Theobroma Cacao has been dubbed the ‘food of the gods’ in the Americas where it was first cultivated.
It is considered a ‘superfood’ due to the high density of essential nutrients, very few side effects and proven health benefits. Cacao trees grow in the Amazon Basic, Orinoco River Basin, Ghana, Philippines, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Ecuador, Togo and a few Caribbean islands.
The cacao tree grows to 10-30 feet in height and bears fruits four years after planting. The fruits of the cacao tree are called cacao pods.
Each pod weighs about 1 pound and nestled inside white pulp are several cacao beans. These beans are taken out and made into cocoa butter which is used to make toiletries, ointments and many pharmaceutical products.
Inside each cacao bean is the cacao nib and this is used to make chocolate after they are dried, fermented and processed. There are 3 types of cacao beans that are used to make chocolate. Each varies from the other in fragrance and flavor. These are Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario.
All cacao products are said to be effective in treating many health conditions like lowering high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, liver, bladder and kidney disorders, asthma, diarrhea, preventing wrinkles, pregnancy stretch marks and more.
Raw cacao nibs and beans offer the best health benefits since some of the nutrients are destroyed when they are processed into chocolate. They can be eaten raw, powdered and made into tea and included in various foods. There are also cacao extracts available.
Nutritional Value of Cacao
The cacao bean is full of antioxidants, fat, carbohydrates, protein, polyphenols like flavanoids that are antioxidants, minerals like calcium, magnesium, sulfur, copper, iron, zinc and potassium, oleic acid which is a heart-healthy essential monounsaturated fat, fiber and vitamins E, B2, B1, B5, B3 and B9.
There are also small amounts of vitamin A, and C in raw cacao. The maximum nutrients are found in raw cacao beans before any kind of processing.
In a health hierarchy, raw cacao beans before processing rank first, followed by organic, cocoa powder (un-roasted) and organic dark chocolate which greater concentrations of cocoa powder and lower levels of processed sugar.
The following is the nutritional facts for raw organic cacao powder (1 ounce)
- Calories – 120
- Calories from fat – 23
- Total fat – 2.5g (4% DV)
- Saturated fat – 1.5g (7% DV)
- Sodium – 20mg (1% DV)
- Total Carbohydrates – 19.0g (6% DV)
- Dietary fiber – 7.0g (28% DV)
- Protein – 5g
- Calcium – 4% DV
- Iron – 16% DV
- Vitamin A – 0%
- Vitamin C – 0%
DV refers to recommended daily value.
Benefits of some of the Nutrients in Cacao
Theobromine and antioxidants: This is a mild, non-addictive stimulant found in raw cacao. It is believed to treat depression.
Flavonoids which are antioxidants can help fight free radicals that can buildup due to exposure to environmental pollutants, sun exposure and cigarette smoking, and this in turn reduces the risk of developing certain cancers.
Both antioxidants and theobromine can improve blood flow, support healthy functioning of heart and reduce thickening of arterial walls and plaque build-up. Theobromine can also improve mental and physical well-being by stimulating central nervous system, dilating blood vessels, increasing energy levels and relaxing tense muscles.
Other benefits offer include reducing PMS and menopause symptoms. The levels of antioxidants in raw cacao are higher than that of green tea and red wine.
Fiber content in cacao can help digestion by increasing digestive enzyme production. Fiber content keeps you feeling full for longer. This controls appetite and helps promote weight loss.
Essential Fatty Acids such as oleic acid found in cacao can lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol levels. Oleic acid also possesses antioxidant properties and can fight free radicals.
It can strengthen cell membrane integrity, boost memory power, improve functioning of the heart, circulatory system and brain, increase energy levels, help with weight loss, reduce inflammatory conditions like arthritis, help to moisturize the skin and more.
Minerals especially magnesium found in raw cacao promotes heart health and is essential for proper brain functioning. Tryptophan and anandamide are other brain-boosting minerals found in cacao.
Vitamins found in raw cacao benefit the cardiovascular system. They have antioxidant benefits and promote longevity.
Those who have chocolate allergies must avoid eating cacao nibs or beans. Polyphenols and other active substances found in them could trigger side effects like migraines and other allergic reactions.
Cacao beans and cacao nibs have many nutrients that can offer multiple health benefits.
Some of these nutrients get reduced or destroyed when they undergo heating process and are combined with milk and sugar to make chocolate. Hence, eating raw, unprocessed cacao beans offer more health benefits than processed chocolate.