What is it about chocolate that makes our heart sing? What is it that most of us can’t get enough of? Do we subconsciously know and feel that besides its’ amazing, magical and sense awakening taste; it is also hiding a number of health benefits, that makes us feel better?
This amazing nut originates from several parts in Central and South America, where evidence suggests that the most probable origin is the upper Orinoco region (Venezuela). From here it was only a short distance for it to spread to Mexico as well as other parts of South America. Did you know that there are three major species of Theobroma cacao that are cultivated? They are Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. The Criollo represents only 1% of world production and it is believed to be of the highest quality and its’ beans have a fine, sweet and complex flavor. The Forastero represents about 80% of world production and has a strong bitter taste; a basic chocolate flavour that is preferred by milk chocolate makers. Trinitario is a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero and has a more complex flavor. Most of the chocolate these days comes from Africa and is mostly made from Forastero variety. Cacao trees produce fruit all year round, so the good news is that chocolate is never out of season! Just to clear it up when I talk about chocolate, I talk about the real stuff, not the supermarket chocolate with added sugar, milk solids and other additives. It is only the pure and real cacao that offers all the wonderful health benefits, thanks to its high nutritional value, consisting of plentiful minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols like flavanols, which are the main type of flavonoid found in the cacao bean.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF THEOBROMA CACAO
High Mineral Content
MAGNESIUM: Most people think of magnesium in relation to muscles, but it is much more than just a muscle relaxant, it is an important nutrient for:
- healthy cardiovascular system
- supporting the function of the nervous system
- energy production
- strengthens our bones
- promotes sugar metabolism
- relieves symptoms of PMS
- encourages healthy bowel movement
- alkalizing mineral
There is a wide spread deficiency of magnesium in populations across the world, which may be due to lack of variety, poor food choices as well as food processing, which drastically reduces the magnesium content of foods.
ZINC: This essential trace mineral plays a crucial role in over three-hundred chemical reactions throughout our body. It is very important for:
- immune system function
- activates super oxide dismutase (an important antioxidant defence)
- healthy skin and wound healing
- insulin synthesis
- supports liver and pancreas function
Many prescription medications and heavy metal antagonists in our environment reduce the levels of zinc within our body, so it is vital to maintain the appropriate levels of zinc to avoid depletion.
CHROMIUM: As an important trace mineral, it is a component of the “glucose tolerance factor”, which improves glucose metabolism, helps balance blood sugar and suppresses sugar cravings (especially the once that sneak up on us between 2pm and 3pm hour).
IRON: All of us are probably aware just how important this trace element is and just how often we hear people saying they are iron deficient. Iron is part of the haemoglobin, which is a protein that carries oxygen around our body; this provides energy and fuel to our cells and makes us feel energized.
MANGANESE: Another essential trace mineral which plays an important role in bone health, it is also involved in oxygenation of the blood and formation of the oxygencarrying protein heamoglobin.
COPPER: A trace mineral that is important in blood building, if the body is deficient in copper it has a difficulty to utilize iron properly, leading to poor iron status or even anaemia, despite adequate iron intake.
HIGH ANTIOXIDANT CONTENT:
Cacao is one of the most antioxidant rich foods in the world:
- cacao beans have a very high content of flavonoids (polyphenols), compounds which are found in plants and prevent free radical damage to our cells, improve circulation and block the oxidation of low density lipids (LDL), or what we know as “bad” cholesterol. Some research suggests that they have the potential to slow the growth of the cancerous tumors
- flavonols are involved in nitric oxide production, which is essential for healthy heart function
- antioxidant compounds also aid in the prevention of inflammatory diseases
- as well as enhancing production of collagen
Other Nutrients Cacao has Worth Mentioning
This water soluble vitamin is also present in raw cacao, but as soon as you apply heat, cook or process chocolate all of the vitamin C is lost, this applies to all foods that contain vitamin C as vitamin C is unstable to heat, even light and is best to obtain from uncooked fruits, veggies and superfoods, including cacao.
OMEGA 6 FATTY ACIDS
These type of fats are essential and can be beneficial to our health, but only if they are unheated and uncooked. When heat is applied they become rancid and highly inflammatory in our body. Another reason why we should stick with raw cacao!
Serotonin is a crucial neurotransmitter (transmits nerve impulses), it is important for sleeping, learning, appetite and it is also known as happiness hormones as it increases a feeling of well being, regulates endocrine function, cardiovascular function and other important processes in our body. Its’ importance has been studied extensively in depression and it is believed that serotonin has an effect on our mood. As David Wolfe says in his book “SUPERFOODS”
“If serotonin levels are high, the world could be collapsing and we would still feel good. If serotonin levels are low, all could be well, but we would still feel like hell.”
Cacao is rich in serotonin as well as Tryptophan, this essential amino acid, together with vitamins B3, B6 and magnesium, is essential for the production of serotonin in the body. Tryptophan just like most of the essential nutrients is destroyed by heat therefor is lost and cannot be utilized by our body and deficiency may occur that can lead to anaemia, depression, lowered serotonin levels, anxiety and decreased levels of vitamin B3.
Other Nutrients Cacao has Worth Mentioning
- belongs to group of chemicals called xanthine alkaloids
- it is similar in molecular structure to caffeine, but is way less stimulating to our nervous system
- it has antibacterial properties
- has the potential to lower blood pressure by dilating the cardiovascular system
- mild diuretic (draws excess fluid from the tissue in the body), used for fluid retention, bloating, PMS
Two other chemical compounds that are found in cacao are Phenylethylamine & Anandamie, these chemicals are produced in our body when we are feeling great and when we fall in love. No wonder we feel great after a nice raw cacao treat! Phenylethylamine is believed to increase our concentration and alertness and Anandamide is also produced in our body after exercise. There are many debates if there is caffeine in cacao, cross referencing Internet and different literature didn’t give me a definite answer, but most of the sources claim that the amounts are minimal, if any.
Where Else Can Cacao Be Useful, Apart Health?
Cosmetics. It has a great use in topical skincare in the form of cacao butter which is extracted from the beans. Cacao butter is solid in room temperature but it will melt at body temperature and due to its antioxidant content, it has a relatively long shelf life.
- highly moisturizing
- skin softening
- can prevent stretch marks during pregnancy
- can be used as a topical dry skin treatment
- used for massage
- forms protective barrier
- smells absolutely delicious
- great lip moisturizer
If you happen to be bored on one lazy afternoon try making for yourself this lovely body balm:
You will need:
- 0.5 oz = 15 grams of cacao butter
- 1.7 fl oz = 50 milliliters apricot kernel oil
- 1.2 oz = 35 grams wheatgerm oil
- 60 drops of your favorite essential oil, try tangerine, lemon, vanilla or mandarin
How to do it:
- melt the cacao butter, apricot kernel and wheatgerm oils
- once cooled add the essential oil and mix thoroughly
- place into a glass jar, cap and label
What else to say about Theobroma cacao? Well even the name suggests its importance, it translates into “the food of the gods”. To many it is a NutrientRich powerhouse and it is one of the top superfoods, to others it is an over exaggeration of a healthy snack. Cacao is definitely part of my family’s diet, whether as a nice afternoon smoothie or something to make our deserts from, it makes us feel great, it is full of goodness and it is super yummy. So I will reach for raw or even roasted cacao instead of the store bought milk chocolate without hesitation, as I know that I am not feeding my body with extra sugar, milk solids and other additives whilst at the same time gaining many health benefits and providing my body with essential nutrients.
Make your very own cacao smoothie using your choice of the following ingredients:
- 10 fl oz = 300ml coconut water or your choice of milk
- 2 dates OR 1 Tbls coconut nectar
- 1 Tbsp of hemp protein or any vegan protein
- 12 handful of frozen berries
- 1/2 avocado or 1 tsp of nut butter or flaxseed oil (this helps to absorb the cacao)
- 1 Tbsp organic cacao powder
- 1 Tbsp cacao nibs
- 1 banana
- plus you can add 1 tsp of your favorite superfoods like lucuma, maca, spirulina etc.
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth – 20 to 30 seconds. Enjoy the delicious smoothie!