Surprising Health Benefits of Raw Cacao: and Chocolate Vegan Bliss Balls Recipe
Can chocolate really be healthy?
You bet it can! When it’s in its pure, raw form, that is.
The recipe for my Chocolate Vegan Bliss Balls have made me the best friend of many! They are so decadent, delicious, and purely sinful. But at the same time, they are made with wholesome nutritious ingredients and are gluten-free, nut-free and vegan!
Who knew something so rich and tasty could actually be good for you? Well, eaten in moderation, of course.
The good news is that these little balls of love freeze very well, so you can make a whole batch and keep them in the freezer until the desire for chocolate hits. In fact, they even taste better frozen! Yes - they can easily go from freezer to mouth.
I know you will enjoy these as much as I do!
What makes them so wonderful and nutritious? The pure raw cacao!
Before we get there, let’s take a few minutes to consider chocolate.
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Chocolate (and More): Cacao vs. Cocoa
At first glance, you may think the only difference between ‘cacao’ and ‘cocoa’ is in the spelling, but it gets much more complicated than that!
They both start out from the same place - that is the seed pods produced by the Theobroma cacao tree. Harvesters open the pods and remove the seeds (or cacao beans). The beans can be eaten as is but are quite bitter, so they are usually fermented then dried.
What happens next makes all the difference - in relation to what name they go by as well as their nutritional value.
Cacao (pronounced “ka-cow”) refers to any product that has been derived from the cacao bean, without being processed at high temperatures.
Cacao nibs - the seeds broken in smaller pieces but still raw and unprocessed.
Raw cacao powder - the unprocessed seed or nib is cold-pressed to remove the fat (cacao butter) then ground into powder.
Cacao butter - the naturally occurring fat inside the cacao seed that is extracted then remixed with cacao powder at different concentrations.
As raw, or minimally processed products of the un-roasted cacao bean, these cacao products contain all naturally-occurring enzymes and retain their nutritive value, just like the freshly picked cacao bean itself.
However, if raw cacao has been roasted at high temperatures, it is now referred to as “cocoa” (pronounced “ko-ko”). Sadly, roasting the beans changes their molecular structure, reduces their enzyme content, and lowers their nutritional value. Some cocoa is further refined and chemical solutions or sugar added, to further reduce its nutritive value.
Though cacao is a little harder to find and slightly more expensive than cocoa, it is what I prefer to use in my kitchen. The least processed and the closer a food is to its natural state, the healthier it is likely to be.
"So what about those health benefits I promised you"?
Raw cacao, in all its glorious forms, has many health benefits! Ancient Aztecs knew it was healthy thousands of years ago, and began brewing a bitter drink from the cacao seeds. This became one of the first forms of modern chocolate. Though, over the years, we’ve continued to make it sweeter, adding more and more sweetness (yes - I mean sugar) to balance the bitter taste of the raw cacao itself.
9 Surprising Health Benefits of Raw Cacao
- Reduce premature aging - raw cacao is loaded with phytochemicals and flavonoids, which are antioxidans that protect your cells from free radical damage that can cause premature aging and many of today’s diseases.
- Reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease - the antioxidants in cacao can neutralize toxins produced by nitric oxide, reduce platelet reactivity, and can protect your heart from disease.
- Improve your mood - cacao releases endorphins that make you happy, and phenylethylamine - the chemical released when we experience deep feelings of love.
- Protect your nervous system - the high resveratrol content in cacao is a powerful antioxidant that can cross the blood-brain barrier to help protect your nervous system from free radical damage.
- Improve your cognitive abilities - One of the flavonoids in cacao, epicatechin, can improve cognition and preserve cognitive function as we age.
- Lower blood pressure - flavanols can lower blood pressure and increase the flexibility of your blood vessels.
- Lower insulin resistance - by activating key proteins involved in glucose production, epicatechin can help balance insulin levels, even among diabetics.
- Reduce PMS symptoms - cacao increases the release of serotonin, which is a natural antidepressant and reduces PMS moodiness. The magnesium it contains also helps ease cramping and promotes muscle relaxation.
- Provide vital minerals - including magnesium, iron, calcium, zinc, copper and manganese
Unfortunately, all the health benefits of raw cacao are completely stripped when it goes through the processing stage. What’s worse, is that most processed chocolate also has added sugars, milk solids, soy, and flavourings. So put down that candy bar!
When someone says “chocolate is good for you”, what they are actually referring to is dark chocolate in its raw form - preferably organic.
Why Organic Chocolate?
Yes - organic cacao matters!
Conventionally farmed cacao is hard on the environment. The industry uses the second-highest amount of synthetic and toxic pesticides - second only to cotton. These synthetic products poison the environment, the crop, and the workers.
In contrast, to produce organic cacao, the farm uses all-natural fertilizers, like manure, and practices crop rotation. This is a much healthier practice and more natural for the soil and surrounding environment, creating a more sustainable crop. Organic cacao farming has less of an impact on the environment, and preserves the health of the workers. That’s a win-win in my books!
Additionally, USDA Certified Organic chocolate also guarantees that no artificial flavours, dyes, or genetically modified organisms find their way into your chocolate.
When buying a chocolate bar, look for a cacao content of at least 70% - higher for optimal nutrition benefits. Though I find 100% pure cacao chocolate bars too bitter for my liking, I can handle 94% cacao. I break off a tiny piece and let it dissolve slowly in my mouth.
This is a much better option than reaching for a Snickers!
When buying cacao powder for baking or adding to your favourite smoothies, look for 100% pure raw organic cacao - it may be bitter straight out of the bag, but added to cakes, cookies, and drinks… well it’s not only delicious, but nutritious, too!
So enjoy some occasional chocolate and reap the health benefits it provides - just remember that like all treats, it should be consumed as a sensible indulgence!
This brings me to today’s scrumptious recipe for chocolate bliss balls… every time I make these, I double the recipe and its often still not enough! I’m known in certain circles for being the “Bliss Ball Queen” after all - and can’t disappoint my fans (you know who you are)!
Everyone who’s tried these Chocolate Vegan Bliss Balls raves about them! Don’t be intimidated by the lengthy instructions and prep time… they are really quite simple but do require time to make. I suggest breaking the process up into 3 steps to make it easier. I also often spread the process out over two evenings - saving the dipping for another day.
Step 1 - make the cupcakes (about 15 minutes prep time)
Step 2 - roll into balls (about 10 minutes)
Step 3 - dip in chocolate (about 35 minutes - for a double batch)
Chocolate Vegan Bliss Balls (Nut Free)
Makes 16 (2 Servings PP) | 60 Min. Prep | 20-25 Min. Cook
- 1 cup almond milk (homemade is best) or coconut milk (for nut-free version)
- 1 Tbsp raw apple cider vinegar
- 1/3 cup avocado oil (or other light tasting oil)
- 1/2 Tbsp vanilla
- 1 cup coconut sugar
- 1 1/2 cups gluten-free flour
- 1/3 cup raw cacao powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 3/4 tsp sea salt; plus:
- 1 can full-fat coconut milk, chilled overnight (1/2 - 3/4 cup of the cream)
- 200-225 grams non-dairy chocolate chips (I use “Enjoy Life” brand)
- 1 tsp coconut oil to thin out chocolate
- shredded coconut, chopped nuts, etc. for toppings
- cupcake tin or cake pan
- 2 mixing bowls
- small pot
- hand mixer
- parchment paper
- cookie sheet
- fork for dipping balls in chocolate
- Chill a can of full-fat coconut milk overnight (this may not be necessary if you have a can that has been on the shelf for a long time - long enough for the cream to have separated from the water)
- Preheat oven to 350F or 177C.
- Spray a muffin tin or cake pan with oil.
- In a large bowl, combine milk with apple cider vinegar, and stir. Let sit for 3-5 minutes to curdle (this is what makes vegan buttermilk).
- Once your “buttermilk” has formed, add oil, vanilla, and coconut sugar. Use an electric mixer to combine ingredients well.
- Add dry ingredients and beat until smooth.
- Evenly distribute the batter into your cupcake tin - filling each about 3/4 of the way. If you have an empty slot, fill it with water half way (this will ensure your pan will maintain even heat distribution so all cupcakes can cook at the same rate).
- Bake for 20-25 minutes until cake springs back when touched.
- Cool for about 10 minutes then remove cupcakes from muffin tin and transfer them into a large bowl. Use your fingers to break up the cupcakes so they have all crumbled.
- Scoop out some coconut cream from the can and add a bit at a time into cake crumbs. Continue to mix, add more cream, and mix again until it comes together. Do not oversaturate - but you should have a dough that can be easily shaped into balls.
- Shape dough into balls (about 1” each) and place onto a parchment paper lined cookie sheet. Freeze for about 30-60 minutes until firm.
- Prepare a double boiler - I put a few inches of water in a small pot then place a stainless steel bowl on top. Add chocolate chips and coconut oil to the bowl and melt over medium or medium-low heat until most of the chocolate has melted, stirring often. Remove from the heat and keep stirring until all the chocolate has melted and smooth.
- Dip balls into chocolate one at a time. Roll them around until completely coated and remove with a fork. Gently tap the fork on the side of your bowl so excess chocolate will drip back into your bowl. Place chocolate-coated balls on a parchment paper lined baking sheet.
- Sprinkle with toppings (shredded coconut, nuts, sprinkles, or chocolate drizzle), if desired.
- Transfer tray to the fridge or freezer to set. Store in an air-tight container in freezer until ready to eat!
Alternative: Add a few drops of peppermint extract to the melted chocolate before dipping and stir it in to create mint-chocolate balls… my personal favourite!
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