What Is Cacao?
The Incas considered it the drink of gods, an association that gave rise to the scientific name of the cocoa tree, Theobroma Cacao, from the Greek words theo (god) and broma (drink).
Raw cacao is somewhat different from the common “Cocoa” most of us grew up with. Normal cocoa powder and chocolate have been chemically processed and roasted, which destroys a large amount of the antioxidants and flavanols. This is done to reduce the bitterness, darken the colour, and create a more mellow flavour for chocolate.
Cacao comes from the beans of the cacao plant and can be bought as a powder, nib or butter from health food stores or supermarkets. It has a slightly bitter flavour rather than the sweet flavour most of our commercially produced chocolates have.
Dairy-milk chocolate has very little cacao in it—it’s mainly skim-milk solids, sugars, caramels, artificial colours and flavours. Many of us crave chocolate not for the cacao or caffeine it contains but because of the sugar and phenylalanine. Phenylalanine is an amino acid that is involved in making dopamine, the same chemical that is released when we are in love.
Most natural cacao available today has undergone a fermentation process (not roasting) that removes the bitterness. Both raw cacao beans and nibs undergo the fermentation process that preserves the antioxidants. If it is your first time eating cacao, we recommend using naturally fermented raw cacao beans. This intensifies the berry and coffee notes naturally found in chocolate’s flavor. The intense flavor is similar to unsweetened dark cocoa powder or Baker’s chocolate.
Health Benefits Of Cacao
Rich In Antioxidants
Raw Organic Cacao has over 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries. Yes 40 times! It has an amazing ORAC score of 98,000 per 100g, vs blueberries at a mere 2,400. ORAC scores measure the ability of antioxidants to absorb free radicals (that come from pollution and toxins in our environment), which cause cell and tissue damage and can lead to diseases such as cancer. A food that has that much power to fight free radicals should automatically be welcomed into your kitchen.
Improves Cardiovascular Health
Many of the health benefits, including cardiovascular benefits of cacao are believed to be due to compounds called polyphenols. The cacao polyphenols are made of 37 percent catechins, 4 percent anthocyanins and 58 percent proanthocyanidins.
The Department of Nutrition at University of California, Davis discovered that cacao thins blood and can prevent blood clots. This finding shows that eating raw cacao can be just as beneficial as taking an aspirin a day. Essentially, cacao polyphenols may improve the health of your heart and brain arteries by serving as antioxidants and inhibiting blood platelets from forming a clot. If your blood cholesterol is somewhat elevated, cacao polyphenols may also lower your low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol, and raise your high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol levels.
It’s also been discovered that the fats found in raw cacao are similar to the healthy monounsaturated fat found in olive oil.
Highest Plant-Based Source of Iron
On a plant-based/vegan diet and looking for iron? The search is over! Cacao is the highest plant-based source of iron known to man, at a whopping 7.3mg per 100g. This compares to beef and lamb at 2.5mg, and spinach at 3.6mg.
Note the iron in cacao is non-heme (as is all plant-based iron), so to get the maximum benefits you’ll want to combine it with some vitamin C. Think oranges, kiwifruit, superfoods like gubinge or camu camu (which have 40x more vitamin C than oranges).
Full of Magnesium for a Healthy Heart & Brain
Raw Organic Cacao is also one of the highest plant-based sources of magnesium, the most deficient mineral in the Western world. Magnesium is important for a healthy heart, and helps turn glucose into energy enabling your brain to work with laser-sharp clarity and focus. The reason why you might turn to a bar of chocolate during an all-nighter at your desk!
More Calcium Than Cow’s Milk
Raw Organic Cacao has more calcium than cow’s milk would you believe, at 160mg per 100g vs only 125mg per 100ml of milk. Time to switch out the trim latte for a couple of squares of dairy free raw chocolate.
A Natural Mood Elevator and Anti-Depressant
Cacao is a great source of four scientifically proven bliss chemicals – serotonin, dopamine, anandamide and phenylethylamine. These neurotransmitters are associated with cosy feelings of wellbeing, happiness, and can even alleviate depression. A natural, healthy, delicious (and legal) way to get your happy buzz on.
Prevents Premature Aging
Antioxidants protect the body from ageing and disease caused by free radicals. The polyphenol antioxidants found in cacao belong to the same group of antioxidants as green tea and red wine. These anthocyanins (found in dark colored fruits) and catechins (found in green tea) protect our cells from premature oxidation or destruction and can keep us looking and feeling younger longer.
Raw cacao contains one of the highest antioxidant values of all the natural foods in the world. Scientists from Cornell University in the US recently discovered that raw cacao contains nearly twice the antioxidant content of red wine, and up to three times the antioxidant content of green tea.
Fights Tooth Decay
Recent studies from Tulane University discovered that an extract of cocoa powder was even more effective than fluoride in preventing cavities. This crystalline extract similar to caffeine helps harden teeth enamel.
Improves Cognitive Function
A Harvard study by Dr. Gary Small, showed that middle-aged people who drank two cups a day had improved memory and increased blood flow to the brain.
High In Dietary Fiber
Cacao may help to keep your bowel movements regular. A 1-ounce serving of raw cacao nibs contains 36 percent of the recommended daily intake of dietary fiber, or 9 grams. Adding as little as 6.6 grams of cacao fiber per day to your diet may improve your bowel habits, according to a clinical study appearing in “Nutrition and Metabolism.”
Blood Pressure and Glucose
The fiber and polyphenols in cacao may work together to help control your blood pressure and blood glucose levels, as suggested by a recent clinical study in “Food and Function.”
Blood pressure and blood glucose were lowered by a cocoa-fiber-rich product providing 12 grams of dietary fiber and 283 milligrams of polyphenols per day during the eight-week study period. At least part of the beneficial effect of cacao on your blood sugar level may be due to slowing of starch digestive enzymes by polyphenol procyanidins in your small intestine.
In a review of evidence from human subjects, published in 2009 in “Nutrition and Cancer,” researchers concluded that compounds in cacao might prevent cancer or improve the outcome when the disease is already present. However, they state that more extensive studies with larger populations are needed to confirm this.
How To Use Cacao
The best way to make sure you’re getting the real deal is to start with quality raw cacao powder available in good supermarkets and health food shops. The best powder is dark brown and will taste bitter.
You can make your own hot beverage by mixing the powder with hot water or milk. Some research has found that mixing dairy with cacao inhibits the absorption of the nutrients. So to get the most health benefits from your cup of cacao, try using a milk substitute such as coconut milk, soy milk, rice milk or just plain water.
If you have a sweet tooth, add sugar, honey or agave nectar. Drinking hot cocoa will give you more antioxidants than simply eating chocolate, because the heat releases more antioxidants. That said, Melbourne chocolatier Kirsten Tibballs recommends eating 60 grams of good-quality dark chocolate every day for a healthy body. “There is also a new chocolate called Acticoa that has nine times the antioxidants of red wine and five times more than green tea.”