One of the most wildly popular trees on the planet is the cacao, the plant species from which cocoa – and chocolate – is derived. The word cacao comes from the Mayan language where it was referred to as ‘ka-kaw’. While some might think cacao and cocoa are one in the same, they’re not, exactly. Cacao is the tree, while cocoa is the product made from it (not to be confused with coca, an evergreen shrub from which cocaine is concocted). The many health benefits the cacao bean as well as its aphrodisiac benefits were prized and as such, cocoa beans were traded similar to currency among ancient South American civilizations. No wonder rumor has it Casanova was fond of them!
“Today we all rely, to one extent or another, on foods that were created by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. And one of the world’s favorites is chocolate.”
Michael Blake, study co-author and professor in the UBC department of anthropology.
Amazing Health Benefits of Cacao
Most people have read information about free radicals and antioxidants; however, understanding what these terms mean concerning health is not always understood. Many things can release free radical activity in your body such as: sun exposure, cigarette smoke, pollution, toxic chemicals, chemical weed killers, and unhealthy foods. Free radicals can also be produced by stress. Free radical damage can also accumulate with age. It is the antioxidants in the foods you eat that help reverse the process and fight disease by terminating harmful free radicals.
This is where cacao becomes a hero. Raw cacao powder consists of more than 300 different chemical compounds and nearly four times the antioxidant power of the average dark chocolate and more than 20 times than that of blueberries. Also on-board in cacao are essential fatty acids, protein, calcium, carotene, thiamin, riboflavin, magnesium, sulfur, flavonoids, and antioxidants. When combined, the actual blend of all these elements naturally kick in phytochemicals that possess amazing benefits throughout the body, such as lowered LDL cholesterol, better heart function, and decreased risk of cancer.
Studies show that chocolate can affect your emotions and mood by boosting serotonin levels, which explains why many people crave it during times of discouragement and sadness. Another chocolate rescuer is theobromine which is a neurotransmitter and sometimes employed as an actual treatment for depression. Theobromine also releases anandamide, which produces euphoric feelings of relaxation and contentment.
If you were told as a child that chocolate is bad for you, raise your hand. Truthfully, there’s only one gram of sugar in a half-cup serving of raw cacao. However…it’s what’s done with the cacao that makes the difference. High heat from processing and refining to produce different types of cocoa or chocolate damages the micronutrients in the cocoa bean, as well as most of the health benefits. And to make matters worse, additions such as high-fructose corn syrup, refined sugar and partially hydrogenated oils hinder the amount of cocoa, and dairy products block the absorption of antioxidants. In other words, the average piece of chocolate candy, as our parents told us, is not good for our health.
Is there a possibility that eating chocolate or drinking wine, coffee or tea play a part in keeping us young? According to a team of researchers led by Prof. Dr. Ivana Ivanovi-Burmazovi from the Chair of Bioinorganic Chemistry at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), together with researchers from the USA, compounds within these foods can activate with zinc to protect against oxidative stress. This specific compound within wine, chocolate, tea and coffee is a hydroquinone group found in polyphenols. Zinc activates the hydroquinone groups, producing natural protection against superoxide, a byproduct of human cell respiration that damages the body’s own biomolecules. Even though it’s a natural process that is a basic part of our metabolism, oxidation can be accelerated and generate a greater risk for inflammation and disease. Oxidative stress is also a known contributing cause to ageing and a low life expectancy. Hydroquinone alone may not be able to break down superoxide, but when combined with zinc, a metal complex that mimics a superoxide dismutase enzyme (SOD) is created. These enzymes actually protect the body from the breakdown processes caused by oxidation. In other words, they have an antioxidant effect. Even though benefits have been found in pairing these hydroquinone groups found in wine, coffee, chocolate and tea with zinc, more research is necessary.
Other health benefits of cacao include a study indicating that cacao is actually healthier than teas and red wine. One particular study found that while consuming a good amount of fruits and vegetables produced a lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, a similar relationship was found with cocoa. Intervention studies strongly firmly suggest that cocoa has definite beneficial effects on cardiovascular health. These include lowering of blood pressure, improving vascular function and glucose metabolism, and reducing platelet aggregation and adhesion. Proposed mechanisms through which cocoa was thought to exert its positive effects included activation of nitric oxide synthase, increased bioavailability of nitric oxide, as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
25 Super Health Benefits of Cacao
- Reduces risk of stroke
- Lowers LDL
- Boosts energy levels
- Supports healthy immune system
- Good source of magnesium
- Supports circulatory system
- Enhances glucose metabolism
- Supports healthy weight
- 20x antioxidants of blueberries
- Supports healthy pancreas
- High in resveratrol
- Balances mood
- Supports healthy liver
- Supports healthy aging
- Lowers risk of diabetes
- Promotes healthy skin
- Neutralizes free radicals
- Anti-inflammatory properties
- Supports healthy brain function
- Reduces PMS Symptoms
- Supports cardiovascular health
- Reduces risk of colon cancer
- Supports healthy nervous system
- Elevates NK cell activity
- Fights the flu
Raw Cacao Blueberry Smoothie Recipe
This Raw Cacao Blueberry Smoothie is luxurious and chock full of nutritious super-foods. And best of all, it uses natural sweeteners. Great for breakfast topped with some healthy granola or banana slices or as a healthy afternoon pick-me-up. Vegan and gluten-free.
DID YOU KNOW? Research indicates dairy inhibits the absorption of antioxidants from raw cacao which is why we suggest using non-dairy almond milk in the recipe below.
- 1 cup Silk unsweetened vanilla almond milk (may use coconut milk, if preferred)
- ½ cup frozen wild blueberries
- 3 tbsp avocado
- 2 large soft Medjool dates, pitted
- 1 tbsp organic raw cacao powder
- 1 tbsp chia seeds
- ½ tsp organic vanilla extract
- ½ cup ice cubes (use purified water to make ice cubes)
Place all ingredients except ice in a high-speed blender such as a Vitamix. Blend until completely smooth and creamy. Add ice and blend until thickened. If mixture is too thick, add more almond milk.
Sonia Zarrillo, Nilesh Gaikwad, Claire Lanaud, Terry Powis, Christopher Viot, Isabelle Lesur, Olivier Fouet, Xavier Argout, Erwan Guichoux, Franck Salin, Rey Loor Solorzano, Olivier Bouchez, Hélène Vignes, Patrick Severts, Julio Hurtado, Alexandra Yepez, Louis Grivetti, Michael Blake, Francisco Valdez. The use and domestication of Theobroma cacao during the mid-Holocene in the upper Amazon. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0697-x
“Dark chocolate consumption reduces stress and inflammation: Data represent first human trials examining the impact of dark chocolate consumption on cognition and other brain functions.” Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 April 2018. .
Hypertension, the Kuna, and the epidemiology of flavanols. J Cardiovasc Pharmacol. 2006;47 Suppl 2:S103-9; discussion 119-21.
Cocoa has more phenolic phytochemicals and a higher antioxidant capacity than teas and red wine. J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Dec 3;51(25):7292-5.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14640573?dopt=Citation, Cocoa has more phenolic phytochemicals and a higher antioxidant capacity than teas and red wine, Dec. 2012.
Effect of cocoa on blood pressure. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017 Apr 25;4:CD008893. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008893.pub3.
Effects of chocolate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review. Nutr Rev. 2013 Oct;71(10):665-81. doi: 10.1111/nure.12065.
Anti-influenza virus effects of cocoa. J Sci Food Agric. 2016 Mar 15;96(4):1150-8. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.7197. Epub 2015 Apr 27.
Cocoa Flavanol Supplementation Influences Skin Conditions of Photo-Aged Women: A 24-Week Double-Blind, Randomized, Controlled Trial. J Nutr. 2016 Jan;146(1):46-50. doi: 10.3945/jn.115.217711. Epub 2015 Nov 18.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22684995, Cocoa, blood pressure, and vascular function, Dec. 2012.