In previous articles, we have discussed the many different benefits and sources of antioxidants. On the list of “superfoods” that are high in this category is the delicious, and maybe unexpected Cacao. Cacao (aka cocoa) may has been given a bad rap in the past because of the connotations of high sugared candy bars and desserts. In reality, raw cacao, which is the origin of chocolate, is rich in antioxidant flavonoids and offers many health benefits. Throughout this article, we will be referring to organic or raw cacao only, so that you can understand how to get the most out of this source.
There are three main types of cacao that are currently cultivated around the world:
Criollo: This kind is the rarest, making up about 10-15% of all cacao trees. It is small and demanding in terms of cultivation, so it should come to no surprise that it is also the most expensive. The Criollo type has been called the “King of Cacao” to give you an idea of just how precious chocolatiers find it.
Forastero: This type is the most common of the cacaos, making up 70% of that cultivated. It is the kind that is seen in most of our chocolate consumed today. One reason for its popularity is the fact that the Forastero tree is much sturdier than the other types and therefore more plentiful, so the beans are more affordable as well, making it a cultivating favorite.
Trinitario: This type is actually a hybrid between Criollo and Forastero. Falling in between the two species, it makes up about 20% of the cultivated cacao.
From all of these different types of cacao, you can create sweet favorites such as cocoa butter, cocoa powder, bitter and semi sweet chocolate, chocolate liquors, milk and white chocolates. It is important to remember, however, that the most organic and unprocessed versions are where you will find the nutritional benefits.
Some of the well known antioxidant heavy hitters are blueberries, red wine, green tea, etc. Cacao is ranked even higher than most of these popular options. In fact, unprocessed cacao packs up to four times the antioxidants that green tea contains. As mentioned in the previous article, these antioxidants have the power to fight of free radicals and thus, prevent age-related diseases, such as certain cancers. They are also great for improving cardiovascular health as they help reduce blood clots, improve circulation and lower cholesterol levels.
Antioxidants such as epicatechins, catechins, resveratrol and procyanidins can be present, but are in much lower levels the more the cacao has been processed.
Catechins and epicatechins are particularly high types of antioxidant flavonoid and make up about 10% of the weight of cacao. Catechins have been associated with brain health as well as acting as an infection-preventing agent.
Resveratrol has been studied in numerous research and has been found to be beneficial to cardiovascular health and also acts as an anti-inflammatory agent.
Similarly, procyanidins have been associated with hearth health as well as oxygen absorbency.
Aside from the pure pleasure of consuming items that are created from cacao, there is actually some science behind the “feel good” aspect that accompanies eating raw cacao. It contains neurotransmitters, which have been affiliated with emotional and mood disorders. Seratonin, Endorphins, Phenylethylamine, and Anandamide are all associated with feelings of pleasure, relaxation and even love.
Essential minerals such as zinc, iron, manganese and potassium, are also found in raw cacao and sulfur and magnesium are particularly abundant in this source. Sulfur is known as the beauty mineral as it helps strengthen your hair, nails and skin, as well as assists in detoxifying the liver. Magnesium has been associated with bone strength, brain chemistry and heart health and cacao is actually the primary source of this mineral. The lack of magnesium has even been linked with hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease to give you an idea of how essential it is.
Scientific studies, such as that conducted by the Agricultural Research Services (ARS), continue to support this idea the presence of raw cacao is extremely beneficial. When compared to more processed versions like milk chocolate, the food items with the higher levels of cacao also had higher total antioxidant capacity (TAC), which is consistent with the idea that the raw cacao is the origin of all of the noted health benefits.
One of the main reasons that we emphasize the consumption of raw cacao is the fact that the processing of it throws all of the health benefits out the window. Dairy, in particular, cancels out the effects of the antioxidants, as research has shown that the dairy blocks their absorption.
In order to reap many of the benefits that come along with cacao, it is important to remember to stay organic when possible and if you must choose a slightly processed version, look for the ones that contain the most raw cacao in them. Cacao powders are a great idea for those trying to boost their antioxidant flavonoid levels. If you chocolate-lovers have ever wanted yet another excuse, you’ve met your match with the great antioxidant benefits of cacao.