Chocolate. It’s hard to avoid this time of year, it’s there, tempting us at almost every turn. But, do we need to avoid chocolate all together? The key ingredient that gives chocolate its delicious flavour is cocoa. Cocoas history is as rich as its flavour. The Aztec and Maya people have long known the many benefits of the cocoa bean. In Aztec culture, cacao was a common offering to the gods, consumed by royalty and priests.  Traditional recipes of dark drinking chocolate and cocoa powder are quite different to the kinds of chocolate we tend to find on supermarket shelves today. Often taught and passed from one generation to another by the Mayan people. Imagine waking by a stream to a pot of brown bubbling liquid over a warm fire, to this a fresh vanilla pod bursting with seeds is added along with a chilli pepper and black pepper or other spices. It was not until the recipe reached Spain that sugar was added to the recipe in 1528 
Now days there seems to be more sugar and fat than spice in the average chocolate bar. But good quality cocoa powder and organic dark chocolate is becoming more and more available in the marketplace. Science has been looking to this humble and tasty plant food to see what, if any benefits this treat could bring. The cocoa bean contains phytochemicals, in particular polyphenols, epicatechin and catechins. Polyphenols and other antioxidants help reduce oxidation, the damage caused to cells by free radicals which can lead to aging and degenerative conditions.
Scientists continue to research the benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa. The antioxidant properties and increased nitric oxide bioavailability found in dark chocolate was linked with a decrease in blood pressure in a study of healthy patients. 
Ever find yourself craving chocolate at certain times of the day, or month for that matter? There could be more to it than just the need for a sugar hit. It has been shown that chocolate can have an effect on the central nervous system. Two of the three hundred compounds found in chocolate, phenylethylamine and anandamide, have been linked with reducing depression. 
Cocoa powder contains beneficial minerals such as iron, magnesium and phosphorous. Dark chocolate has also been found to be a source of copper, a mineral linked with assisting collagen synthesis.
Remember chocolate is also high in energy, so you need to look at the whole picture. Read the labels, look at how much sugar and fat is in the product. The higher the cocoa content, the better. You can find unsweetened or semi – sweetened cocoa products, which have higher levels of the beneficial flavanols, than milk chocolate. The darker it is, the better.
Cocoa powder could be a good treat or a replacement in recipes, but like everything moderation and balance is key.
Inspired by the Mayans and Aztecs? The bitter flavour of dark chocolate can be combined with many different foods at dinner time, to bring out hidden flavours and new discoveries. Start adding cocoa powder and dark chocolate to dishes as you would other ingredients and soon you will find new depths and taste sensations.
So you might not have to duck and weave to avoid the Easter Bunny this year, just ask him for something deliciously dark.