Cacao is another name for the cocoa bean. Nowadays it tends to refer to raw chocolate products. Cacao trees originated in the rain forests of South America, but today most cacao eaten in the UK is grown in West Africa. Cacao trees produce large pods which contain the beans. When crushed cacao beans yield cocoa mass – the basis for chocolate.
Cacao has long been recognised as having exceptional properties. Archaeological evidence has revealed that the Mayans and Aztec people of meso-America had a long history of cacao use spanning more than 34 centuries (1). These civilisations believed that cacao beans were discovered by their Gods. This is reflected in the Latin name Theobroma cacao which means “Food of the Gods”. These ancient civilisations brewed ground cacao beans with chillies in rituals to honour and give thanks to the Gods. They also used cacao beans as currency.
When cacao arrived in Spain in the mid 16th century it was not an immediate hit. However, the addition of sugar led to its growth in popularity and soon chocolate became a luxury food that was increasingly available from chocolate houses found in capital cities around Europe. There was much debate about its medicinal value and aphrodisiac qualities.
The benefits of cacao are being increasingly researched since the realisation that the negative consequences previously attributed to eating chocolate, such as tooth decay, weight gain and diabetes, are caused by the ingredients added to the cacao, such as processed dairy products, sugar, sweeteners and fillers. Cacao beans themselves are packed full of beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals.
Cacao and the Kuna Indians
One present day example of the benefits of cacao can be seen in the Kuna Indians who live in an archipelago on the Caribbean Coast of Panama, They have very low blood pressure, fewer heart attacks and strokes, lower rates of diabetes and cancer and they live longer than other Panamanians. Their good health and longevity is attributed to the large amounts of flavanol rich cacao they consume (2)
The benefits of cacao beans are conferred by their high content of antioxidants and nutrients. Raw cacao contains flavanoids, such as catechin and epicatechin, in concentrations far exceeding those from most other sources (3). These have the ability to scavenge reactive oxygen species (free radicals) which are one of the root causes of many disease states (4). These flavanoids have been reported to exhibit antioxidant, anti-cancer, cardio-protective, antimicrobial, anti-viral, and neuro-protective effects (5,6).
Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US and many other westernised countries.(7). The flavanols in cacao appear to have a positive influence on various aspects of cardiovascular health such as reduced platelet aggregation, arterial vasodilation, improvements in cholesterol levels, decreased blood pressure and reduced insulin resistance (8,9). Studies from Europe and the US show a 50% reduction in mortality in those who eat dark chocolate, mostly due to a reduction in myocardial infarction (heart attack). The recommended dose of dark chocolate is 25g daily for prevention of coronary artery disease and reduced risk of having a heart attack. (9)
Blood Sugar and Obesity
Whilst standard chocolate bars are a disaster for blood sugar control it seems that the antioxidants in cacao and cacao liquor may improve hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar), directly influence insulin resistance and, in turn, reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity. (4,10)
The Immune system and Inflammation
Inflammation is at the route of many symptoms that can occur anywhere in the body. For example arthritis, bronchitis, tendonitis, colitis, dermatitis and eczema are all inflammatory disorders. Inflammation is also involved in osteoporosis, diabetes, periodontal disease, IBS and brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. So you can see that eating foods that reduce inflammation in the body would be a good way to improve health.
Step forward cacao! The phenolic compounds in cacao appear to have anti-inflammatory activity that may benefit many inflammatory conditions. (11).
Cacao appears to have a regulatory effect on inflammatory mediators implicated in both innate and acquired immunity (12).The high content of polyphenols in cacao have been shown to have a protective effect against liver toxicity and to have chemopreventive activities (13) Consuming a cacao enriched diet even appears to diminish periodontitis by reducing oxidative stress. (14)
Recent research has found that flavanol rich cacao has a prebiotic effect meaning it may encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine. These beneficial bacteria play a big role in digestion, immunity and overall health. (15)
Mood and Brain Function
And yes, it’s true that chocolate can make you feel better in many ways! Research has found that eating chocolate appears to elevate mood, increase activity and stimulate feelings of joy (16). This may well be down to the chemicals found in cacao including dopamine (17), tryptophan and tyrosine (18). Dopamine is a brain chemical involved in motor control and motivation. Tryptophan is an amino acid involved in serotonin production, which may explain the uplifting effects of eating cacao. Tryptophan is also a precursor to the sleep chemical, melatonin. Tyrosine is a precursor to the adrenal hormones that are involved in our stress response as well as thyroid hormones which play an important part in metabolism.
Cacao flavanols also appear to improve cognitive performance. This is thought to be due to their beneficial effects on endothelial function and blood flow (19).
If you’re not convinced by all that evidence cacao may protect nerves from injury and inflammation, protect the skin from oxidative damage from UV radiation in topical applications and have beneficial effects on satiety (4). Cacao is also a good way to raise magnesium levels (20). Magnesium is needed for nerve and muscle function, female hormone balance, bone health and cardiovascular function. It is commonly deficient in the western diet.
Benefits of Cacao (raw)
Most chocolate that we buy is heavily processed. Consuming cacao in the form of energy dense commercially available chocolate bars with their high sugar and fat content is not going to confer the benefits above but will instead lead to weight gain and its associated health problems.
The benefits of not heating cacao to high temperatures include:
- Preservation of the antioxidants such as polyphenols, procyanidins and resveratrol which may be degraded during some processing methods (Payne, Oliviero)
- Protection of the Essential fats in cacao which may become damaged and rancid when heated.
Cacao products include:
- Cacao nibs – these are made by roasting and shelling cacao beans leaving the small pieces known as nibs. They can be used in cooking, snacking, sprinkling onto sweet or savoury dishes, in muesli and for decoration.
- Cacao liquor is made by grinding the nibs into a thick paste. It can be used to make chocolate, smoothies, or in baked goods.
- Cacao powder is made by grinding cacao beans and removing the cacao butter from the cacao solids. It can be used in the same way that cocoa powder is used in baked goods, hot chocolate and smoothies.
- Chocolate is made by adding cacao butter and sugar to cacao liquor or powder. The structure of cocoa butter gives it unique solidification and melting properties unlike any other food product.
Recipes for Cacao
There are many ways to make your own chocolate from raw ingredients. Here is one method but feel free to experiment.
5 Tbsp of coconut oil or cacao butter
10 Tbsp of cacao powder
2 tablespoons of sugar (eg: icing sugar, muscovado sugar, maple syrup, xylitol or stevia)
1 pinch of salt
Vanilla, almond or coffee extract.
A pinch of powdered cayenne pepper
Toasted hazelnuts, almonds or walnuts.
Chopped dried fruit such as apricots, goji berries or raisins
- Place the coconut oil or cacao butter in a bowl over a pan of boiling water until it melts. Remove it from the heat and stir in the cacao powder.
- Add the sugar and salt and any of the optional extras.
- Place the mixture in a chocolate mold or ice cube trays and put it in the fridge.
NB: the amount of sugar or natural sweetener that you add is a matter of taste so experiment to find out what works for you.
Cacao Smoothie Heaven
1 cup of blueberries
2 tbsp cacao liquor
Rice milk, oat milk or natural yoghurt
Blend all ingredients together until smooth and enjoy a taste of heaven!
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