The term ‘cocoa’ is actually said to be a misspelling of the word ‘cacao’ that refers to the tree from which we get cocoa products.
The Theobroma cacao tree grows abundantly in Central and South American regions of the Amazon and Orinoco River Basins, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and Ecuador, African countries of Ghana and Ivory Coast and others like Togo, Indonesia, Philippines and Papua New Guinea.
Each tree bears several fruits called cacao pods. Inside each pod, we get 40-60 cacao beans nestled in milky white substance. The cacao bean is used to make cacao butter used in an array of pharmaceutical products and toiletries. The cacao nib found in the center is used to make chocolate.
The flavor of the chocolate depends on the type of cacao beans used and this varies wide from region to region. The three main types are Forastero, Criollo and Trinitario.
Cacao contains more flavonoid antioxidants than many fruits and vegetables and green tea. It also contains caffeine, theobromine, tryptophan, anandamide, phenylethylamine, oleic acid, minerals like magnesium, manganese, sulfur, zinc, copper, iron, calcium and potassium, protein, fiber and vitamins B1, B3, B2, B9, B5 and E.
Antioxidant in Cacao and their Benefits
Some nutritionists say that cacao is the best antioxidant available among the various foods. This actually depends on the region where it is grown, the soil and such.
Organic raw cacao is an excellent source of antioxidants, for it provides us with the added advantage of not consuming foods treated with chemicals.
The Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity or ORAC scale measures the levels of antioxidants in various foods and their ability to absorb free radicals to which the body is exposed to each day. A high ORAC score means that there are greater levels of antioxidants in the food.
Goji berries were given a very high ORAC score and cacao is said to have much higher levels of antioxidants than them.
However, we cannot consume the same quantities of both foods on the same day. For example, 100g of goji berries can be beneficial but the similar quantity of cacao will be in excess of our daily requirement.
Hence, while cacao is an antioxidant powerhouse, consuming 40-50g a day is sufficient to get the required benefits.
The following are the top 5 antioxidant foods (100g of each)
- Raw cocoa powder – 95,5000
- Raw cacao nibs – 62,100
- Roasted cocoa powder – 26,000
- Organic goji berries – 25,300
- Acai berries – 18,500
This information is sourced from the US Department of Agriculture.
Raw cacao that is used to produce cocoa products contains high levels of flavonoid antioxidants. Procyanidin antioxidant is said to be effective in preventing heart disease, strokes and cancer.
The levels of procyanidin however decrease when cacao is processed to make various types of chocolate. For example, Dutch chocolates undergo a process of alkalization to raise pH levels and reduce acidity levels. This means that their procyanidin antioxidant levels are also much lower.
Hence researchers concluded that the greater amount of pure cacao available in chocolate, the higher is the antioxidant capacity.
Catechins are phytochemical compounds present in plant-based beverages and foods. One type of catechin – epicatechin is found in cocoa (26.20mg / 100g).
Consumption of cocoa products with high levels of raw cacao provides us with the benefits of these phytochemicals.
Some such benefits include cardiovascular benefits like decreased platelet aggression, decreased oxidative stress, decreased LDL oxidation and increased antioxidant capacity.
Other antioxidant benefits of cacao include lowering blood pressure, increasing levels of healthy cholesterol, and enhanced blood flow.
Some studies reveal that eating 40g of dark chocolate increases levels of catechin and epicatechin in the blood 30 minutes after consumption. Body tissues and cells are protected from damage by free radicals that can cause a change in the structure of healthy cells.
The ability of the body to fight free radicals reduces with age. Hence, older people must include more antioxidant-rich foods in their diet. Polyphenol found in cacao is an antioxidant that is mostly found in fruits and vegetables like berries, soybean and oranges.
Dark chocolate which contains at least 65% cacao is also high in antioxidants. The greater cacao percentage found in chocolates, the lesser percentage of unhealthy sugars and other additives.
Excess of cacao will provide us with more than our requirement of theobromine and caffeine as well as other nutrients. Theobromine will excessively stimulate the central nervous system, brain and heart.
This will make us feel hyperactive followed by drowsiness. This type of mood swings is unhealthy. Theobromine is also a mild diuretic.
This is one reason that chocolate is harmful for cats and dogs since they cannot metabolize theobromine.
It can also cause headaches, dizziness etc. Oxalic acid found in cacao interferes with the ability of the body to absorb calcium. Hence, excess cacao will cause loss of calcium reserves.
Excess of cacao can cause sleeplessness, faster heart rate, nervousness – all related to excess of caffeine. Large quantities can result in premature delivery or miscarriage.
Hence pregnant women must be careful about the quantity of cacao they consume.
Consuming around 4-5 heaped teaspoons (approximately 40g) of raw cacao powder is an excellent way to get the benefits of the various antioxidants present in this food.
You may want to replace your morning coffee with a drink made from raw cacao powder for a healthy start to the day.