Everyone loves chocolate. After all, it is one of the ultimate treat foods – but if you needed another reason to love it, look no further than one of its key ingredients: Cacao. Whether it's in the form of nibs or ground into a raw powder, cacao has some powerful health-boosting components that could make a difference to your diet this winter.
If you’re looking to add more nutrients into your daily intake and support better physical and emotional health, cacao could be the new super food for you.
The story behind cacao
Cacao beans (also known as cocoa beans) are small, brown seeds from the Theobroma cacao tree. This is an evergreen tree that is native to Mexico and South America. In the past, the Aztecs used cacao beans to create a bitter drink known as ‘xocoatl’. The beans were also used as a form of currency in pre-modern Latin America.
The Mayans and the Aztecs thought the bean had magical properties, and used it in many sacred birth, marriage and death rituals. Fittingly, the Latin name for the cacao tree actually translates to mean ‘food of the gods’.
There are different varieties of the Theobroma family, but Theobroma cacao is the only one used to create chocolate. To do this, the cacao beans are roasted and ground down to produce a powder. With further processing and refining, this becomes the base ingredient for the chocolate products everyone knows and loves.
However, to get the most benefits from cacao it is recommended to opt for the less refined raw cacao nibs or powder instead. Too much processing can strip the cacao of its natural nutrients, so the raw version may potentially be more potent in terms of health benefits.
What is it good for?
The ancient Mayans and Aztecs were certainly onto something with the cacao beans. While the jury’s still out as to its divine powers, there’s no denying this humble bean packs a pretty powerful combination of nutrients.
It may be able to help regulate digestive health by acting as a source of fibre. A clinical study in the Nutrition and Metabolism journal found that as little as 6.6g of cacao fibre per day could help to improve human bowel movements.
It is also rich in a group of antioxidants called flavonoids. These chemical compounds can help prevent or fight the damage caused by free radicals, which can alter the DNA of living cells in the body. Cacao beans have particularly high levels of anthocyanidin and epicatechins, which could be some of the most powerful types of antioxidants.
In particular, these flavonoids have been linked to reducing the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol – a known factor in cardiovascular disease. LDL is oxidised before being deposited as plaque in the arteries, which can lead to a hardening of these vital channels. By inhibiting the oxidation process, cacao flavonoids may help to lower the risk of heart problems.
Cacao beans are also rich in a cocktail of other nutrients as well, including magnesium, calcium, copper, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. The body needs varying amounts of all of these to carry out vital functions and support different activities and systems, from bone health to blood pressure.
Last but not least, cacao beans contain a variety of nutrients involved in regulating and elevating moods. These include serotonin, dopamine, anandamide and phenylethylamine, all of which may act as neurotransmitters – a type of brain chemical that communicates information between the brain and body. For example, anandamide is known as the ‘bliss chemical’ while serotonin is needed to stabilise moods. Some people believe the presence of these nutrients may help cacao to act as a kind of natural anti-depressant.
As a result of these different nutrients, cacao beans may be helpful in supporting the cardiovascular, nervous and muscular systems within the body.
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