It may seem too good to be true… but chocolate is an unequivocal health food that has been used for its health benefits dating back at least 3000 years. The mechanisms by which the cacao bean works its mysterious magic has only recently begun to be elucidated and continues to be researched, but ancient civilizations have intuitively known about the longevity promoting properties of the cacao bean - preparing them for consumption during social occasions and religious rituals.
Traditional societies have long used cacao to enhance performance and treat various conditions, with the Olmecs and Mayans using the ingredient as a remedy for fatigue to improving kidney and bowel function. The Aztecs even used the cacao bean as a form of currency, giving testament to their value as a therapeutic tool used in warfare to increase strength and energy. They were certainly onto something, as cacao contains potent constituents with biological activity.
Epicatechin is a type of heart-protective antioxidant that works by enhancing nitric oxide bioavailability and improving mitochondrial structure and function. This produces a wide range of beneficial effects on the body including lowering inflammation and improved vascular function, helping to support the cardiovascular and circulatory systems.
Polyphenols are a complex group of antioxidants also found in green tea and red wine, and are renowned for promoting longevity by protecting cells against oxidative stress or damage.
Theobromine is a compound found in very high amounts in unsweetened cacao powder, containing about 2634mg per 100 grams. It can have many beneficial effects due to its functions as a vasodilator, mood stimulant and diuretic. Being a psychoactive compound, theobromine has the ability to influence brain chemistry and has been shown to enhance focus and concentration, as well as mood and cognitive function.
Magnesium is critical for energy production, gene maintenance, muscle health and nervous system regulation, and an impressive 33% of a person’s recommended dietary intake can be found in just 28g of cacao powder! This is a very significant serving of Magnesium, and extremely beneficial as most people do not get enough of this mighty mineral in their diet.
The down side...
Your standard dairy milk chocolate is not going to provide you with enough pure cacao to be of any significant physical benefit, and its high sugar and fat content are what gives chocolate its ‘naughty’ or ‘bad food’ reputation. Although swapping the milk for dark (anything over 70%) may be the obvious solution, many people simply find dark chocolate too bitter and not as enjoyable as its sweeter counterpart.
Using Cacao powder allows you to incorporate chocolate in many recipes that can be eaten anytime of the day, this also means a more consistent consumption of cacao and a great excuse to get your chocolate fix more frequently. Cacao can be added to almost anything, be it your morning smoothie, cooking oats, a decadent but healthy hot chocolate sweetened with some honey or a little stevia, the list goes on!
Cacao vs Cocoa
Yes, there is a massive difference! The standard cocoa powder you find in the baking aisle has been heat treated resulting in many of its key nutrients being stripped away. Make sure to invest your money in high quality raw Cacao powder that is now readily available at your local supermarket – usually in the health food aisle. It tastes amazing and retains all of its wonderful nutritional properties.