Chocolate for healthy hearts

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina

• What can be better than a sweet treat with health benefits? As it happens, our favourite February food, chocolate, has a few glowing characteristics. It comes from the Theobroma cacao tree, from a bean that grows on that tropical tree. (Theobroma means “food for the Gods.”) Chocolate originated in Mexico and Central and South America, but West Africa now produces most of the world’s cocoa. Look for fair trade chocolate that meets environmental and labour standards at natural foods markets in Kitsilano and the West End, at Karmavore in New Westminster and at Nature’s Fare Markets throughout the province.

Dark or semisweet chocolate is typically a vegan product. Because chocolate contains antioxidants that inhibit the oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol, it has gained a reputation of being beneficial for our heart health. Eaten in moderation, chocolate may lower blood pressure.

Chocolate is also a source of iron – a “precious metal” when it comes to human health. As part of red blood cells, iron plays a central role in transporting oxygen to the body and carrying away the metabolic waste product carbon dioxide. Each day, we lose tiny amounts of iron in cells that are sloughed from skin and the inner lining of the intestine. If our intake is insufficient to replenish our losses, a tired feeling and sensitivity to cold may develop. With further depletion, people feel exhausted, irritable, lethargic and develop headaches; the skin may appear pale. Since iron deficiency is such a prevalent condition and easily diagnosed, if you have any doubts about your iron status, have a lab test done.

We are efficient at recycling iron, however, losses must be replaced. Iron-rich foods include beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, dried fruit and chocolate. Two of the Almond Butter Balls in the recipe below will provide one quarter of the recommended intake of eight mg iron for the day. Women of childbearing age need more iron so they can double the recommendation.

Almond Butter Balls
Makes 30 balls

These nut butter balls are an ideal snack for outdoor adventures such as skiing, hiking, riding or climbing. They are light, take up little space and provide energy. Four of these balls can fuel a person weighing 150 pounds on an uphill hike for five miles (eight kilometres). This recipe is from our new book Cooking Vegetarian, which I co-authored with J. Forest. (Wiley Canada, 2011.)

1 cup rolled oats
1 cup almond butter or peanut butter
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup currants
1/2 cup dried cranberries, chopped
1/2 cup non-dairy chocolate chips
1/2 tsp. lemon rind
1 tbs. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp. cinnamon powder
1/2 tsp. cardamom
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1-2 tbs. water

Put the rolled oats in the bowl of a food processor and process for 20 seconds or until they are finely ground. Transfer the oats to a medium bowl along with the nut butter, pumpkin seeds, currants, cranberries, chocolate chips, lemon rind, lemon juice, cinnamon, cardamom and vanilla extract. Mix with a fork until all ingredients are well incorporated. Add enough water to hold the mixture together. Roll into small balls, about two tablespoons in size and store in a covered container in the refrigerator or freezer.

I enjoy meeting you Common Ground readers. On January 28, come and chat about food and nutrition at Wendel’s bookstore and cafe in Fort Langley and in downtown Langley at Nature’s Fare on March 3. These are free events. Another favourite location for sweet treats is Karmavore. j

For more on raw, vegan, vegetarian and near-vegetarian diets, visit

Vesanto Melina is a Langley dietitian and author ( Saturday January 28: Meet Vesanto at an author event at Wendel’s Bookstore and Café in Fort Langley, 3-7PM, While you’re there, treat yourself to a warming bowl of soup.

Warm winter fare

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina


Portrait of Vesanto Melina

In creating recipes, it is my great pleasure to collaborate with expert chef Joseph Forest; the process allows me to improve my sensory awareness of food, something dietitian training didn’t include. During our exchanges, Joseph has become fascinated with the field of nutrition, which I bring to the table, and our collaboration has resulted in the new book Cooking Vegetarian. (J. Forest and V. Melina, Wiley Canada, 2011)

While working as a banquet chef for the Four Seasons hotel, Joseph gained an understanding of the textures and layers of flavour that combine to make a fine soup. ( Winter is a great time to savour the aroma and flavours of soup and the recipes below offer a warm welcome to anyone coming in from the cold. Alternatively, you’ll have enough left over for several days or to freeze for later use. Both of these soups are low in oil and they provide abundant nutrition; they can also help you slim down after the rich fare of the holiday season. Serve them with crackers or fresh bread.

Ginger, carrot and yam soup Makes 9 cups

Certain vitamins and protective phytochemicals in vegetables provide the splendid array of colours you see when you walk down the produce aisle. Three vitamins are bright yellow: riboflavin, folate and vitamin A, also known as beta-carotene. This warming, golden soup is packed with all three.

1 tablespoon coconut oil or olive oil
1/2 small onion, sliced
1/4 cup peeled, chopped ginger
4 cups water
4 cups chopped carrots
2 cups peeled and chopped yam
1 med. orange, peeled, seeded & chopped
2 teaspoons whole coriander seed or 1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup apple juice

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat and cook the onions for 3-5 minutes or until tender. Add the water, carrots, yams, orange, coriander, salt, allspice and nutmeg and bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the carrots and yams are soft. Transfer the soup to a blender and blend until smooth. Return the soup to the pot, add the apple juice and reheat.

Red lentil miso soup Makes 6 1/2 cups

Miso is a Japanese fermented paste made from soybeans, salt and grain – most commonly rice or barley – and a living culture that is used to initiate the fermentation process. The nutrient-rich soybeans are made more digestible by fermentation. Miso can be used to flavour many different dishes such as gravies, dressings, dips and soups.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil 1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups diced carrot
5 cups water
1 cup red lentils
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin seed
2 tablespoons miso
1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat oil in a pot over medium heat and cook the onions for 3-5 minutes or until tender. Add the garlic, carrots and cook for 3 minutes. Add water, lentils, cumin, bring to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes or until lentils have disintegrated. Mix miso and salt in a small bowl along with a small amount of the liquid from the soup. Stir mixture until smooth, add it to the soup and serve.

Vesanto Melina is a Langley dietitian and author ( Saturday January 28: Meet Vesanto at an author event at Wendel’s Bookstore and Café in Fort Langley, 3-7PM, While you’re there, treat yourself to a warming bowl of soup.