Not too long ago, the news rang out: chocolate, the quintessential decadent pleasure, is actually good for our health! Mass rejoicing ensued, as all manner of chocolate bars flew off the shelves. Unfortunately, the media neglected to point out that the good news had nothing to do with the typical commercial, highly processed, sugar and chemical-laden type chocolate. What’s good is cacao, the powder that gives chocolate its distinct flavor – the rest is filler, the cause of so many health problems!
Cacao (Theobroma cacao, meaning “food of the gods”) is the fruit (i.e., bean) of the cacao tree that was the key ingredient in a ceremonial drink to honor the gods of the Aztecs, Mayans and other ancient peoples of Central and South America. Believed to possess great strengthening and healing powers, the drink was imbibed daily in vast quantities. Aztec leader Montezuma was said to have drunk 50 cups a day!
Numerous studies now show that those early cacao connoisseurs were attuned to something special. Forget about regular chocolate! Cacao, preferably raw, but often roasted, and available in different forms – beans, butter, nibs or powder – is one of the richest sources of flavanols, plant compounds that protect the heart in a multitude of ways, as well as help prevent stroke, diabetes, cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases so common in our advanced industrialized age. Cacao is also high in minerals, especially calcium, iron and, one of the most deficient minerals in modern cultures, magnesium, vital to over 300 essential metabolic reactions – all of which may explain the ancients good feeling when they imbibed copious amounts.
The Aztecs extracted the cacao powder from the beans by an elaborate process of roasting and grinding with giant stones, then boiling in water and whipping to a froth – losing some flavanols in the process. Most commercial chocolate today is roasted, but now raw is also available. Pure raw cacao powder is produced cold-pressed (low heat) or sun-dried, keeping all the nutrients and flavanols intact. Whether eaten as powder in a drink, in dark chocolate or nibbled as nibs, pure cacao gives pure flavanols and has no fat or high calories. The flavanols also give dark chocolate its strong flavor. The higher % flavanols, the better. Cacao alone is not sweet, but the more sugar and milk added, the fewer flavanols become bio-available. White chocolate has no flavanols. Dark chocolate with 74% or more cacao solids is best (now often found mixed with sweeteners like agave or honey and other natural flavorings).
A note on terminology: The words “cacao,” “cocoa” and “chocolate” are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. “Cacao” has come to mean the raw bean or powder. “Cocoa” is generally used in English-speaking countries to indicate roasted cacao beans, as in hot chocolate or baked goods. Fortunately, today there are brands of cocoa available with healthy additives, besides those highly processed with chemicals. Some flavanols, however, are lost in the high heat oven. “Chocolate” is the term for the solid food or candy made from a preparation of roasted cacao; if the cacao is not roasted, then you have “raw chocolate.”
Health Benefits of Cacao
- Heart health. Cacao benefits the heart and the entire cardiovascular system as a whole. Nearly 200 studies in the last decade show it’s ability to lower cholesterol, reduce LDL (“bad cholesterol”) which forms sticky plaques on artery walls, increase HDL (“good cholesterol”), lower blood pressure, improve circulation, thin blood, lessen hardening of the arteries, reduce inflammation, lower risk of heart disease and stroke, and protect after a heart attack.
- Brain health. Flavanol-rich cacao increases cerebral blood flow to the brain, suggesting treatment of dementia and strokes, more mental energy, less mental fatigue, fewer “senior moments.” Research has shown that the more cacao consumed, the better performance on tests of mental acuity, memory.
- Diabetes. Cacao improves the ability of cells to control blood sugar. Clinical tests on healthy people have found that cacao does not elevate blood sugar in the same way as a caffeine containing food or beverage. In fact, researchers concluded that cacao has less distorting effect on blood sugar than nearly any other food.
- Asthma. Due to its vasodilating effects, cacao is particularly effective at reducing asthmatic symptoms.
- Wrinkles. “Photoaging” is the scientific name for wrinkles, age spots, other skin damage from UV rays over a lifetime. High –flavanol intake, as in cacao, can double skin resistance to UV-caused damage. Who needs SPF 15! Cacao also tends to make skin softer with less scaling.
- Preclampsia. High blood pressure during pregnancy can be life-threatening to mother or baby. High flavanol intake, as in cacao, has been shown to significantly lower this risk, as much as 40 % lower in the third trimester.
- Endurance. Athletes who drank cacao drinks improved their endurance up to 51% longer than those who drank other sports drinks.
- Mood booster. Phenylethylamine contained in cacao prolongs the effects of chemicals in the brain that give us that feeling great feeling.
Cacao and caffeine
Contrary to popular opinion, cacao is a poor source of caffeine. A typical sample of cacao nibs or cacao beans will yield anywhere from zero caffeine to 1,000 parts per million of caffeine (less than 1/20th of the caffeine present in coffee).
Cacao does contains a bitter alkaloid named theobromine that is similar to caffeine, but not quite the same. In general, theobromine produces less intense and more beneficial effects…but it can still keep you up! It’s much more gentle on the central nervous system and adrenals than caffeine, but is more stimulating to the heart. As a myocardial stimulator and vasodilator it increases heart rate while dilating blood vessels, generally creating a reduction in blood pressure. For these reasons theobromine is used to treat cardiac failure and angina. Just remember that raw cacao contains a more powerful punch of theobromines than roasted, so it’s probably not wise to eat a large hunk before bedtime!