In the early 2000s, cacao became ‘the rage’ of the raw food movement. Already, there was a mountain of evidence that it’s better for you than chocolate
Cacao and Cocoa are Different
So, let’s start with the basics. Cacao is the juice (or dried powder form) of cold-pressed cacao beans. By contrast cocoa is made from toasted-and-crushed cacao beans. Sometimes, chocolate is made from raw cacao, while at other times chocolate is made from the toasted-and-crushed beans.
What do these differences mean to you?
Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish missionary, compared Aztec chocolate to hallucinogenic mushrooms (that’s a little different from the feeling you get after eating a Mars bar, isn’t it?). In fact, by their laws the Aztecs reserved these for nobility, believing that wisdom and power came from eating the specific parts of the fruit — especially the beans. Their women were forbidden to drink it.
The Mayans instead viewed it as a food that enhances heart health, and encouraged everyone in the community to enjoy it (if they could afford it . . . a live, young cacao plant could demand upwards of five adult llamas!).
The Aztecs and the Mayans always fermented, dried, roasted, removed the bean’s shells, and ground them into paste (a process quite similar to making cocoa for chocolate today). They never consumed it raw.
For most of us in North America, chocolate left its pure-form tradition many decades ago. In fact, conventional chocolate (as defined by the FDA – like Hersey’s™) – can have as little as 5% cacao/cocoa. This is why conventional chocolate has few benefits. After all, milk chocolate is up to 95% sugars, milk solids, emulsifiers and stabilizers.
More History Side-Bar: Ancient Aztec Xocolatl
Aztecs usually drank theirs, and in ways we don’t even think of today! For example, the white fruity pulp inside the gourd-like pod was fermented into wines. The beans were used for xocolatl (a hot or cold tea).
Cacao was so valued, it was literally a form of money, and could be used to pay taxes, temple payments, and for their marriage ceremonies. In fact newlyweds would often share a cup of chocolate and exchanging xocolatl beans as part of their vows. Which, of course, raises the question — did this begin the tradition of giving chocolate to our “sweethearts?”
Caption: Aztecs believed chocolate provided a taste of the wisdom of Quetzalcoatl.
But, Are They Superfoods?
Raw cacao is rich in vitamins and minerals: magnesium, iron, chromium, copper, phosphorus and zinc. Its natural raw color is actually a very deep purple, and like other foods in this spectrum, cacao’s concentrations of antioxidants are some of the highest of any food in the world!
One study found that cacao consumption may exert a protective effect on the cardiovascular system. The Department of Nutrition at University of California, Davis discovered how cacao thins blood and prevents blood clots. These properties support heart and brain function, assist muscle recovery, and builds stronger bones. Rich in iron, it fights off anemia. Its sulfur strengthens immunity and helps to maintain collagen, and strong collagen makes for beautiful skin, nails, and hair, and healthy liver and pancreas function. In the lab, like honey and alcohol, it seems to act as a transport to deliver nutrition and medicinal nutrients into the body’s cells and systems.
Cacao’s theobromine (specifically the alkaloid C7H8N4O2) has several physiological effects to widen and dilate the blood vessels. As you’ve probably already guessed, this reduces blood pressure. It has even been found to relieve asthma!
Want More Benefits? We Got Another Benefit . . . and a Warning
- Also found in blue-green algae, Mizpah Matus in cacao positively impacts neurotransmitter function. So, those who frequently consume chocolate are less likely to experience depression! It also contains a compound called PEA – dubbed the ‘love chemical’, which is naturally produced and released by our bodies when we fall in love – which enhances mood, improves alertness, and promotes a feeling of well-being.
- Unfortunately, theobromine’s and caffeine stimulate (negatively) liver function and disturb adrenal gland activity. Like anything containing caffeine, it can increase anxiety levels, induce insomnia, and increase the heart rate.
Raw cacao aficionados will say that there is a difference between raw cacao and refined chocolate, that raw beans contain high levels of antioxidants and minerals, while refined chocolate does not (which is true — espeially the minerals).
However, I was shocked (!) when I read this 2006 study by European Food Research and Technology and discovered that there’s waaaaaay more free-radical scavenging activity in dark roasted cocoa beans compared with both pre-roasted and raw beans. And this additional study backs it up, finding that the antioxidant flavanols catechin and epicatechin increased by around 650% by going through the roasting process.
So, while it’s not crystal-clear which processing method produces the best final product, what all the studies agree on is that the product of the cacao plant — regardless of raw or processed form — is a great source of minerals and flavonoids . . . just avoid mixing it with the gobs of sugar and fats that make up industrial chocolate. In other words, the darker the chocolate or cacao-chocolate, the better.
Here’s Where YOU Can Help, Dear Reader . . . become a health detective
For two years, I’ve scoured the internet seeking sources that can back up the health and benefit claims of fruits, vegetables, and supplements (sometimes called “boost”).
In the chart below are the health claims I and others have discovered about cacao. Where you see a footnote, you’ll find a link to the source. If there is not a footnote, then that means that the specific health claim is made, but neither I or anyone I know has been able to locate sources of research or anecdote to backup the claim.
So, if you are aware of a direct source of research or anecdotes to back up the claims, please post them in the comments. I’ll check them out and if they meet our standards, I’ll make sure that they’re included in the next edition of the blog and give you a shout-out!
Reported Health Benefit Claims of Cacao:
- Cox, C. Chocolate Unwrapped. Women’s Environmental Network, 1993
- Coe, S. & Coe, M. The True history of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 1996
- Khodorowsky, K. & Robert, H. Chocolate from A-Z. Flammarion, 1997
- Morton, M. & Morton, F. Chocolate. An illustrated history. Crown, 1986
- Young, A.M. The Chocolate Tree. Smithsonian Institute Press, 1994
- Lees, R. A history of Sweet and Chocolate Manufacture. Specialized Publications, 1988
- Caleb J. Kelly. “Effects of theobromine should be considered in future studies. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 82.2 (2005) 486-8.