I have great news! Chocolate is good for you!
Okay, I need to be more specific. When eaten in their natural and organic form, cacao offers enormous health and nutritional benefits, as you will see below. The only way cacao may not be good for you is if you have been tested to be allergic, if you eat non-organic mono-cropped varieties, if you eat too much, or if you are eating cacao mixed with unhealthy ingredients such as sugar and factory farmed dairy.
When I discovered cacao many years ago on the Big Island of Hawaii, it was literally a life altering experience. There before me was the ingredient from which all chocolate is made from, and up until that point I had no idea what chocolate actually was!
Okay, so what is it?
All chocolate is made from the nuts (also called beans) of the cacao tree. Cacao nuts are the large seeds within a cacao pod. Within one cacao pod comes many cacao nuts. Technically speaking, a nut is a large seed. As can be seen in the picture above, inside this amazing plant is a white goo that surrounds the nuts that line the center of the cacao plant. It is truly a site to see.
There are a large variety of cacao strains, and some are more nutritionally beneficial to humans than others. Luckily, scientific research on cacao nuts has shown the most potent varieties and top strains are now grown in large quantities. Cacao nuts, nibs, butter, and powder are so popular that they can be purchased from stores all over the world.
Of course, chocolate bars are one of humans most favorite foods and are consumed on a mass scale. However, the cacao health benefits from their natural form are somewhat of a new discovery, of rather a new re-discovery as we will see. I offer profound gratitude to people like David Wolfe, cacao expert, who have repositioned cacao in its rightful place as one of the top superfoods on the planet.
A Brief History of Cacao
Although there is still debate on the origins of the cacao tree, genetic studies have suggested that the place of its inception is the Amazon region of South America. Its use among humans cannot be exactly defined, yet its use culturally can be traced to at least 2000 years ago (1).
The Olmecs, a pre-Mayan civilization, possessed knowledge of cacao and seemed to have been the first civilization to cultivate it (2). This knowledge was then passed down to the Mayans, and later to the Aztecs. Amongst the Maya, cacao was worshiped as a “food of the gods” and became a central part of their culture.
One of the favorite methods of cacao use among the Maya was to create a drink mixed with ground raw cacao powder, chili peppers, vanilla, and other spices (3). I have made this drink many times and highly recommend it. Warm, chocolate spice… yum!
There was even a period when cacao was used as a currency (4). Truly, cacao nuts were money! They were traded as a form of currency in Mayan and then Aztec culture even until 1887 in Mexico!
The history of cacao took a dramatic turn when Hernan Cortes invaded Aztec territory and brought back cacao to Spain in 1528. Its use in Europe then spread like wild fire (5).
In the ensuing centuries cacao cultivation took on a whole new level as large plots were grown and manufacturing facilities began to pump out cacao mixed with sugar, which eventually became the famous chocolate bar we know so well today.
Going Back to the Roots
Chocolate bars are loved the world over and yet there is so much concern over the negative health effects. You may be wondering at this point, “If cacao nuts are so healthy then why are chocolate bars considered a health threat?” Good question. What I am speaking on here is cacao in its natural, unadulterated, organic form.
When cacao is heavily cooked, processed, stripped of its fat, then combined with sugar, milk, and other preservatives, the original essence of cacao is not only lost, but made potentially harmful. The trend today is to go back to how our ancestors used cacao, which was to grind it into a powder, lightly heat it, and mix into various drinks.
Even in chocolate bars there is a hint of its original nutritional potency, and that is possibly why so many people are attracted to it. Well, that and it’s incredible taste. By going back to the roots of cacao use and studying the compounds in its natural form, we can see the truth about cacao: it is filled with valuable nutrients that can not only restore deficiencies, but also make us feel great.
Scientific Research on Cacao Nuts
- We all love to feel good and cacao actually has compounds in it that can increase our feelings of well-being and happiness. One such compound is Anandamide, which is literally translated as the bliss chemical. It is known as the bliss chemical because it is released when we are feeling great (6). Cacao is the only food known to posses this compound (7).
- Cacao nuts contain serotonin, which is a primary neurotransmitter in the human brain (8). Cacao also contains significant levels of tryptophan, serotonins precursor. Consuming foods high in serotonin and tryptophan, such as cacao, may help create a stress-defense shield and keep us feeling happy and optimistic.
2. Preventing Free-radical Damage
- Cacao may well be the one of the <strong>highest</strong> source of antioxidants of any food (9)! Antioxidants are able to prevent free-radical damage by offering electrons to unstable atoms.
3. Losing Weight
- Anyone interested in losing weight would be wise to consider adding cacao to their diet. The main reason cacao may be able to help someone lose weight is its ability to curb appetite (10). This is due to the extremely high levels of nutrients in cacao nuts. When the body receives a high dose of nutrients, we receive the message to eat less because we have received what we need.
- Studies have shown that cacao may contain the <strong>highest</strong> content of magnesium of <strong>any</strong> food (11). Dr. Steve Windley, MD states that, “Magnesium, a critical mineral, is used in more than 300 bodily processes… Sources estimate that nearly 70 percent of Americans get inadequate doses of magnesium every day.” (12) Conclusion: eat cacao and meet the body’s magnesium nutritional needs.
- According to cacao expert David Wolfe, cacao contains 314 percent of the U.S. RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of iron per 1 ounce serving (13). Iron is a critical mineral in the oxygen-carrying protein hemoglobin, and sufficient levels in our diet can resist anemia.
6. Other Important Minerals
- Cacao nuts are also high in Chromium, Manganese, Zinc, and Copper (14). These minerals are essential components of a functional and thriving human body.
7. Other Important Nutritional Components
- Cacao also contains significant levels of fiber, high quality fats such as the essential fatty acid Omega-6, and protein.
In health food stores and online, cacao can be purchased as the whole nut, as cacao nibs (small pieces), cacao butter (the extracted oil), or as cacao powder. There are also now available high quality cacao products that have not been combined with potentially harmful ingredients. Chocolatiers are tuning into the health benefits of cacao and providing an amazing assortment of healthy treats.
I also highly recommend that cacao be purchased organic and fair trade. By purchasing from companies that hold such standards we can withhold our support of un-sustainable and un-compassionate companies.
One of my personal favorite cacao recipes is to mix the powder into my morning smoothie of berries, maca, hemp protein powder, and a base of pau d’arco tea. Cacao is also great as the base for a delightful fudge. Try mixing cacao powder with coconut oil, vanilla, and honey in a food processor. And for more amazing cacao recipes please check out the book Naked Chocolate by David Wolfe.
The Cacao Revolution
Isn’t it great news that cacao nuts, true chocolate, are one of the healthiest foods on the planet! No longer do we need to feel worry or guilt over chocolate. We can drink a spicy cacao beverage or eat pieces of tasty fudge and know that we are actually consuming something healthy that can make us feel alive, energized, and happy. The cacao revolution has begun, and we have our ancestors and detailed modern scientific research on cacao nuts to thank for that!
I encourage you to connect with this amazing food and experience what our ancestors called, “The food of the gods.” Enjoy!
(1) http://www.cocoatree.org/frombeantobar/thehistoryofchocolate.asp Retrieved April 13th, 2010.
(2) Wolfe, David. Naked Chocolate pg. 15
(3) http://www.cocoatree.org/frombeantobar/thehistoryofchocolate.asp Retrieved April 13th, 2010.
(4) Wolfe, David. Naked Chocolate pgs. 16 and 24
(5) Ibid. pg. 18
(6) Wolfe, David. Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future. pg. 43
(8) Ibid. pg. 45
(9) Ibid. pg. 40
(10) Wolfe, David. Naked Chocolate pg. 65
(11) Wolfe, David. Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future. pg. 40
(12) http://www.purehealthmd.com/supplements/minerals/magnesium/magnesium-benefits.html Retrieved April 13th, 2010.
(13) Wolfe, David. Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future. pg. 40
(14) Ibid. pgs. 41-42