Vanilla or Chocolate?

Are you a vanilla lover, or a chocolate lover?  Or, like me: adore both of them?

When I flick through the pages of recipe books, it’s safe to say that all of them will have mentioned vanilla in there somewhere.
Usually more than once.  And even if there’s a chocolate dessert, it often recommends the addition of vanilla.

But is one healthier than the other?

Let’s find out.

To begin with, let’s decide we’re only looking at the purest forms of both vanilla and chocolate. Namely, the vanilla powder made out of crushing the dry fermented pods or the actual soft vanilla pods with the squishy insides that you have to scrape out. Not the imitation or synthetic vanilla extracts.

And when we think chocolate: let’s only talk about pure high flavanol super-cacao. Not the melt-in-your-mouth, sugar and fat combination of chocolate bars.

Did you know that according to the “all-knowing internet” pure vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world? (Saffron takes the prize for #1 )
This is due to the painfully laborious and time-consuming way of preparing vanilla before it hits the supermarket shelves. From hand pollination to hand-harvesting to the 4-week fermentation process, this is such a fussy spice to produce.

And out of the 100 species worldwide, we end up only using 15 varieties to enhance our finest desserts.

There is an astonishing number of studies on the health benefits of vanilla….all using merely rats and mice. Eyeroll.
The little critters were thoroughly impressed by how they lost weight or reduced blood sugar spikes by using the concentrated active vanilla compounds. But these studies were not conducted on ‘us’.

Therefore, I’ll share the only 2 human trials I found. Bit poor, I know. 

Although traditional medicinal uses of vanilla included treatment for fever, spasms, dysmenorrhea, blood clotting, and gastrointestinal distress, none of these claims can be proven.

So what real benefits did they find?

Scientists noted that the scent of pure vanilla reduced pain responses and prevention of apnea in newborns.
And there is a possible therapeutic benefit to people with Sickle Cell Disease (an inherited blood disorder) when taking vanilla in large doses.
Hmmm…this was all I could find on the proven health benefits of vanilla. Sorry about this.

As a result, I can only state that vanilla is a yummy spice we can use to enhance the enjoyment of our food.

But how about high flavanol super-cacao? That’s a different kettle of [vegan] fish.

Cacao powder is rich in minerals and antioxidants, especially flavanols. However, only if the powder hasn’t been heat-treated to remove the bitter flavour.  It is then called ‘Dutched’ cacao, which ends up being a lovely flavoured powder with minimal benefit. Often they even treat it with alkaline to further soften the taste. This sadly results in decreasing nearly half their antioxidant content.

And how much of these magic flavanols do we need per day to improve health? Several studies suggest at least 200mg per day which is close to a whopping three tablespoons a day.

Look at this: “In 2013 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)-approved a claim by a chocolate manufacturer which said that dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and cocoa-based beverages with 200 mg of cocoa flavanols per serving contribute to the normal blood circulation by helping to maintain the elasticity of blood vessels.”

Although that sounded promising, in 2016 researchers started to pick this apart and wrote that more than 200mg was required for maximum health benefits. 

To tell you the truth…I don’t really mind what the outcome is. I just love the flavour of good cacao powder.
How about you?

Plus I don’t think every natural food has to promise specific health benefits. Isn’t it enough to know that whole plant-based food contains loads of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants?

Personally, I’ll continue using a tablespoon of high-quality cacao powder in some of my protein smoothies, overnight oats and mugs of hot chocolate, no matter what research says.

And I’ll even add some of my vanilla powder for an extra taste boost.  😉