Chocolate is the “Food of the Gods” for a reason: it not only tastes good, but has impressive health benefits.
Chocolate comes from cacao beans which are actually seeds of a fruit from the Theobroma cacao tree. It is native to Mexico, Central and South America, but now also grown in West Africa, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. It grows well in rich tropical soil. Cacao was used by ancient civilization in Central America such as the Aztecs, Mayas, and Olmec. They used it in religious ceremonies, as currency, in beverages, and food. Columbus then brought the cacao bean to Europe but it was in the 1800s that chocolate was actually manufactured. Then various ingredients were added such as milk and sugar, turning it into modern chocolate.
Raw, unsweetened cacao powder is high in antioxidants. Various brands/types vary based on the cacao bean used, the roasting, grinding, and quality. To produce raw cacao powder, the cacao seeds and surrounding pulp are fermented in boxes. Unprocessed cacao beans are very bitter due to alkaloids so they need to be fermented. The seeds are then dried in the sun or ovens and shipped to cacao processors to be milled into chocolate liquor. Then the fat (cocoa butter) is mechanically pressed to produce powder.
Cacao powder is different than cocoa powder. Cacao is:
- The purest form, raw, and the least processed.
- High source of antioxidants such as flavonols, catechins, and beta-carotene
- It is a superfood of nutrients, including a high source of magnesium as well as zinc, iron, calcium.
- Has more fibre and monounsaturated fats
- It has protein and amino acids
- Cocoa powder is a heated form of cacao, by undergoing a higher temperature processing
- It is less expensive
- It still contains some antioxidants
- It may be mixed with more sugar
- Dutch-cocoa is darker cocoa is alkalized and less acidic and richer in taste.
Cacao powder is one of the richest sources of antioxidants and there are many studies confirming the benefits of cacao powder or dark chocolate.
- Dark chocolate was shown to have more than double the amount of catechins than green tea which is an antioxidant superfood.
- A cup of hot cocoa had double the antioxidants than a glass of red wine.
- Cacao powder has more antioxidants than blueberry, cranberry, and pomegranate.
Cacao powder and dark chocolate contain high levels of polyphenols such as flavonols and proanthocyanins which are antioxidants. Flavonols are a class of phytochemicals found in plants. Cacao powder and unsweetened dark chocolate contains the most flavonols. Milk chocolate has less than half of its flavonols available since the milk protein binds the antioxidants, making them less absorbable. Milk chocolate also contains sugar and is more heavily processed, therefore making it less healthy. Therefore, to ensure you get the most health benefits, choose raw cacao powder or dark chocolate without additives!
Many studies show that cacao powder and dark chocolate improve cardiovascular health in the following ways:
- Flavonols protect the epithelial cells lining the arteries which produce nitric oxide that dilates the arteries, increasing blood flow and decreasing blood pressure.
- Magnesium in cacao is a vasodilator that reduces blood pressure
- Dark chocolate reduces LDL oxidation (being a strong antioxidant). Lipid peroxidation is a factor in atherosclerosis and heart disease.
- Dark chocolate consumption reduces C-reactive protein, which is a marker for inflammation
- A meta-analysis showed that dark chocolate reduces the risk of Coronary Heart Disease, Heart Failure, and stroke
Choosing cacao powder or dark chocolate (without sugar added) can help lower blood sugar. Studies show cacao reduces blood sugar levels and improves liver enzymes. It also helps protect against insulin resistance. Cacao consumption has shown to have an inverse relationship with incidence of diabetes.
Mood and anxiety
Cacao powder and dark chocolate were shown to increase blood flow to the brain and reduce the levels of stress hormones. They also improve mood and contain magnesium which is relaxing. Cacao contains tryptophan which enhances relaxation. It contains phenylethylamine (PEA) which improves memory and mood as it induces acethylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin release. Cacao contains anandamide which improves mood and anxiety.
Cacao procyanidins and catechins are shown to inhibit carcinogenesis. Cacao’s antioxidants also lower free radical damage that can contribute to cancer. Cacao also reduces inflammation which is associated with carcinogenesis.
Chocolate is popular in many countries, with European countries consuming half of the world’s chocolate. The Ivory Coast in Africa is the largest producer of cocoa. Cacao bean plantations employ locals to harvest the beans, dry them, and then are transported to companies. However, undercover investigations have discovered illegal child labour, therefore you should look for chocolate that is Fair Trade or organic.
You can use cacao powder in smoothies, baking recipes, raw desserts, pudding, smoothie bowls, homemade ice cream, cookies, oatmeal, coffee.
Try my delicious Spiced Chocolate Chip Cookies.
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