The history of cacao benefits stretches back over four millennia. It was prized for its invigorating properties when mixed as a bitter drink consumed by the upper classes of Mesoamerican cultures such as the Olmecs, Izapan, Maya, Toltecs, Aztecs, and Incas, as well as forming an important part of religious ritual (the Aztecs valued the dried bean so highly that is was used as a currency). Its name in these cultures – means ‘bitter drink’ is a far cry from its central place in the manufacture of sweet confectionary across much of the globe today.
Europe was first exposed to the bean in the 26th century when it was brought back from South America by the Spanish. They eventually lost their stranglehold on the import of the bean and it quickly spread across the continent.
Today, the fruits of the tree known in Latin as ‘Theobroma’ are enjoyed as a base for drinks and chocolates (called as such after the word ‘Chocolātl in the Nahuatl language, spoken by the Aztecs).
In the 21st century, those in search of a healthy lifestyle have rediscovered the benefits of the substance in its powdered form – it is today recognized as a true ‘superfood’. It is packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and a variety of anti-aging and disease-fighting compounds.
It is worth noting that the substance has not been processed which destroys many of the antioxidants and flavanols (compounds that have become associated with fighting the effects of aging).
So what exactly are the uses for Cacao?
Those flavanols have also been studied for their positive effects on the ‘elasticity’ of blood vessels – leading to enhanced cardiac health through increased blood flow. It can also contribute to the lowering of blood pressure through its potassium content (there is also some research to indicate that it contains high levels of nitric oxide which may reduce blood pressure). Flavanols can also help reduce inflammation – which may be of benefit to those who suffer joint inflammation such as rheumatoid arthritis, as well as sports injuries such as muscle damage.
Flavanols have also been the subject of study in terms of increasing the energy levels of those who suffer from multiple sclerosis (MS). A study conducted on 40 adult sufferers of MS in the United Kindom revealed that the subject’s alertness levels improved by up 45%. The fact that cacao also includes high levels of magnesium (it seems to boost energy) may have also contributed to increased alertness.
There is some evidence that not only can flavanols improve mood – but they might also improve our cognitive function. Flavanols can cross the blood-brain barrier and enhance the biochemical pathways that are responsible for the production of neurons and molecules that are essential for the proper functioning of our brains.
The product has been estimated to contain as many as 40 times the amount of anti-oxidants as another superfood – blueberries. On the ORAC scale (which measures how effective antioxidants are at absorbing free radicals) cacao powder scores a whopping 98,000 per 100g, compared to blueberries at a mere 2,400. Free radicals can be found in pollution environmental toxins.
Cacao is also great for vegetarians or vegans who are looking for an easily accessible source of iron. Cocao is packed the brim with iron. With 7.3mg per 100g, it easily beats out animal-based proteins such as beef and lamb at around 2.5mg. However, those following a vegan diet need to be aware that cocao requires vitamin C to fully release its iron. Mix it with citrus fruits to enjoy its iron-rich content.
Advantages also include a very high dose of calcium, in fact far higher than an equivalent serving of dairy. This makes it an ideal meal component for those who are faced with bone loss due to the aging process.
The consumption of the product may also contribute to a feeling of wellness and contentment – and naturally combat the effects of stress. This is because it contains naturally high levels of chemicals (including serotonin, tryptophan, tyrosine, and phenylethylamine) that have been implicated in mood enhancement.
Although it is well-known that those suffering from Type-2 diabetes should avoid chocolate the high levels of those all-important flavanols can have some positive effects on that suffering from this form of diabetes. This is in part because cocoa flavanols inhibit carbohydrate digestion and absorption. There is also evidence to suggest that flavanols may increase insulin secretion and stimulate the uptake of sugar out of the blood into the muscle.
Cocoa’s benefits may also include the fact that it can improve the lives of those who suffer from asthma. It has been found that two compounds, theobromine, and theophylline. Theobromine may help with coughing (acting similarly to caffeine), which helps lungs dilate, aiding in oxygen absorption. However, a note of caution. there is still significant research that needs to be conducted to ascertain if it does have anti-asthmatic properties.
Study after study has shown that it truly deserves its mantle as one of the most powerful superfoods available. The sheer number of advantages stemming from the consumption of raw, organic cocoa powder is extremely difficult to ignore. For the increasing number of people who are committed to leading a healthier lifestyle, including combating the signs of aging that have been linked to free radicals and enjoying the health advantages of naturally occurring plant-based substances, cocoa simply makes sense.
The fact that the flavanols in cocoa can be enjoyed in several ways only adds to the attraction of this superfood. Dark chocolate containing over 70% of cacao is great – or a variety of homemade treats such as chocolate mousses and puddings using cacao powder also adds great flavor to deserts (or as part of a tasty granola bar). The powder to be added to hot or cold drinks (such as smoothies) or simply sprinkled over fresh fruit – it does tick all the flavor and health boxes.