Caffeine. It’s fuel for millions of people around the world and, in recent years, a whole culture has grown around its primary source, coffee, creating record demand and leading to an onslaught of boutique brewers.
Though it’s technically a habit-forming drug, caffeine is one of the few that has actually been connected to numerous health benefits and has become a widely accepted part of our society.
Chocolate and caffeine
Not only does chocolate have caffeine in it, but it also contains another similar substance known as theobromine, which is a plant compound that also acts as a stimulant but at a rate 10 times weaker than caffeine.
So how much caffeine is actually in chocolate? The average candy bar has less than 10 milligrams. But true dark chocolate bars—which are less processed—can contain as much as 31 milligrams, or as much as a standard can of Coke or Pepsi. Some chocolate makers actually fortify their candies with caffeine, too, providing an even bigger boost.
Because amounts can greatly vary, you’ll always look at the label of your bar to determine the caffeine concentration for those times when you need a pick-me-up—or if you’re trying to avoid caffeine altogether.
The benefits of caffeine
Caffeine is one of the most heavily researched compounds on earth, largely because there’s so much buzz around it. While it should always be used in moderation (there is certainly such a thing as too much), science has uncovered some surprising health benefits.
Caffeine can help to detox the liver and cleanse the colon to a small degree. Because it acts as a diuretic, it can expand the body’s natural abilities to get rid of toxins lingering in organs and cells, and therefore improve overall health. The diuretic properties also dilute urine and leads to less risk of kidney stones.
Easing muscle pain
When paired with carbohydrates before an endurance workout, caffeine can help replenish muscle glycogen (a stored form of carbs that muscles use for energy) quicker after physical activity. This can help to relieve post-workout aches and reduce downtime.
Caffeine greatly increases the capacity for memory and memory consolidation, and can help improve overall cognitive function through increased alertness, better problem-solving skills, and ability to retain information, even on little sleep. In a pinch, it can provide the energy needed to stay safe and alert and turn in the best performance possible.
In a related manner, caffeine may be able to help prevent brain-related disease such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Caffeine is also a huge help for easing headaches as the compound works to constrict the blood vessels and reduce pain. It’s so effective in this regard it’s often added to over-the-counter headache medicines.
Caffeine can help open airways and increase the amount of air that is able to pass through them, thus improving the ability of asthmatics to breathe properly and reducing the severity of asthma attacks.
Caffeine can also help with weight loss. While studies are still inconclusive, there is some evidence that it can do so by suppressing appetite. Additionally, it could increase the process known as thermogenesis, which speeds up the rate at which the body burns calories.
Possible skin cancer connection
There is also some evidence that regularly intaking caffeine can help reduce the risk of developing melanoma and other forms of skin cancer. Research is ongoing, but early results are very promising.
Though there are many benefits of this wonder drug, it’s important to note that overuse of caffeine can be dangerous. It can increase blood pressure, lead to insomnia, and have negative impacts on digestion over the course of time.
Using caffeine responsibly and in moderation is important, even when it’s coming from a source such as chocolate.
Other surprising sources of caffeine
Dark chocolate is not the only food product that contains caffeine. It’s frequently found in these popular items as well.
- Ice cream: If your preferred choice of ice cream has a chocolate or coffee flavor, it’s likely to contain some trace amounts of caffeine. While java-flavored ice cream can have as much as 45 milligrams per half-cup, chocolate scoops can contain about three milligrams. Though not a huge amount, if you’ve already had a few cups earlier in the day, the dessert can add up, too. This can also be a factor with some likeminded yogurt flavors.
- Protein bars: Protein bars are known to provide a good dose of energy, and some of it can be from added caffeine. Some options, like Clif Bars, contain roughly 50 milligrams, which is more than a full can of soda. If you’re looking for more fuel for endurance during bouts of physical activity, this can be helpful, but also something to be aware of if you’re trying to limit the amount you intake.
- Energy drinks: Energy drinks of course have good amounts of caffeine, but this can also include some bottled waters marketed as energy drinks. Waters will have less amounts but some other beverages can have as much as two shots of espresso.
- Decaf coffee: For all the naysayers that say decaf coffee doesn’t count, know that it still does contain some amounts of caffeine. On average, it’s about three percent of what a traditional cup might have.
- Other energy-focused foods: Everything from oatmeal to beef jerky to sunflower seeds are now available with added caffeine. Look for terms like “energy” or “perky” on the label to easily spot them.
Alternative types of caffeine
There are also several additional types of caffeine sources that are used in a variety of products today. Most commonly seen in energy drinks, the following alternative caffeine sources are worth understanding as well.
This plant hails from South America and has one of the highest concentrations of caffeine—as much as 5.8 percent by weight, which is more than double that of coffee.
Taurine is an amino acid that the body can’t produce on its own, and is sometimes used to treat congestive heart failure. However, it’s also used in energy drinks and energy formulas due to its ability to apparently improve athletic performance. While not actually caffeine, it can help improve energy levels in a similar way.
Another essential amino acid that the body can’t produce on its own, lysine plays a role in converting fatty acids into energy. As such, it can help improve energy levels in a way similar to caffeine.
Chocolate recipes worth trying
What do all the below recipes have in common? Not only do they taste great, but all are made with dark chocolate, cacao, and/or cocoa, which can provide a little boost when you need a pick-me-up.
Lava cakes are a special class of chocolate cakes, because they feature rich, gooey cocoa that pours of out of the center when sliced into. This recipe also keeps the baked good almost flourless for extra light texture; the use of almond flour where needed makes it gluten-free, too. Maple syrup and coconut sugar are used to sweeten it up, while eggs and coconut oil provide density for a truly decadent dessert.
It might sound odd to call this raw vegan delicacy “cheesecake,” but one bite and you won’t care. It starts with a salty almond crust topped with a light chocolate filling and layer of date caramel (made from medjool dates, maple syrup, and cashews). Then the whole thing is covered in melted dark chocolate for the perfect finish in this non-dairy treat.
No need to go to Mackinac Island for some tasty fudge. Make a batch at home with healthful ingredients like cacao powder, coconut oil, almond butter, honey, and vanilla extract. After letting it chill in the fridge, top with mini pretzels for some serious crunch and extra saltiness that matches up beautifully.
No one will ever know these delicious muffins have secret squash inside. While adding zucchini makes them nutritious (and also super moist), the use of honey, cacao powder, and dark chocolate chips masks any taste of veggies. You’ll also need some almond butter, chia seeds, baking soda and a banana to make a dozen—or two or three.
The only thing better than a warm mug of hot chocolate is a warm mug of hot chocolate that has superfood powers. The combination of honey, coconut oil, coconut milk, cinnamon, and raw cacao powder takes this comfort drink to a whole new level. Enjoy during the colder winter months for a health boost to fight against cold and flu season, too.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont