieces. In other words, they are a less processed form of cocoa. Cacao nibs are crunchy and taste similarly to unsweetened chocolate. They can be ground into a powder and used just like cocoa powder, or they can be eaten as is and added to yogurt, trail mixes, smoothies, or in your favorite baked good. Cacao nibs are naturally low in calories (just one ounce contains about 130 calories), are a good source of heart-healthy fiber, (9 g per ounce) and contain a number of beneficial minerals and antioxidants.
3. Dark Chocolate (at least >70% cacao)
Ok. I couldn’t COMPLETELY leave chocolate off of the list. Why? Because dark chocolate can be part of a heart healthy diet, as long as it is the right type and in the right portion size (about 2 squares or 1 oz). It is important to choose dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao in order to reap all the antioxidant benefits. Plus, the darker the chocolate (aka the higher % of cacao), the less sugar will be in the bar.
Carob is a tropical pod that is derived from a tree in the Mediterranean. Its pulp is roasted and ground into a fine powder that tastes very similar to cocoa powder. Carob is naturally low in fat, high in fiber, contains calcium, and unlike cocoa or chocolate, does not contain caffeine or theobromine (a good alternative to those who are sensitive to caffeine or migraines). Additionally, it is naturally less bitter than cocoa, so it does not need additional sweetening.
Carob comes in many forms which can be used in cooking, such as powders, liquids, and carob chips. Add carob chips to trail mix, fruit, yogurt, or use it as a substitute for chocolate chips in baking (but set your oven about 25 degrees lower or it could burn!).
I can’t think of a better way to satisfy a sweet craving while still staying within a healthy eating plan than with fruit. Most fruits are high in vitamin C, potassium, antioxidants, fiber, and health-promoting phytonutrients. Generally, the darker the fruit’s color pigment, the more nutrients it will have! Strawberries and whipped coconut cream, anyone? Or try mixing up a medley of cherries, raspberries, blueberries, and pomegranate seeds, with some carob chips or cacao nibs sprinkled over top for a delicious and healthy treat!