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7 Health Benefits of Cacao

Does eating chocolate put you in a better mood? Cacao is known for its "feel-good" chemicals such as serotonin and tryptophan, released when eating or drinking chocolate [1].  This chemical release affects our moods and helps us feel calm and relaxed and is one of the reasons that chocolate is known to be an "emotional food."

Cacao is rich in polyphenols; one cacao bean contains 6 to 8% polyphenols. Polyphenols are compounds from plant-based foods made up of flavanol glycosides, anthocyanins, procyanidins, and catechins. Flavanols contained in the cacao bean have anti-inflammatory effects and potent antioxidants. But that is not all. We have compiled some of the facts that make cacao beneficial.

 

What is Cacao?

These are seeds from the evergreen tree (Theobroma cacao) used to produce cocoa butter, cocoa, or chocolate. You will find the cacao seeds inside a pod.

Cacao can also refer to the tree that bears the cacao seeds. The cacao tree grows to be 20-40 feet (6-12 meters), while its leaves measure up to 12 inches (30 cm). Cacao flowers can sometimes be foul-smelling or odorless.

Cacao is raw chocolate that has a high antioxidant effect, which is excellent for the body. Antioxidants work to fight damage caused by free radicals in the body.

As we become older, our bodies produce more free radicals connected to accelerated aging, such as skin wrinkling and other diseases [2]. By eating cacao, we can help to fight these free radicals and live a longer, healthier life.

Where is it naturally grown?

Cacao is grown in more than 50 countries worldwide, and Africa is the leading continent producing 70% of the world's cacao.

Cacao is also grown in tropical Asia, Western Africa, and the Americas tropics. However, according to World Agroforestry, Cacao can only be produced within 20 degrees south or north of the equator [3].

Raw Cacao vs. Cocoa Powder

Is there a difference between raw cacao and cocoa powder? Yes! Cacao is any raw product from the unprocessed cacao bean, not just the powder. These raw cacao products include:

  • Cacao butter
  • Cacao nibs
  • Cacao mass
  • Cocoa powder

Raw Cacao

Raw cacao comes from cold-pressing unroasted cacao beans. It has no sugars or additives and retains enzymes.

Raw cacao is a great source of antioxidants and nutrients. However, it is also very strong in flavor, which may be hard to adjust to for some people.

Cocoa Powder

Cocoa powder is a great way to get the benefits of cacao. It contains approximately three times the antioxidants of milk chocolate and has less fat, sugar, and calories than regular chocolate [4].

If you are looking for an alternative to your favorite chocolate bar, try making some raw treats with either raw cacao or cacao powder. They taste great, and you can eat much larger amounts than your average chocolate bar with no ill side effects.

When to Avoid Cacao?

Processed

When you roast raw cacao powder in high heat, you get cocoa powder. This change happens because the molecular structure of the cacao bean changes, and the change lowers the nutritional value of the cacao while destroying any health benefits.

Conventionally grown

Farmers who grow cacao conventionally use more pesticides to increase their yields which affects the nutrients of the cacao. Conventional farmers also use chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth, which contrasts with organic farming that uses only compost and manure to fertilize the soil.

Full of sugar

As already discussed, cacao has a bittersweet taste and is very healthy. But, unfortunately, cocoa is processed under high heat and often mixed with sugar to get a sweeter flavor, and therefore loses its benefits.

Health Benefits of Cacao

Lower blood pressure

High blood pressure contributes to about 37% of cardiovascular-related deaths in western countries [5]. But you can avert this by consuming cocoa-rich products. The flavanols in cacao help increase the formation of endothelial nitric oxide, which helps promote vasodilation or the widening of the blood vessels, therefore, reducing blood pressure.

Theobromine and phenylethylamine, two compounds found in cacao, stimulate the neurological system and help keep blood pressure in check. As a result, you will relax and sleep better due to the slower heart rate.

Eating a small piece of dark chocolate every day is enough to lower blood pressure for people with hypertension. Look for chocolate that contains 60-70% cacao. These extra bittersweet chocolates contain little sugar, making them healthy as they have a healthy amount of flavonoids.

Improves blood flow

Cacao also helps to keep our body's blood vessels healthy and therefore aids in improving peripheral circulation.

Stimulates cognitive function

A good source of magnesium, which is necessary for the healthy functioning of our brains, is found in cacao. Having a magnesium deficiency has been related to a higher level of anxiety and a lower level of happiness in life.

Cacao stimulates the mind to work faster and increases mental clarity in a matter of minutes. This is great news and especially good for people who have difficulty concentrating or feel their minds going blank in situations where they need to perform well.

Cacao can also get rid of headaches within 20 minutes since it fights off chemicals that contribute to blood vessel constriction and inflammation of the brain's cerebral tissues. The release of serotonin in our brains can also help with pain and depression as it has a soothing effect on the body.

Prevents heart disease

Flavonoids in fermented cocoa help lower blood pressure and improve blood flow to the brain and heart, preventing blood clots. The flavonoids also help in lowering blood pressure and fighting cell damage. The flavanol-rich cocoa also increases nitric oxide levels in your body that help you relax and dilate the arteries and blood vessels. Thus improving blood flow and keeping your heart healthy.

Reduces the risk of diabetes

You may have believed that once diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, all sweets are out of bound. However, studies show that eating moderate amounts of dark chocolate can lower insulin resistance.

According to a Harvard study, flavanols found in dark chocolate help your heart, which is a win for people with diabetes because they are at a two-fold risk for heart disease according to CDC [6, 7].

However, you should beware of extra sugary ingredients in chocolate, like toffee, caramel, and the likes. Instead, opt for dark chocolate bars with nuts like almonds. These chocolate bars with nuts have a satiating effect, and they slow the rise in blood sugar levels.

Rich source of antioxidants

Tobacco smoke, radiation, and food breakdown all produce free radicals in the body. But, unfortunately, those unstable atoms are the ones that cause cell harm and antioxidants: Free radicals can damage your cells; thus, it's crucial to protect yourself.

Cacao is a superfood packed with lots of healthy antioxidants that fight diseases. Cacao can also prevent damage done by free radicals. Raw organic cacao has an impressive ORAC score of 98,000 per 100g. ORAC score (oxygen radical absorbance quality) measures an antioxidant's ability to absorb free radicals related to pollution and environmental toxins.

Boosts positive mood

Why are chocolates so commonly associated with feelings of love? These polyphenols are responsible for the "falling in love" sensation in cacao. Polyphenol is also known to help alleviate feelings of despair and stress. Phenylethylalanine has high levels of neurotransmitters responsible for stimulating the brain to cause attraction, apprehension, and feelings of excitement [8].

The upbeat mood effect is highly attributed to cacaos flavanols and the changing of tryptophan to serotonin, a natural mood stabilizer.

Tips on Cacao Consumption

Cacao, or cocoa, is known for its many health benefits. For example, the amount of theobromine in cacao makes it very beneficial to cardiovascular function. Cacao also has other minerals and nutrients that are good for our bodies.

However, eating too much cacao can have adverse effects if you don't take in the right amounts. This article will give you some tips on how to eat cacao in the right amounts so that you can enjoy its benefits while avoiding bad health effects.

How much to take

When taken as a supplement, most studies agree that 200 mg of theobromine per day is safe for average (healthy) people. This is only about 15 g of unsweetened baking chocolate. 30-60g of cacao is the recommended daily intake

How to take it

It is best to regulate your chocolate consumption and eat your dark chocolate in small amounts throughout the day rather than in large quantities at one time.

Not recommended

Cacao should not be consumed in large amounts by pregnant women or children, affecting the heart and nervous system. Food products containing cacao should also not be given to dogs or cats because they cannot metabolize theobromine well. Also, too much cacao in your pets may lead to diarrhea and vomiting.

Keep in mind that although theobromine is a stimulant, you should avoid taking it too late in the day or close to bedtime. If taken later in the day, it can cause insomnia due to its effect on your nervous system.

Superfood: Super Ways to Enjoy

To enjoy the benefits of cacao, go ahead and enjoy this potent superfood:

As food, cacao nibs are a healthy treat that help satisfy all your cravings. You can eat them straight from the bag or add the cacao nibs to substitute for chocolate in your trail mix.

As a drink, add cacao powder to a smoothie, make a spicy Aztec cacao drink or even add it to your hot chocolate drink.

Final Thoughts

Cacao contains many health benefits as the powder contains flavanols, antioxidants, magnesium, and other minerals. As you use cocoa powder in foods, drinks, chocolate bars, and cocoa nibs, you are enjoying one of the best superfoods that support good heart health and overall well-being.

Make sure your chocolate consumption is regulated so that you don't end up losing the benefits that cacao beans and powder have to offer.

 


 

References:

  1. Sissons, C. (2018, July 10). How to boost serotonin and improve mood. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322416#:~:text=Tryptophan%20is%20an%20amino%20acid,in%20food%20whereas%20serotonin%20cannot.
  2. Villines, Z. (2017, July 29). How do free radicals affect the body? https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318652
  3. (n.d). Growing coca beans. Retrieved from http://apps.worldagroforestry.org/treesandmarkets/inaforesta/documents/agrof_cons_biodiv/Ch.3-Growing-Cocoa-Beans.pdf
  4. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2021). The nutrition source: dark chocolate. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/dark-chocolate/
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. (2021, Sept. 21). Heart disease facts.

https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm

  1. Sagon, C. (n.d). Harvard study: dark chocolate can help lower your blood pressure. ARPP Bulletin. https://www.aarp.org/health/medical-research/info-03-2011/dark-chocolate-can-help-lower-your-blood-pressure.html
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. (2021, May 7). Diabetes and your heart

https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/diabetes-and-heart.html

  1. Science of Cooking. (n.d). Does chocolate contain drugs? -- molecules found in chocolate. https://www.scienceofcooking.com/chocolate/drugs-found-in-chocolate.htm
  2. Tinsley, G. (2018, Feb. 25). How tryptophan boosts your sleep quality and mood. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/tryptophan#TOC_TITLE_HDR_2

 

 

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