Cacao, the Superfood
Chocolate: we love it, we crave it, we can't get enough of it. Too bad it's so bad for us. That last statement is not entirely true. Processed chocolate, which is full of sugars, preservatives, stabilizers, and fats, isn't the best snack you could go for. But cacao, from which delicious chocolate comes, is actually one of the most amazing superfoods around, and people have been consuming it for centuries.
Cacao comes from the Theobroma cacao tree, native to the tropical regions of Central and South America. It's been cultivated by Mesoamerican cultures as far back at 2000 B.C., most notably by the Mayans, who believed that cacao was given to them by the gods (the scientific name, in fact, literally means “food of the gods”).
Pods and Beans
The seeds of the cocoa tree grow in large pods, which each contain 40-60 beans when fully mature. It is these beans, once dried, from which cacao powder is products are derived.
The Original Hot Chocolate
The Mayans consumed cacao with water, chiles, and spices in a frothy, unsweetened drink that was reserved for the societal elites. Columbus was likely the first European to encounter cacao, and the first to bring it back to the Old World.
Raw cacao beans can be consumed whole, broken into bits called nibs, or ground into powder. When dried at low temperatures, they retain their enzymatic integrity and retain all of their healthy nutrients, and what a list it is.
Curious About Cacao's Nutrients?
Cacao is incredibly high in antioxidants. Raw cocoa powder has an ORAC score of over 55,000*, more than forty times that of blueberries, another titan of the superfood realm. Cacao is rich in polyphenols, flavonoids, particularly anthocyanidin, and epicatechins. Cacao leaves other cardioprotective antioxidant rich foods such as red wine and green tea in the dust. Cacao is also is the highest plant-based source of iron**, double that of spinach, and is rich in magnesium and calcium, two critical minerals your body needs for cardiovascular, muscular, and skeletal health.
Cacao for Happiness
There's also a reason that chocolate makes you feel better; cacao contains the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, anandamide and phenylethylamine, chemicals associated with making you feel happy and blissful. Cacao is also rich in caffeine and theobromine, a caffeine-like cardiostimulant and potent diuretic.
Cacao vs. Processed Chocolate
But before you start chowing down on chocolate bars for the health benefits, chocolate and cacao are two different things. Almost all commercial chocolate products have undergone what is called Dutch processing, or dutching, a process that removes many of the harsh, bitter elements of cacao – unfortunately, all those alkaloids are the ones that have the most health benefits. That said, dark chocolate retains the most alkaloids of cacao, so if you're going to go for chocolate, go dark. We’re talking at least 70-85% dark chocolate to reap all the healthy benefits.
Now that you're on board, what can you do with cacao? It goes great in any raw chocolate recipes, and makes a great addition to a paleo diet (most paleos agree that unsweetened cacao is acceptable). Add it to smoothies, sprinkle over fruit, use it instead of chocolate when baking brownies or cookies.
The culinary uses of cacao are vast, and so are the health benefits. So why not give cacao a try in your every diet? Sometimes, what tastes good is good for you too.
* ORACValues.com "ORAC Values of Dry Cocoa Powder" found here
** Be Good Organics "Benefits of Cacao, the Amazonian Superfood" found here
Authority Nutrition "7 Proven Benefits of Dark Chocolate" found here
Medicine Hunter "Cocoa, the Health Miracle" found here