Cacao – chocolate in its purest and most nutritious form.
It’s similar to, but not the same as its cousin, cocoa. Both are made from cocoa beans – the distinction arises from how the beans are processed. To produce cocoa, cocoa beans are heated to high temperatures. This sweetens and adds flavour to the resulting cocoa, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of burning away a significant portion of the cocoa bean’s original nutritional content.
Cacao, on the other hand, is also produced by heating cocoa beans, but at much lower temperatures. The end result isn’t as flavoursome, but what cacao lacks in taste, it more than makes up for with the nutritional content it retains from the raw cocoa beans.
And this nutritional content gives cacao a lot to boast about. Gram for gram, cacao is thought to be one of the richest dietary sources of antioxidants there is. It also offers more calcium than milk and has a higher content of iron than any other plant based food – and that’s just the tip of cacao’s nutritional iceberg.
An ounce of raw cacao powder contains:
- Calories – 120
- Calories from fat – 23
- Total fat – 2.5g (4% DV)
- Saturated fat – 1.5g (7% DV)
- Sodium – 20mg (1% DV)
- Total Carbohydrates – 19.0g (6% DV)
- Dietary fiber – 7.0g (28% DV)
- Protein – 5g
- Calcium – 4% DV
- Iron – 16% DV
Note: DV stands for daily value based on a daily 2000-calorie diet.
So that’s what you’ll find in cacao, but how exactly will including a cocoa bean product in your regular diet benefit your health?
Cacao contains a cocktail of feel good chemicals. When consumed, phenethylamine (PEA), anandamide (the bliss molecule) and tyrosine, all trigger the release of endorphins that bring about feelings of euphoria. In combination, these mood-boosting chemicals will help to ward off mood swings, abate feelings of stress, and simply make you feel happier.
Flavanols are both anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatories, and they’re found in cacao in abundance. They promote the health of the heart by lowering blood pressure, increasing blood vessel flexibility and reducing platelet reactivity. This adds up to improved blood circulation, reduced the risk of stroke and decreased likelihood of contacting cardiovascular diseases. And cacao can also help protect arteries thanks to another of its anti-oxidants, polyphenols. So increase your intake of cacao and your heart will definitely be grateful.
Guards against the effects of ageing
The benefits offered by cacao’s flavonoids extend beyond the heart and the circulatory system. Epicatechin, one of the main flavonoids found in cacao, is known to improve brain function and forestall the brain’s cognitive decline during the aging process. And, cacao’s antioxidant gold mine helps to inhibit other aspects the aging process too. Free radicals produced in the body as a result of environmental damage are some of the main proponents of the visible signs of ageing including wrinkles and sagging skin. Antioxidants can’t turn back the clock, but they can help to limit the damage caused by free radicals.
Helps regulate blood sugar levels
A boon for the brain, epicatechin also aids the regulation of blood sugar levels. So much so, that cacao is often recommended as a treatment for type 2 diabetes. But even for those of us that don’t suffer from diabetes, sugar carvings can be a common occurrence. As it happens, though, when we’re struck by the sudden desire to eat something sweet, our bodies are often actually sending us a signal to say they’re in need of certain nutrients. A sugary snack will allay these carvings, but may actually further deplete the body’s supply of the nutrients it’s crying out for.
Snacking on food containing cacao is a much better option. Cacao will satisfy sugar carvings by helping to balance blood sugar levels, whilst also likely supplying the body with the nutrients it’s calling out for.
Boosts your energy
Cocoa beans contain caffeine, and as we all know, caffeine is a stimulant. And though not a nutrient in itself, the spike in energy produced by caffeine can bare a beneficial influence on the health. As a stimulant, the obvious effect of caffeine consumption is to make us feel more energetic and more alert. But in doing so, caffeine also invigorates the nervous and circulatory systems, increases blood flow to the brain and encourages the production of serotonin, the hormone that makes us happy. Caffeine is addictive though, and too much can be harmful, so avoid going overboard on it.
It’s worth mentioning that the health benefits of cacao are often wrongly also attributed to chocolate. Cacao may be an ingredient in chocolate, but its nutritional content is much richer in its raw form. And what’s more, chocolate’s quantity of sugar and fat is likely to do as much or more harm comparative to the good to be had from its cacao content. Dark chocolate has a higher proportion of cacao relative to less healthy ingredients, so the odd square is likely to do you some good. But if you really want to benefit from cacao, it’s best eaten it in its raw form.
Raw cacao normally comes supplied either as a powder, or as nibs. In either form, its taste is bitter and unappealing so it’s best enjoyed added to other healthy foods or drinks. Adding cacao to smoothie mixes and sprinkling it on breakfast cereals are two easy, common ways of introducing cacao to regular diets. But if you’ve got the time, then there are lots of great, healthy recipes containing cacao out there to be found.