By: Cat Ebeling,co-author of the best-sellers: The Fat Burning Kitchen,The Top 101 Foods that Fight Aging&The Diabetes Fix
Cacao trees are native to the Amazon area. It was used and consumed by the pre-Columbian societies, including the Mayans as far back as 5,000 years ago. The ancient Mayans worshiped the cacao tree and the fruit of the cacao tree–cacao beans. It was even named, “Food of the Gods”. The Aztecs also consumed copious amounts of cacao. Montezuma emperor of the Aztecs is said to have consumed up to 60 portions a day. By the 18th century, cacao, and processed cocoa had become wildly popular all over Europe and North America, and today, most of the world enjoys cacao, cocoa or chocolate in some form or another.
Raw cacao contains some amazing health benefits for your entire body. If you’ve ever wondered if it’s okay to indulge in cacao or chocolate, read the REAL truth below.
What is the difference between cacao and cocoa—or chocolate? “Cacao” is not just a fancy way to say cocoa. Even though cocoa and cacao begin as the same substance—the seed pods from the Theobroma Cacao tree, the processing changes everything!
Once the pods are picked, the cacao beans are separated out and dried. After that, the processing makes all the difference in whether it stays as ‘cacao’ or becomes ‘cocoa’. Cocoa is heated with high heat and processed for a smoother, sweeter taste, but the heat processing kills much of its amazing nutrients and powerful antioxidants.
We hear about health benefits of chocolate all the time, but the bottom line is that most of these health benefits relate to ‘cacao’ and not nearly as much to ‘cocoa’. Most of the scientific studies done on the health benefits have been with cacao, not processed cocoa. Buying a chocolate bar at the store will not give you the same fantastic health benefits of cacao.
100 grams of raw cacao powder contains an ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) of 95,500–which is its antioxidant value. Once it’s processed into cacao nibs, the ORAC value drops to 62,100, and it drops down to 26,000 for processed cocoa. As you can see, cacao has almost four times the antioxidant power as processed cocoa.
This means raw or minimally-processed cacao is a superfood. In addition to its massive supply of antioxidants, and over 300 powerful and unique phytochemicals, it also is rich in nutrients including magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper, and manganese. And add to that protein, carotene, thiamine, riboflavin, sulfur, flavonoids, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. The perfect balance of all these elements together work synergistically to create amazing healthy benefits throughout the body! Cacao benefits your mind, your body and your health.
Cacao Fights Depression and Brings on Bliss
Cacao is a great source of four scientifically-proven natural happiness chemicals including serotonin, tryptophan, tyrosine and phenylethylamine. These neurotransmitters and brain nutrients are associated with feelings of calmness, happiness, and well being.
Cacao also contains an ingredient called ‘anandamide’, which is a molecule that actually creates a feeling of euphoria and bliss. Cacao nibs or raw cacao contain the highest levels of anandamide. Anandamide actually helps to increase neurogenesis, which is the formation of new nerve or brain cells. This also helps to create both an anti-anxiety and antidepressant effect.
Anandamide actually binds with the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, similar to marijuana, which brings about a state of blissful happiness and relaxation. But—in addition to the anandamide, cacao contains ingredients that help to inhibit the breakdown of the anandamide in the body, helping to increase its uptake and prolonging that feeling of bliss.
Cacao also boosts the body’s natural production of serotonin, that neurotransmitter that creates a calm and happy feeling. Most prescription antidepressants contain ingredients maintain and prolong the body’s serotonin, but of course, cacao is a much safer natural antidepressant.
Cacao Helps Put You in the ‘Mood’ and Improve Sex Life
The brain’s primary love chemical is a neurotransmitter chemical called ‘phenylethylamine’, or PEA for short. We get a rush of this compound when we’re attracted to someone, along with endorphins and opium-like neurochemicals that hit our pleasure centers. PEA helps to create the neurotransmitter, dopamine, that contributes to that pleasurable, on-top-of-the-world feeling that attraction brings.
Cacao contains PEA in slightly less intense doses but is it any wonder cacao and chocolate have been associated with love, lovers, and Valentine’s Day? In addition, PEA helps improve libido, which is another reason chocolate is popular on Valentine ’s Day!
Brain scans in a British study showed that eating dark chocolate creates a more intense and longer brain buzz than a passionate kiss does. Researchers monitored the brains and heart rates of couples while they kissed passionately or ate chocolate. The brains of both men and women showed greater stimulation while the chocolate melted on their tongues than when their tongues were tied in a passionate kiss. Keep in mind, though, PEA is heat-sensitive and only present in un-roasted, unprocessed raw cacao.
Because cacao also contains high levels of magnesium, it acts as a relaxant for blood vessels, opening them up and increasing blood flow. Increased blood flow works on the sexual organs as well, increasing blood supply for men and women where it counts, which aids in sexual arousal and stimulation as well. It also combats erectile dysfunction, helping men perform better and longer.
Prevents Heart Attack and Strokes
Flavanols are the powerful anti-inflammatory antioxidant compounds found in cacao. These antioxidants help to reduce the sticky platelets that form in the blood, one of the key factors in the blood clots that cause heart attacks and strokes. Cacao has been shown to prevent blood clots better than aspirin.
Cacao’s generous amounts of magnesium and other antioxidants help to lower blood pressure, one of the risk factors in heart disease. Cacao helps to produce nitric oxide in the body, which relaxes and dilates blood vessels and improves blood flow, helping to prevent heart attacks and strokes. What’s even better, cacao helps to reduce the harmful LDL cholesterol that is a risk factor in heart disease.
A scientific review of nine different studies involving 158,000 people found a strong correlation with higher chocolate consumption and a lowered risk of heart disease, strokes, and death. Definitely strong reasons to turn to chocolate, especially raw cacao, for heart health and a longer life.
Besides a lowered risk of heart attacks, cacao is also valuable in helping to prevent heart failure issues. A couple of Swedish studies showed a daily dose of about 1 ounce of chocolate helped lower the rate of heart failure.
Slows Down Aging
Blueberries have some of the highest levels of antioxidants, but raw cacao has over 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries! Its super high ORAC (antioxidant rating) score shows cacao’s ability to conquer free radicals that cause cell damage and death—which also leads to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
These potent polyphenol antioxidants in cacao belong to the same group of antioxidants as green tea and red wine, known for their anti-aging benefits. These anthocyanins (similar to what is in grapes), and catechins (similar to what is in green tea) protect our cells from premature oxidation and help us stay looking and feeling younger, longer. Not only does the consumption of raw cacao improve the quality of your skin, but it can also prevent premature aging elsewhere in your body as well.
Asthma is a serious chronic inflammatory respiratory disease that causes the bronchial tubes to go into spasms and constrict, restricting air flow to the lungs. Cacao contains the substances theobromine and theophylline which are highly beneficial to those with asthma.
These two compounds together work to relax the bronchial spasms, open up the airways, and help stop coughing. Theophylline also contains anti-inflammatory compounds, which also soothes asthma attacks.
Polyphenols Improve Brain Function
Several studies have found that polyphenols, such as those in cocoa, may reduce your risk of neurodegenerative diseases by improving brain function and blood flow. These natural chemicals can actually cross over into the brain, improving brain function.
Flavanols from cacao are absorbed into the bloodstream and accumulate in the brain’s hippocampus, a region responsible for memory and learning. These flavanols then begin to form new brain cells, while improving their function and also protecting them from dangerous free radicals.
Flavanols from cacao also increase production of nitric oxide, which opens up blood vessels in the brain, improving the blood supply to your brain. This creates better brain function, and this increased blood flow also helps clear toxins from the brain. This increase in blood flow and better brain function also has positive impacts on those with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease as well.
Many types of cancer develop when the cells in our body have mutations in the DNA. Mutations in cells are often cancerous and can grow into tumors which then spread through the body. Powerful antioxidants can actually protect the cells’ DNA from mutations, and help to create strong, healthy cells that resist cancer.
Studies on some of the components of cacao have found that the antioxidants in cacao protect cells against the oxidative stress of free radicals, reduce inflammation, inhibit cancer cell growth, induce cancer cell death and help prevent the spread of cancer cells. Animal studies with cacao and diets have shown positive results fighting breast, pancreatic, prostate, liver and colon cancer, as well as leukemia.
Cacao Improves Type 2 Diabetes Symptoms
Antioxidants are very helpful for those with type 2 diabetes; they help to control blood sugar and protect against the harmful effects of glucose. Epicatechin, a flavanol in cacao, activates key proteins and help regulate glucose production, even among diabetics, helping to keep glucose levels more stable.
Test tube studies indicate that the flavanols in cacao can slow down carbohydrate digestion and absorption in the gut, improve insulin secretion, reduce inflammation and stimulate the uptake of sugar out of the blood and into the muscle. Eating small amounts of flavanol-rich dark chocolate or cacao helps to improve insulin sensitivity, lower blood sugar, and reduce inflammation in diabetic and nondiabetic people. Some studies have shown that a higher intake of flavanols, including those from cocoa, can result in a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
Note of caution: Commercially prepared cocoa, dark chocolate and chocolate bars from the grocery store are generally low in these helpful antioxidants and high in added sugars and should be avoided. Raw unprocessed cacao should be the only type of chocolate considered for its beneficial health effects.
Immune Boosting and Anti-Inflammatory
As you probably know, many of the disease processes in our body are related to inflammation. Inflammation comes from our body’s immune response. A healthy immune response successfully battles outside invaders like viruses, bacteria, cancer, and other pathogens.
Out of control inflammation often turns on itself, creating inflammation in the body, which leads to diseases like heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and more. An out of control immune system can become an autoimmune disease when the immune system goes haywire and begins to attack the body. Cacao helps to not only cool the autoimmune fires in your body, but it also helps to strengthen the immune system against dangerous outside invaders as well.
Raw cacao contains both caffeine, a stimulant, and theobromine, another milder stimulant, similar to what is found in green tea. Both these two ingredients provide an energy boost, along with its high magnesium content.
Magnesium is essential for humans and is required in relatively large amounts. Magnesium is a co-factor in >300 enzymatic reactions and essential to many crucial body functions, including a regular heartbeat, blood vessel function, proper nerve function and muscle relaxation. Magnesium is also needed for bone formation and can also be referred to as a natural ‘calcium antagonist’. Magnesium is helpful to restful sleep as well as energy production.
If you are not getting a restful night’s sleep and constantly feel stressed, tight and anxious, it is likely you have a magnesium deficiency—as does about 80% of the population. Thankfully, raw cacao is an incredibly delicious source of magnesium which will significantly boost your energy levels, help you sleep better and relax.
Helps with Weight Control
Cacao and even dark chocolate are a body’s best friend when it comes to weight control. Surprised? A population study found that those who ate chocolate more often had a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) than people who ate it less often—even though the chocolate eaters ate more calories and fat.
Another weight loss study published in the prestigious Internal Archives of Medicine found that a group on a low-carbohydrate diet given 42 grams or about 1.5 ounces of 81% cocoa a day lost weight faster than the regular diet group. A dieter’s BEST friend!
However, heavy chocolate consumption of milk chocolate or commercially prepared chocolate can make you GAIN weight, but in controlled studies with low-sugar chocolate that is 81% cocoa or even better, cacao—you lose weight. Cacao has the highest amounts of bioflavonoids, and therefore has the biggest weight loss benefits.
Better Gut Health
We have all by now probably heard about all those lovely critters in our gut and how the right balance of them contributes to our good health. But did you know that those cute little guys down in our digestive system LOVE chocolate too? We also need to feed and nourish our little intestinal pets, and one of those foods or ‘prebiotics’ as they are called, is chocolate. Prebiotics are little fibers in certain plant-based foods that don’t get fully digested until they get down in our large intestine where our happy little gut bacteria feast on them.
A healthy gut microbiome helps to support a healthy immune system, produce serotonin to balance out our moods, optimize our weight, absorb nutrients, and keep us healthy. In one study, 22 subjects eating a high-flavanol cacao experienced significant increases in their gut populations of the probiotic superheroes, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.
Shiny, Healthy Hair and Smooth Skin
Cacao helps you have glowing, healthy skin due to its flavonoids. Flavonoids help to create that warm, rosy, healthy glow you see in some individuals who eat diets high in antioxidants. Studies show that people actually are more attracted to those with glowing healthy skin from diets high in antioxidants.
In 2006, a study published in Journal of Nutrition found that women who drank cacao containing at least 326 mg of flavanols a day had better skin texture, improved micro-circulation in their skin, better skin color and increased oxygen saturation. Increased blood flow also promotes better cell regeneration which is necessary for younger looking, soft, glowing skin.
Collagen and keratin are key ingredients for thick healthy hair, soft firm skin and nails. Cacao contains plenty of sulphur to help our bodies produce collagen and keratin. Sulphur also helps with blood sugar regulation, tissue repair and strong immune systems. And one more thing for beautiful smooth skin–long-term ingestion of cocoa has been known to protect against wrinkles and aging from sun exposure, prevent skin cancer, and improve hydration of your skin.
Eases Pre-Menstrual Syndrome
Women who are having trouble with PMS often reach for chocolate. There is actually a scientific reason for this. PMS sufferers are often low in magnesium, especially during certain parts of their cycles. Cacao contains very high levels of this essential nutrient, and helps in relieving symptoms of PMS including irritability, moodiness, sleeplessness, menstrual cramps, headache and more.
Cacao boosts brain levels of serotonin, the body’s feel-good brain chemical, also helping ease the symptoms of PMS. Serotonin levels often drop dramatically in many women who struggle with PMS, so boosting this neurotransmitter aids in pain-relief, lessens irritability and smooths out moodiness, and eases the pain of menstrual cramps. This delightful treat helps create calming hormones and restores feelings of well-being.
Helps Fight Cavities
Recent studies from Tulane University have discovered cacao has an extract in it that is actually more effective than fluoride in preventing cavities—and definitely less toxic! The theobromine in cacao also combats plaque, that sticky film that can stick to your teeth. This crystalline substance from cacao can actually help to harden teeth enamel, protecting against cavities.
In addition, cacao contains many other compounds that fight bacteria in the mouth and help to protect the teeth against decay. In one study, rats infected with oral bacteria that were given cocoa extract had a significant reduction in dental cavities, compared to those given only water. I’d love to find a toothpaste made from cacao, but thus far there isn’t one! Instead of ingesting potentially harmful fluoride, try nibbling on cacao nibs for stronger, healthy teeth.
What is it that makes cacao and chocolate so sinfully delicious and addictive?
Scientists have been trying to study this phenomenon for years. Eating chocolate lights up all the pleasure regions of the brain similar to when a drug addict uses cocaine. And as you may have read, eating chocolate can actually stimulate those pleasure centers of the brain more than a passionate juicy kiss!
Cacao is full of natural ‘feel good’ chemicals like anandamide, a chemical that exists naturally in the brain. Normally our bodies break down anandamide fairly quickly but some scientists think the anandamide in chocolate helps the natural anandamide in our brain to last longer—in other words, giving us a longer-lasting “chocolate high.”
Another theory about those who crave and eat large quantities of chocolate is that they may be deficient in magnesium. Your body will crave foods that contain those things it is deficient in, so if you are missing out on magnesium, you may be eating chocolate or cacao to make up the difference.
Raw cacao is available in nibs, powder and some chocolate bars. Cacao nibs are basically just dried cacao that is virtually unprocessed. Best ways to get cacao in your diet? Try these ideas–
• Hot/cold cacao drink–Mix cacao with your favorite type of milk for a warm chocolate drink or a cacao milkshake.
• Smoothies–Cacao can be added to your favorite healthy smoothie recipe to give it a richer, chocolatey taste.
• Dairy free chocolate mousse—Blend avocado, cacao, almond milk and a sweetener like dates or maple syrup, for a thick vegan chocolate mousse.
• Sprinkle on Greek Yogurt—Add some delicious antioxidants to your yogurt!
Cacao is still the food of the gods, but be sure you get raw, organic unprocessed cacao to fully enjoy the total bliss of its magnificent health benefits. Mmm. Mmm.
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