As a nutritional therapist I am very aware of which foods may be beneficial for health. One food of particular personal interest is cacao. Being a chocoholic, I really enjoy a good piece of quality dark chocolate with my matcha tea on a daily basis and it´s eaten with a good conscience! Here´s why:
One of the most nutritious foods known to man is raw cacao, also known as “food of the gods”. It is rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which contribute to numerous health supporting and disease preventing properties extensively supported in scientific literature (1).
Cacao comes from the Theobroma Cacao tree growing in tropical areas of South America, Asia and Africa. Exposure to natural elements such as wind, rain, sun and soil quality are important factors determining the antioxidant* capacity of the cacao bean. The more environmental exposure to the tree, the more plant-chemicals (phytonutrients) develop. These act as antioxidants and provide protection to the tree and to those who eat it the beans. Polyphenols are a large group of phytonutrients, which include a category called flavonoids. The high flavonoid content is what makes cacao a “superfood”. Cacao has several unique flavanols** only found in the cacao bean. Flavonoid content in cacao is dependent upon the extent of the processing (2)
*antioxidants are naturally occurring compounds. Some we make naturally, but ability may decline with age. They protect the cell membranes and DNA molecules from oxidative damage, which contributes to ageing and disease.
** Flavanols are an extension of the flavonoid family.
To be palatable to the consumer, beans are firstly fermented and then dried in sunlight. This is where differences occur between mass produced chocolate and the “raw” cacao versions. Commercial cocoa powders and even dark chocolate varieties differ from cacao since they undergo several processes. This includes roasting at high temperatures (at 248°F/120°C and higher) (3) and addition of an alkalising agent to destroy any acidity, known as “Dutch processing”. Processing alters the nutritional value and may generate toxic compounds by changing the structure of natural fats in the cacao bean creating potentially harmful molecules called free-radicals* (4). “Antinutrients” such as white sugar and hydrogenated oils may be added to increase taste and texture.
*Free radicals are a natural by-product of metabolism. They also come from pollution, sunlight and environmental toxins including smoking. An excess of free radicals contributes to age related degeneration and disease.
True raw cacao products are minimally processed and kept at temperatures below 118°F/48°C). The beans are left to ferment for approximately 6 days, then dried in sunlight to reduce bitterness and enhance the chocolate flavour. Temperatures are regulated and kept below 122°F/50°C (5), therefore retaining more of the nutrients and antioxidants including the phytonutrients polyphenols compared with more processed products. Fermentation even at low temperatures reduces iron, phosphorus and magnesium levels of cacao, yet copper increases. However, fermentation reduces phytate* levels improving the bioavailability of the remaining minerals.
*Phytates are naturally occurring compounds in the cacao bean, which protect the seed before germination. However they can bind to minerals and prevent absorption.
Nutrients & health benefits of cacao
Several important minerals are found in cacao including: magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper, zinc, iron and sulphur along with the essential fat oleic acid, fibre and vitamins E, B2, B1, B5, B3 and B9, traces of vitamin A and C.
The most abundant mineral in cacao is potassium, which contributes to maintain fluid balance, regulates muscular contractions and nerve transmissions.
Cacao is one of the richest sources of magnesium. Magnesium is required for enzyme reactions and as a co-factor for more than 300 biochemical processes in the body including energy production and muscular contraction. It is known as the “relaxation mineral” with optimal levels supporting sleep, mood and energy. Low levels have been associated with chronic disease. It is the most common mineral deficiency in the West.
Cacao has an iron content of 7.3mg/100g, compared with spinach (3.6mg/100g). To obtain the benefits of plant based non-heme iron, combine with vitamin C (such as lemon, kiwi, orange, berries) to enhance absorption (2).
Cacao is extremely rich in antioxidants having more than blueberries, goji berries and green tea (2). Raw cacao powder is rated highly in ORAC scores (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) for the quantity of antioxidants per 100g. This is a measure antioxidants effectiveness to absorb free radicals. See ORAC scores at end of article.
Cacao flavanols have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiplatelet properties. They have demonstrated benefits to cardiovascular health through ability modulate blood flow and thereby control blood pressure (6) and regulation of cholesterol levels. They also increase levels of the hormone adiponectin, regulating fat mass in humans.
Chemical messengers in cacao
Cacao is able to impact mood via several chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. It contains a compound called phenylethylamine (PEA), which acts as neurotransmitter upon the central nervous system promoting feelings of well-being and happiness and improving alertness.
Another is a fatty acid neurotransmitter called anandamide, meaning “bliss”, also contributes towards mood elevation and alertness by regulating blood pressure and blood sugar levels (7). Additionally cacao contains a protein called tryptophan. Tryptophan is required to produce the neurotransmitters, serotonin, known to improve mood and melatonin, required for sleep and an important anti-oxidant.
Theobromine is another compound of cacao and is similar to caffeine, yet a nonaddictive stimulant with positive impact upon the vascular system promoting blood flow, concentration and mood (8). However, it may cause headaches in sensitive individuals. It is highly toxic to cats and dogs as they have difficulty degrading it, so never allow animals to eat chocolate.
In summary, organic raw cacao is an excellent source of nutrients for non-sensitive individuals. Remember that despite the high antioxidant levels of raw cacao other compounds such as caffeine and theobromine, may be too stimulating for the central nervous system and oxalic acid may impact absorption of calcium levels in the body. It is suggested that 40-50g daily is sufficient to provide beneficial effects in non-sensitive individuals.
How to include raw cacao to the diet:
Raw cacao is the best form of chocolate to eat. Obviously some find it bitter and may need time to wean taste buds away from the sweetness of mass produced varieties. Examples of how you can introduce 100% raw cacao into the diet are listed below:
Hot chocolate for one: Add 1 tablespoon of raw cacao powder to a large mug. Warm up 150ml of plant based milk on a low heat. When heated pour onto cacao powder and add ó-1 teaspoon of yacon syrup. If desired sprinkle with cinnamon.
Banana, berry and cacao nib smoothie: Blend ó frozen banana, a handful frozen berries with 50ml of plant milk and 100ml of filtered water. When smooth add to glass and top with cacao nibs/coconut flakes. You can also soak chia seeds over night in the plant milk and add to the smoothie for more essential fatty acids!
Add raw cacao nibs to a bowl of sweet berries (seasonal blueberries, raspberries and strawberries) or a salad to give a kick and the vitamin C from peppers, lemon juice will aid iron absorption from the cacao.
ORAC scores for the Top 10 Antioxidants Foods (per 100 grams)
1) Cloves, ground 314,446
2) Sumac bran 312,400
3) Cinnamon, ground 267,536
4) Sorghum, bran, raw 240,000
5) Oregano, dried 200,129
6) Turmeric, ground 159,277
7) Acai berry,freeze-dried 102,700
8) Sorghum, bran, black 100,800
9) Sumac, grain, raw 86,800
10) Cocoa powder,unsweetened 80,933
19) Roasted cocoa powder 40,200
27) Organic Goji Berries 25,300
31) Chocolate, dark 20,823
61) Blueberries 5, 347
91) Broccoli 3, 083
Note: this is for cocoa powder. Raw cacao ranks higher, approximately 95,000
- R. Rucker, 2009. Nutritional properties of cocoa. Appendix 10, p. 943-946. Grivetti, Shapiro (Eds.), Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Ruscigno, M., 2014. Superfoods for Life, Cacao: – Improve Heart Health – Boost Your Brain Power. MA, USA. Fair Winds Press.
- Murray, m., Pizzorno, j., & Pizzorno, l. 2005. The encyclopedia of healing foods. New york: Atria books.
- Djikeng, F. T. et al., 2018. Effect of traditional and oven roasting on the physicochemical properties of fermented cocoa beans. Heliyon, 4(2).
- Hurst, W.J., et al, 2011. Impact of fermentation, drying, roasting and Dutch processing on flavan-3-ol stereochemistry in cacao beans and cocoa ingredients. Chemistry Central Journal, 5, 53.
- Cifuentes-Gomez, T., et al., 2015. Factors Affecting the Absorption, Metabolism, and Excretion of Cocoa Flavanols in Humans. J. Agric. Food Chem., 63 (35), pp. 7615–23.
- di Tomaso E, Beltramo M, Piomelli D. 1996. Brain cannabinoids in chocolate. Nature. 382(6593), pp. 677-8.
- Franco, R., et al., 2013. Health benefits of methylxanthines in cacao and chocolate. Nutrients, 5(10), pp. 4159-73.