Herb of the Month - Cacao!
Author: Angela Fleming Date Posted:3 April 2017
Cacao - 'Food of the Gods'
Cacao is generously crowded with an array of profitable nutrients. Its Latin botanical name Theobroma cacao, literally translates to ‘food of the gods’. Our archaic ancestors quickly cottoned on to its beneficial properties and gastronomical affects, which have been manipulated over the years to create gloriously satisfying delicacies that tantalise the taste buds. Whilst it quenches our guiltiest pleasures it provides us with various beneficial nutrients whilst doing so! Bonus!
Theobroma cacao stems from the Malvaceae family, native to the tropical regions of Central and South America. Cacao has been cultivated for thousands of years, in fact anthropologists have found evidence of ancient Mesoamericans harvesting the plant as early as 1900 B.C. Rumour has it the Mesoamericans would ferment, roast and ground the cacao beans into a paste then brew it into a chocolate drink. The mood enhancing and aphrodisiac affects were soon spread across the land, provoking envious and coveting trades between the Aztecs and Mayans.
Cacao & Cocoa; what is the difference?
Cacao and cocoa are born from the same plant, but the way they are processed is what differentiates them. Cacao is the absolute raw form, the bean is ground to make powder or crushed to make nibs. Cacao has a bitter flavour compared to cocoa and is generally used to make dark chocolate products. Cocoa has been processed to enhance that chocolatey flavour we all know and love.
Production of cocoa requires numerous procedures before its utilisation in confectionary and other food products occurs. Fermentation, drying and bagging, winnowing, roasting, grinding and pressing are carried out to create cocoa. This process denatures the cacao bean rendering its nutritional profile inferior to its counterpart.
Did you say aphrodisiac?
Yes I did! Chocolate is often gifted as a sweet romantic gesture, as a token to show love and admiration. The consumption of cacao in the Mesoamerican era was used ceremonially before betrothals to increase libido. So what makes chocolate an ever so sexy indulgence? Theobromine!
Theobromine, similar to caffeine however not addictive, is a purine alkaloid, part of an established group known as methylxanthines. Methyxanthines commonly act on purine neurotransmitters, predominantly adenosine. Antagonism of adenosine receptors causes a temporary loss of inhibiting the release of neurotransmitters. Which in effect evokes a feel good aphrodisiac kind of mood!
Does cacao contain caffeine?
Cacao contains a small amount of caffeine, approximately 6-10mg per teaspoon. This is relatively low compared to your standard cup of coffee, which contains an average of 95mg per cup. Like theobromine, caffeine is a member of the methylxanthine group, however it is far more stimulating than theobromine. Caffeine sensitive individuals may benefit from limiting intake, particularly before bed.
Cacao is loaded with valuable nutrients beneficial to health. Cacao is significantly high in the following;
- Magnesium: cacao is quite high in magnesium. One serving size, approximately 6g contains 35mg of magnesium. Magnesium is necessary for hundreds of enzymatic reactions to occur, particularly those which involve energy production, the synthesis of proteins, manufacturing of DNA, and ion transportation just to name a few. Magnesium is highly concentrated in muscular cells, aiding in contraction. Magnesium is commonly used to reduce muscular cramping and relaxation and nervous system support. It makes perfect sense why women crave chocolate at certain times of the month! Magnesium!
- Linoleic acid: cacao contains linoleic acid also known as omega 6. Omega 6 is a polyunsaturated fat which is essential for cellular function and health. Linoleic acid is a component of the phospholipid bilayer, which forms cellular membranes. The health of the membrane is important for cell to cell communication and regulation by hormones, controlling cellular substance influx and outflow, energy production and oxygen use. Omega 6 is involved in the manufacture of prostaglandins and is required for normal nerve impulse transmission and brain function.
- Iron: iron is an essential mineral critical for human health. It is responsible for the storage and transport of oxygen, energy production, and proliferation of all cells, including those in the immune system. Iron is also required as a cofactor in many different enzyme reactions and forms a part of several different proteins.
- Folate: folate is essential for the synthesis of DNA and RNA, regulating cell division, production of active B12, blood cells and neurotransmitters, protein metabolism, and foetal development of the brain, spinal cord, and skeleton and reduction of homocysteine levels. Folate is commonly used to rectify deficiency and in pre conception for the prevention of neural tube defects.
- Antioxidants: cacao is an excellent source of antioxidants. An antioxidant is a stable substance that donates an electron to neutralise oxidants/free radicals. Free radicals are highly unstable reactive oxygen fragments. They lack electrons and aim to regain balance by stealing them from other molecules, a process known as oxidation. An antioxidant is a substance that donates an electron in order to neutralise oxidation. Research suggests antioxidants may improve immune system function, delay cellular aging, and supports inflammatory conditions.
- Flavonoids: flavonoids are a diverse group of phytonutrients that are specifically found in vegetables and fruits. There are over 6,000 types of flavonoids to date. Catechins are a flavonoid subgroup, they are found in concentrated amounts in cacao. Catechins exert antioxidant activity and modulate signalling pathways involved in cellular processes, such as inflammation and metabolism. Research suggests catechins can reduce inflammation by interfering with the inflammatory cascade and downregulating pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Ways to use cacao
Cacao is extremely versatile, it can be used in the same way as cocoa. It has a higher nutritional profile than cocoa, so it is a healthier option. However this does depend on what else you include in your chocolatey creation and how often you indulge in it.
Cacao does have a stronger flavour than cocoa. Try experimenting with a hot chocolate. Add one Tsp. of cacao to heated milk of your choice. Sweeten with a drizzle of honey.
|Written by Angela Fleming|
Angela (BHSc Naturopathy) is a qualified naturopath who strongly believes in living a healthy and happy lifestyle. Angela believes being active, taking time out for yourself on a regular basis and consuming a balanced healthy diet (with the odd sneaky treat included now and then) is the fundamental key to keeping our minds and bodies in good health.
Angela loves to pass on her knowledge of healthy and happy living to her two young children, who love to experiment in the kitchen with her and train alongside her in Karate.