Have you ever heard that chocolate is beneficial to health? Does it sound too good to be true? Well, let’s explore the claim. Firstly, the medicinal properties of chocolate actually come from its unprocessed state, the fruit and seeds of the cacao tree. Much of the chocolate on the market today has been thoroughly refined and processed to contain high levels of sugar, whereas as raw cacao is naturally rich and bitter…but delicious!
The cacao tree, known as Theobroma cacao, which literally means “Fruit of the Gods” in Latin, is found in Central and South America from Mexico all the way through to the Amazon basin. We all know that commonly available cocoa bean products include chocolate, cocoa butter and powders, but did you know that cocoa beans are actually the seed of the cacao tree? Each tree takes around four to five years to start producing fruits, called pods, and these contain an average of forty seeds each. The process of refining these seeds, or cocoa beans, occurs much in the way it has done for millennia, as technology struggles to mimic the conditions consistently for the best beans. Fruits are still opened by hand, shelled, and then fermented, dried and roasted just to produce cacao nibs that we see on the shelves today.
Cacao has a long history in Central and South America. Around 4000 years ago, both the Maya and the Aztecs believed that cacao was sent to them by the gods, having been discovered by their respective creators deep inside a mountain packed with other plant-based foods. Mayan creation and the divine gift of cacao was celebrated once a year to honor their cacao god Ek Chuah.
In honor of their god, Quetzalcoati, Aztecs mixed chili and spices with cacao powder and water to make a frothy drink which was only available to those with wealth and power. Women and children were shielded from consuming it because it was thought to be intoxicating! When the Spanish arrived, they could see no point in consuming cacao-based foods without adding plenty of sweetening sugar, as it was otherwise inedible to them, so returned home with a completely different recipe for the new discovery.
Such was the high status of cacao, that it was often mixed with local flowers and purified water and used to anoint babies as a form of baptism. Its links to fertility and the creation of life within the Mayan and Aztec cultures meant that it was commonly used in small clay pots given as marriage gifts to encourage a healthy and fertile relationship.
Slightly later, scholars became more aware of the benefits of cacao to health. In 1590, the Florentine Codex listed a huge number of uses for the substance, with various concoctions to be used both inside and outside of the body. For instance, cacao was apparently great at reducing agitation, improving symptoms of asthma and angina, increasing energy and relieving fever as well as hoarseness. Externally, it was used as an antiseptic on cuts and scrapes, but could also be used in various ways to induce labour, or reduce abdominal pain.
Modern science has given some weight to some of the claims of the Florentine Codex; in fact, several of the compounds found in cacao have proven benefits to health as outlined there some four-hundred years ago. Many of these benefits are due to the high concentration of polyphenols and specifically flavanols, which are naturally-occurring compounds in fruits, vegetables, wine and tea. They are famed for their anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory properties, which can be lost with the alkalinization that cacao undergoes to become sweetened chocolate. Cacao has the highest concentration of flavanols of all natural foods, and this is just one of the reasons it is great to add into your diet.
Polyphenols have been shown to reduce high blood pressure by increasing the levels of nitric oxide in the circulation, which dilates blood vessels, reducing overall pressure. One review of a number of studies demonstrated a small but consistent reduction in blood pressure readings. Through this mechanism, blood flow to the brain is also improved, possibly preventing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. One piece of research in older adults found an eight per cent increase in brain perfusion after one week of high-flavanol cacao product intake, and a ten per cent increase after just two weeks.
As a long-term effect of the increased polyphenols, overall risk of heart attack and stroke is decreased. In fact, cacao has been thought to have an effect similar to aspirin in that it promotes blood flow while preventing clots in the circulation. It acts to decrease the ‘bad’ cholesterol and elevate levels of ‘good’ cholesterol, as well as reducing inflammation.
This reduction in inflammation has been suggested to be the underlying mechanism for another of cacao’s incredible benefits to health. It’s easy to assume anything that can be made into chocolate is probably not ideal for diabetes, but the anti-inflammatory properties of cacao, as well as its ability to improve the secretion of insulin from the pancreas and slow carbohydrate uptake from the gut, mean it has some success in improving glycemic control in those with diabetes and prediabetes.
In the laboratory, cacao has demonstrated its anti-oxidant effects by protecting cells from free radical damage, inhibiting the unregulated cell growth associated with tumors and prevented the spread of cancer cells.
On top of all this, cacao contains small quantities of theobromine and theophylline, which are commonly used in medicine to treat asthma exacerbations. Theobromine is similar to caffeine in many ways, as it acts to suppress the cough impulse seen in many asthmatics, and theophylline is known to decrease airway constriction, improving oxygenation. Though neither occur in large enough amounts to be comparable to a therapeutic dose, laboratory studies have shown some benefits.
As if cacao could not do enough already, it has apparent antibacterial properties, which surprisingly reduce the incidence of dental cavities, as well as providing protection against sun damaged skin, though it cannot be a substitute for good sunscreen!
So, cacao seems to have an almost endless list of benefits to health. Ancient civilizations obviously had some clue as to the great power of cacao to protect their people, but science has backed up many of these uses, and added plenty of newer advantages to adding this in whatever form to your daily diet. Remember that the less processed, the better, as chocolate products and cacao derivatives commonly contain refined sugars and fats. For heart health, authorities recommend a daily intake of around 200mg of flavanols, which is equivalent to 0.1 ounces of high-flavanol cacao nibs or powder. This can easily be mixed into a raw juice or sprinkled on oats first thing in the morning to add a deliciously healthy twist to breakfast.
XO – Serena