What can be better than a sweet treat with health benefits? As it happens, chocolate has a few glowing characteristics. It comes from the Theobroma cacao tree, from a bean that grows on that tropical tree. (Theobroma means “food for the Gods.”) Chocolate originated in Mexico and Central and South America, but West Africa now produces most of the world’s cocoa. Look for fair trade chocolate that meets environmental and labour standards.
Dark or semisweet chocolate is typically a vegan product. Because chocolate contains antioxidants that inhibit the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol, it has gained a reputation of being beneficial for our heart health. Eaten in moderation, chocolate may lower blood pressure.
Chocolate is also a source of iron – a “precious metal” when it comes to human health. As part of red blood cells, iron plays a central role in transporting oxygen to the body and carrying away the metabolic waste product carbon dioxide. Each day, we lose tiny amounts of iron in cells that are sloughed from skin and the inner lining of the intestine. If our intake is insufficient to replenish our losses, a tired feeling and sensitivity to cold may develop. With further depletion, people feel exhausted, irritable, lethargic and develop headaches; the skin may appear pale. Since iron deficiency is such a prevalent condition and easily diagnosed, if you have any doubts about your iron status, have a lab test done.
We are efficient at recycling iron; however, losses must be replaced. Iron-rich plant foods include beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, dried fruit and chocolate. Two of the Almond Butter Balls in the recipe below will provide one quarter of the recommended intake of eight milligrams of iron for the day. Women of childbearing age need more iron, so they can double the recommendation.
Almond Butter Balls
Makes 30 balls
These nut butter balls are an ideal snack for outdoor adventures such as skiing, hiking, riding or climbing. They are light, take up little space and provide energy. Four of these balls can fuel a person weighing 150 pounds on an uphill hike for five miles (eight kilometres). This recipe is from our new book Cooking Vegetarian, which I co-authored with J. Forest (Wiley Canada, 2011).
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup almond butter or peanut butter
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup currants
1/2 cup dried cranberries, chopped
1/2 cup non-dairy chocolate chips
1/2 tsp. lemon rind
1 tbs. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp. cinnamon powder
1/2 tsp. cardamom
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1-2 tbs. water
Put the rolled oats in the bowl of a food processor and process for 20 seconds or until they are finely ground. Transfer the oats to a medium bowl along with the nut butter, pumpkin seeds, currants, cranberries, chocolate chips, lemon rind, lemon juice, cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla extract. Mix with a fork until all ingredients are well incorporated. Add enough water to hold the mixture together. Roll into small balls, about two tablespoons in size and store in a covered container in the refrigerator or freezer.
British Columbia dietitian Vesanto Melina is the co-author of many classics in vegetarian and vegan nutrition, including Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan, Becoming Raw and The Raw Food Revolution Diet. Visit her on her website, like her on Facebook or consult her at 604-882-6782.