Here at CONTENT we’re crazy about chocolate – but not the type you may be accustomed to. This special variety of which we speak is known as cacao. As you may have noticed, it is a staple food in the #ContentKitchen.
Cacao refers to the plant: a small tree of the Theobroma cacao species, native to the tropical Americas regions. It is cultivated for its seeds, which are known as ‘cacao beans’ or ‘cocoa beans’. Cocoa instead, is the powder made from the ground cacao seeds that usually has added sugar. In order to create chocolate, the cocoa seeds are roasted and sweeteners added. When the seeds aren’t roasted, we have ‘raw chocolate’ instead. Cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been roasted, separated from their husks, and broken into smaller pieces.
Why is cacao good for you?
Cacao has some truly remarkable and powerful transformative effects on the body. It should be enjoyed as a treat and part of a balanced diet. Instead of reaching for the common chocolate bar, which is loaded with sugar and preservatives, stick to raw cacao or cacao nibs. You can snack on them, add to smoothies, or use whole or powdered in your cooking and baking.
The number of health benefits associated with the cocoa bean are quite impressive. They include benefits to your heart and blood vessels, brain and nervous system, improved insulin sensitivity and even possibly slowing down the rate at which you age. Certainly, what makes cacao so unique is its ability to act as a mood booster thanks to the ‘blissful’ chemicals phenylethylamine (PEA) and anandamide. PEA is an adrenal-related chemical that we create naturally when we’re excited. It causes your pulse rate to quicken and creates euphoria, resulting in a similar feeling to falling in love! Anandamide (also known as “chocolate amphetamine”) creates feelings of elation in our brain and affects our blood pressure and blood sugar levels, making us more excited, happier and more alert. It’s no wonder then that chocolate is known as ‘the food of the Gods’ or ‘the food of love’.
Cacao Nutritional Properties
Raw cacao is highly nutritious and loaded with more than 300 chemically identifiable compounds. It is higher in antioxidants than green tea. It also contains protein, fats, iron, carotene, thiamine, riboflavin and magnesium. Cacao is a high source of magnesium, which is important for muscle and nerve function and keeps the heart rhythm steady. It is also a muscle relaxant, associated with feelings of calmness. Iron aids red blood cell production, while sulfur assists nails and hair growth. Oxalic acid is a compound found in cacao that inhibits the absorption of calcium, a mineral that’s also found in the food. While there is calcium in cacao, it’s not considered an ideal calcium source for this reason. However, you get more calcium by eating cacao than processed chocolate because the sugar found in chocolate takes calcium reserves from the body.
Theobromine is the controversial ingredient in cacao. This makes up a small part of its compound and acts like caffeine. It stimulates and dilates the blood vessels (the reason why chocolate is deemed unsafe for dogs). However, it will give you a healthier kick than coffee. Cacao is also high in resveratrol, a potent antioxidant found in red wine, known for its ability to cross your blood-brain barrier to help protect your nervous system. Furthermore, as well as containing theobromine, phenylethylamine and anandamide – the ‘feel good compounds’ – cacao is also high in vitamins B1, B2, B5 and B6. These are known to ease stress and anxious tendencies. All the more reasons to enjoy your daily dose!
Here we touched on how long-periods of intense exercise can impact negatively on the stress hormone cortisol. However, recent studies have shown that the polyphenols which cacao contains may have a positive effect on plasma metabolites, hormones and stress of both the internal and external variety. Good news for those who do favour intense cardio sessions! Consuming cacao has been shown to increase mobilisation of free fatty acids and reduce oxidative stress markers. Studies demonstrated that regular consumption reduced the urinary excretion of the stress hormone cortisol and hormones produced by the adrenal glands (catecholamine’s), as well as partially normalising stress-related differences in energy metabolism and gut microbial activities present in individuals prone to anxiety6.
Latest Cacao Discoveries
Epicatechin, a natural antioxidant found in cocoa, is thought to help shield your nerve cells from damage1. Norman Hollenberg, a professor of medicine at Harvard has spent years studying the Kuna people of Panama who consume up to 40 cups of cocoa a week. He noted that the Kuna have less than a 10% risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes, which are the most prevalent diseases ravaging the Western world.
A study dating 2012 found that eating chocolate could slash your risk of cardiovascular disease by 37% and your stroke risk by 29%2.
Cacao lowered insulin resistance, reduced blood pressure, increased blood vessel elasticity and slightly reduced LDL, thus proving that is anti-diabetic and can help fight obesity3.
Cacao is neuro-protective and may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease . In addition to their beneficial effects on the vascular system and on cerebral blood flow, flavonoids (including Epicatechin) enter the brain and improve learning and memory by promoting neuronal survival in regions of the brain linked with cognition4.
According to a 2008 study, moderate consumption of cacao and derivate products may help extend lifespan, through its unique combination of anti-oxidative and pro-oxidative activities5.
Cacao Usage Tips
When it comes to cacao, we love having a variety of options. Some days we crave to ‘dip’ into its liquid form, other times we prefer to nibble on it. If you are looking for great dessert ideas to impress your loved ones, try nutrition coach Madeleine Shaw’s Raw Chocolate Brownie recipe, which is easy to prepare, healthy and delicious! Click here to view. Also, check out our own delicious brownie recipe here.
- Epicatechin mediates beneficial effects of flavanol-rich cocoa on vascular function in humans. Schroeter H, Heiss C, Balzer J, Kleinbongard P, Keen CL, Hollenberg NK, Sies H, Kwik-Uribe C, Schmitz HH, Kelm M. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 Jan 24;103(4):1024-9. Epub 2006 Jan 17.
- Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis. Buitrago-Lopez A, Sanderson J, Johnson L, Warnakula S, Wood A, Di Angelantonio E, Franco OH. BMJ. 2011 Aug 26;343:d4488. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d4488.
- Benefits in cognitive function, blood pressure, and insulin resistance through cocoa flavanol consumption in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) study.Desideri G, Kwik-Uribe C, Grassi D, Necozione S, Ghiadoni L, Mastroiacovo D, Raffaele A, Ferri L, Bocale R, Lechiara MC, Marini C, Ferri C.Hypertension. 2012 Sep;60(3):794-801. doi: 10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.112.193060. Epub 2012 Aug 14.
- The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. Nehlig A. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013 Mar;75(3):716-27. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.x.
- Cocoa confers life span extension in Drosophila melanogaster Sepehr Bahadorani, Arthur J. Hilliker, Department of Biology, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M3J 1P3. Nutrition Research 28 (2008) 377–382. Accepted 21 March 2008
- Metabolic effects of dark chocolate consumption on energy, gut microbiota, and stress-related metabolism in free-living subjects; Martin FP1, Rezzi S, Peré-Trepat E, Kamlage B, Collino S, Leibold E, Kastler J, Rein D, Fay LB, Kochhar S.