While it’s well known that dark chocolate is the healthier option over milk chocolate, even dark chocolate can’t compare to pure raw cacao (pronounced ‘ka-cow’) when it comes to health.
The processing and roasting of ‘regular’ chocolate, the stuff you find in the supermarket, causes the loss of many valuable nutrients and potent antioxidants. What you get from a block of this chocolate is not much more than refined sugar and processed milk solids. Hence, chocolate’s artery-clogging, fat-gaining reputation.
Raw cacao, however, with it’s rich nutrients, powerful antioxidants, and array of phytochemicals, is appropriately recognized as a superfood.
It dates back over 5000 years, with the Mayans and Aztecs using cacao beans as both food and currency.
Cacao beans are grown on small trees named Theobroma cacao, Latin for “food of the gods.” These tropical trees thrive in geographical areas within about 600 miles (965 kilometers) of the equator.
When a cacao pod emerges from the tree, approximately 40-60 cacao seeds are harvested. These “seeds” then undergo a natural fermentation and drying process for around 1-2 weeks, leaving what we know as the raw cacao beans found today in most health food shops.
6 Benefits of Cacao
Cacao’s many health benefits cannot be attributed to just one nutrient, nor can they be isolated to one body system.
Some of cacao’s most researched benefits include:
1. Antioxidant Power
Raw cacao beans earn a higher ORAC score (a measure of antioxidant capacity) than açai berries, goji berries, blueberries, and green tea.
This high antioxidant activity helps protect the body from disease and aging caused by free radical damage, and may also reduce the risk of certain cancers.
2. Cardiovascular Health
Various nutrients in cacao can support healthy heart function.
Cacao is a good source of arginine, an amino acid required for the production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide causes blood vessels to dilate, which helps regulate blood flow, inflammation, and blood pressure.
Various compounds in cacao, such as theobromine, promote blood vessel health and thereby enhance circulation, helping to lower cardiovascular disease and stroke risk.
Additionally, oleic acid, a ‘good’ fat found in cacao, has been linked to lowering cholesterol.
3. Nervous System Health
Cacao is rich in resveratrol, a potent antioxidant known for its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, where it can help protect the nervous system by shielding nerve cells from damage.
4. Nutrient Powerhouse
Cacao is particularly rich in magnesium, which aids muscular health and stress management. Cacao also contains a variety of other minerals, including iron, copper, calcium, potassium, manganese, sulfur, and zinc.
Cacao provides vitamin E and many B-group vitamins as well.
5. Improved Digestion
The fiber delivered with each serving of cacao supports digestion. Furthermore, cacao’s bitterness can stimulate the body’s production of digestive juices.
6. Enhanced General Well-Being
There are many components of cacao that work together to improve physical and mental health.
Theobromine, for example, helps to stimulate the central nervous system, while relaxing smooth muscles and dilating blood vessels, allowing the body to be in a relaxed and yet mentally alert state.
While other phytochemicals help to increase the availability of serotonin, a brain chemical that can boost mood and combat depression.
Cacao also contains a neurotransmitter by the name of phenylethylamine (PEA). Neurons (nerve cells) release PEA at moments of emotional euphoria, including feelings of love. Cacao is one of just two foods containing PEA, the other being blue-green algae.
Buying & Using Cacao
Cheaper cocoa powders should not to be confused with the raw cacao we are talking about here. Cacao is the pure, less processed version, conserving it’s superfood composition.
Good quality cacao can be found in powder, nibs and whole beans at most health food stores. Look for raw and organic, where possible.
Cacao powder is great for bliss ball recipes and blending in smoothies. And the nibs can be added to muesli or trail mixes.
It is naturally quite bitter to taste, so if needed, use a natural sweetener (e.g. agave nectar, raw honey, or coconut sugar) in your cacao recipes.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Enjoy the benefits of this powerful superfood by incorporating small amounts of cacao into your diet regularly.
Benson, A. (2008) A brief history of chocolate. Smithsonian.com
Murray, M. & Pizzorno, J. (2005) The encyclopaedia of healing foods. Time Warner Books: London.