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Issouf Sanogo  /  AFP-Getty Images file
Cacao is extraordinarily high in vitamin C, contains omega-6 fatty acids and is one of the best sources of natural fiber.
TODAY contributor
updated 8/3/2009 2:04:52 PM ET 2009-08-03T18:04:52

There seems to be a palate evolution with chocolate consumption, and I’m proud to announce that I’ve graduated to the next step. First there was drugstore-quality milk chocolate in all of its trick-or-treat incarnations: individual kisses, snuggled against peanut butter, pressed against caramel and nougat or sprinkled with peanuts or almonds. Then there was introductory dark chocolate — heavy on the sugar and cocoa butter, light on actual cocoa content. After that I moved on to what I thought was the chocolate big leagues — dark chocolate made with 70 percent or more cocoa content. At this point chocolate was no longer a child’s distraction, it had developed into something serious — to be savored, appreciated and analyzed — not unlike a fine wine.

I was content to remain here, consciously sliding dark squares of elegant chocolate into my mouth whenever I needed to be transported to a complex, multilayered taste experience. I quickly discovered that extra-dark chocolate is not the binge chocolate of yesteryear. Consuming mass quantities while PMSing or nursing a broken heart just doesn’t work. Dark chocolate takes your mouth on a wild journey, it’s an unknown eco-adventure for your taste buds — so you have to tread lightly.

Honestly, I was content to stay right where I was, sampling the growing collection of artisanally crafted, often-organic dark chocolate bars, truffles and hot chocolate powders, when I stumbled on this crazy thing called a cacao bean. Told that this was chocolate in its original state, I popped the strange object into my mouth and discovered that it was hard, crunchy and seriously bitter. Alone, tempered with no sugar or milk solids, the bean was almost confronting in its intensity. But this was the source of all chocolate and so I persevered. But I soon found out that I could experience it in a much more delicious fashion — raw chocolate bars.

Simply explained, raw chocolate is chocolate that is unroasted and has been combined with a few unobtrusive ingredients like agave or sea salt. Most conventional chocolate bars are made with roasted chocolate and combined with a variety of other heavy ingredients, like refined sugar. For me, raw chocolate is a simple, unrefined chocolate experience. Daniel Sklaar, the chocolatier behind Brooklyn’s Fine and Raw Chocolate, calls it “a complete celebration of food.” Well, it’s that too. Over the past few years you may have heard a bit about the antioxidant benefits of dark chocolate, but those claims did little to highlight the nutritional powerhouse that is raw chocolate.

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This stuff is truly good for you. According to David Wolfe, author of “Naked Chocolate: The Astounding Truth About the World’s Greatest Food,” chocolate in its natural state is the best form of magnesium, chromium and iron, which are the top three mineral deficiencies in the U.S. Wolfe, one of raw chocolate’s biggest advocates, also credits cacao with being extraordinarily high in vitamin C. Cacao also contains omega-6 fatty acids and is one of the best sources of natural fiber. So doesn’t the average bar contain these things too? Not so much, explains Wolfe. When cacao is roasted it looses its vitamin C and its fiber is disturbed. Cooking cacao also destroys PEAs (phenylethylamines), the chemicals contained in chocolate that make us feel like we’re in love.

Green is the new black!

Raw chocolate also contains neurotransmitter modulating agents, which are chemicals that act as natural antidepressants. “They allow our neurotransmitters like serotonin to remain in our bloodstream longer than usual,” explains Wolfe. “This makes us younger. The more chocolate you eat, the longer you live.” His words are not wishful thinking. A Harvard study of 7,841 healthy men found that those who ate chocolate did indeed live longer than those who abstained. It could be those antioxidants at work. According to Wolfe, raw cacao is the No. 1 antioxidant food in the world — 30 times higher than red wine and 20 times higher than green tea.

And then there are those love chemicals, those PEAs. Wolfe believes that raw chocolate is not only a tasty way to improve your health and vitality, but that it’s also a path to healing and soothing your heart, increasing your sensuality and enhancing your love life. Not bad for a sweet treat. Sklaar’s words followed me as I snapped off another chunk of his Lacuma and Vanilla bar: “Chocolate is a full experience.” Mmmmm. Hmmmmm.

For more information on the health benefits of raw chocolate, check out David Wolfe's new book, "Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future."

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.

Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.

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