Theobroma cacao, the scientific name of the plant from which raw cocoa powder is derived and the main ingredient in chocolate, literally means “food of the gods.” It is a famous plant with a lengthy and rich history; a symbol of love that cuts across cultures; a power food packed with antioxidants, phytochemicals, minerals and the building blocks of neurotransmitters and other “feel good” hormones; and a medicine backed by modern research with far-reaching implications for treating cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancer and other chronic degenerative diseases. Some experts are even saying the health-giving properties of cacao will potentially benefit public health equal to or more than antibiotics and anesthesia. The beautiful thing is that raw organic cocoa, a derivitive of the cacao plant, is readily available in health food stores.
What is the difference between “cacao” and “cocoa”?
Cacao refers to the plant, its pod, the beans within, and the pure paste of the bean. Cocoa is the powder made from the cacao bean, which is mashed into a paste and then pounded to extract the cocoa butter. This powder is increasingly being referred to as “cacao powder”, rather than “cocoa powder” in organic circles. It is believed the name “cocoa” came about as the result of a misspelling by early English traders.
Theobroma cacao is native to Central and South America. Historical documentation cites cacao and its products a cure for almost everything from fatigue, indigestion, emaciation, and hemorrhoids to respiratory ailments, cancer, depression and heart problems. The ancient people of Central America, the Mayans and Aztecs, believed this plant could impart immortality. Well, this amazing plant probably will not impart immortality to its consumer, but if there was ever a food to do so cacao would be the one. Throughout history, the cacao plant has been used as currency, food and medicine. In fact the cacao bean is still used as a form of currency in some areas of South America. The Aztecs revered theobroma cacao because of its central role in their culture. They even believed the plant to have divine origins. Due to this belief, the consumption of cacao was usually reserved for royalty, warriors, and other high society people. While the Spanish were exploring the Americas in the 1500s, theobroma cacao was being introduced to Europe. Although initially consumed by the European elite, cacao quickly spread through Europe to the masses. Chocolate, cacao’s most familiar product, has its origins in Europe.
So what about chocolate? Can we consider it a health food? It is important to realize that most research is conducted on raw cocoa powder and not chocolate. With that being said there is some indication that chocolate can be a healthy addition to the diet, but the real magic happens with raw organic cocoa powder. As the sugar and milk portion increases in chocolate, the health benefits of the chocolate decreases. The greatest health benefits are derived from unprocessed cocoa rather than a processed version of it and so raw organic cocoa is superior to dark chocolate which is better than milk chocolate. Dutch processed or alkalinized cocoa helps to reduce the acidity of raw cocoa, but also destroys some of its medicinal power. Raw cocoa powder that is not organic contains pesticide and herbicide residues.
There is also controversy surrounding the high amount of lead found in some cacao products. Lead is a heavy metal that can cause damage to the body when ingested in almost any amount. The evidence seems to point to the manufacturing process of raw cocoa as the source of lead. An October 2005 study in Environmental Health Perspectives shows that the cacao bean itself has very little lead; in fact, it has one of the lowest levels of lead of any natural food. There are insignificant amounts of lead found in raw beans but significant amounts found in some chocolate products, leading one to conclude the manufacturing process is the culprit. Unfortunately, no one is exactly sure where all the lead is coming from. To be safe and promote maximal health benefits and to prevent potential lead exposure, choose raw organic cocoa powder. You can also call your favorite chocolate company and ask about their policies for testing heavy metals in their products.
Next: Health Effects and Myths about Cacoa
Constituents in Cocoa
What is it about raw organic cocoa powder that makes it such a powerful medicinal food? For starters, is it is packed full of antioxidant-rich phytonutrients. Antioxidants help to quell the fire of free radicals our bodies generate and are exposed to every day. One way to measure the antioxidant potential of a food is by its ORAC value. ORAC is the acronym for “Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity” and is a measure of the potential antioxidant capacity of a food. In theory, the higher the ORAC value, the higher the concentration of antioxidants present in a food. Organic raw cocoa has the highest ORAC value of any food. The US Department of Agriculture/Journal of the American Chemical Society has released data on high ORAC value foods per 100 grams compared to unprocessed raw cocoa (28,000): dark chocolate (13,210), prunes (5,770), blueberries (2,400), kale (1,770) and broccoli (890). According to the USDA, the average American gets 1200 ORAC value/day in their diet. They go on further to say that Americans should strive to get between 3000-5000 ORAC value/day. One tablespoon of cocoa powder, which is about 5g, has an approximate ORAC value of 1400, which gives you almost half of what you need.
The phytonutrients that give raw cocoa powder its high antioxidant value are a group of compounds called polyphenols or more specifically flavonoids. Cacao has more flavonoids than any known food. Two flavonoids in particular, catechin and epicatchin, are found in extremely high amounts in cocoa powder and have copious amounts of research supporting their health benefits. These two flavonoids, along with hundreds of other known phytochemicals in cacao, appear to prevent and even treat some of today’s most devastating diseases. Interestingly, this myriad of flavonoids in cacao appears to be absorbed intact into the human blood stream (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Nov 2002) which allow them to exert their medicinal power on the body.
Many Americans are deficient in the minerals copper and magnesium, both of which are found in cacao. Cacao contains about 0.8 mg of copper per 100 g and is therefore a great food source of copper. Copper has many uses in the body, including the oxygenation of red blood cells and aiding in cellular energy production. Cacao also has the highest amount of magnesium of any known food source, approximately131 mg per 100 g of cacao. This mineral, which plays a significant role in cacao’s health giving properties, is required by over 300 hundred enzymes in the body and is crucial for cardiovascular health, optimal blood pressure and protein synthesis.
Cocoa (a derivitive of cacao) and chocolate have the reputation of making people euphoric and happy. This is probably why chocolate is the gift of choice on Valentine’s Day. There is a wide array of chemicals in cacao that cause euphoria, including phenyethlamine (PEA), serotonin, tyramine and anandamide. One of the most well-known is phenyethlamine (PEA) which helps the body release its own opium-like compounds, called the endorphins, and also boosts levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Endorphins and dopamine gives one a sense of well-being and can act as an anti-depressant. PEA and dopamine flood the brain when we fall in love or have an orgasm. The other “feel-good” chemicals in cacao are serotonin and tyramine. Most people are deficient in the neurotransmitter serotonin and this is why many Americans are prescribed anti-depressants which boost serotonin levels. Tyramine helps reduce anxiety and balance mood, but can also trigger migraines in sensitive people. Another constituent found in cacao that alters the mental state in a pleasurable way is anandamide, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means “bliss”. This chemical binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as THC, the active constituent in marijuana. It is no wonder that cacao, via chocolate and cocoa, has the reputation of being an antidepressant, aphrodisiac and a calming stimulant.
Health Effects of Cacao
As naturopathic physicians, we have such a great appreciation for the medicinal properties of raw organic cocoa. One thing we learned in medical school is if we want to cure disease, we can learn from populations around the world where those diseases do not exist. The Kuna people of San Blas, off the coast of Panama, are turning out to be wonderful teachers for the rest of the world thanks to the ongoing work of Norman K. Hollenberg and colleagues of Harvard Medical School. He found that the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke – four of the most common killers today, are almost nonexistent in these people. As part of living by their traditional ways, they drink an average of 5 cups of cacao per day, making them the world-record holders of a flavonoid rich diet.
There has been much modern research conducted on this ancient plant with astoundingly positive results. Most notably, the positive effects of drinking raw organic cocoa have been illustrated for various parameters of cardiovascular dysfunction including high blood pressure and diabetes. There is also sound research stating that cacao has immune stimulating effects, can be used adjunctively to treat cancer, help oxygenate the brain and promotes detoxification of industrial chemicals in the body.
Through randomized controlled trials, many researchers, including Fisher et al. in the Journal of Hypertension and Taubert et al. in JAMA have demonstrated that habitual cacao intake lowers blood pressure via its high arginine content and the nitric oxide pathway. Lowering blood pressure reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. Other protective mechanisms cacao can offer against cardiovascular disease come from its potent antioxidant profile. The flavonoids in cacao raise HDL, the “good” cholesterol and both lower and protect LDL or “bad” cholesterol from being oxidized (damaged by free radicals) in the blood, which helps fight against plaque formation according to Baba et al. in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2007. Flammer et al. in Circulation 2007 demonstrated that cacao reduces platelet aggregation, or in other words thins the blood. Platelets are sticky little cell fragments that help our body repair injury, but can also contribute to plaque formation in the arteries. Cacao acts as a natural blood thinner when taken daily.
One of the most deadly complications from diabetes mellitus (type II diabetes) is heart disease. Cacao protects us from these complications and also helps to promote insulin sensitivity according to Grassi et al. in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2005.
Cancer is fast becoming the number one killer of Americans. Colon and reproductive cancers like breast and prostate cancer are among the most common types of cancers. Components of cacao, notably the polyphenols have shown to stop proliferation of breast, prostate and colon cancer cells while sparing normal cells by researchers at Georgetown University’s Department of Oncology and others including Bisson et al. Journal of Medicinal Food 2007 and European Journal of Cancer Prevention 2008 and Carnesecchi et al. in Cancer Letters 2002.
Research is also showing cacao to help immune function, cognition, and detoxification. Cacao can both upregulate specific immune cells and help modulate immune function. It appears to increase brain oxygenation which has beneficial implications for diseases like dementia. And finally, raw organic cocoa powder with its high fiber content has been shown to facilitate the excretion and detoxification of environmental contaminants from the body.
There is some confusion about the source of cocaine and cocoa. Cocaine is derived from the plant Erythroxylon coca which is a different plant than the one cocoa and chocolate come from, Theobroma cacao. Good quality chocolate is also unlikely to cause weight gain because of its lower sugar content. Data appears to suggest that raw organic cocoa powder aids fat loss. There is also the myth of chocolate or cocoa causing high cholesterol. Raw cocoa powder contains very little cocoa butter, and although cocoa butter contains saturated fat, specifically stearic acid, this fat has a neutral effect on blood lipids. What about the myth of cocoa/chocolate being addictive? Compared with coffee, cocoa has very low caffeine content and does not impart withdrawal symptoms. Some people will also say chocolate causes acne, but again the research does not substantiate this.
It is easy to see that cacao not only plays a multi-factorial role in protecting us from chronic degenerative diseases but also goes a long way to making us feel good by its mood enhancing and nutritive properties. It may not impart immortality to us yet, but it is certainly immortalized in human history. How wise the ancient peoples were to realize the powerful and far reaching implications of this amazing plant. Modern research is beginning to prove what the ancients already knew: raw organic cocoa is truly a gift from the gods. We invite you to taste this magical food and discover its many medicinal benefits yourself.
Quick Healthy Organic Cocoa Drink:
*1 heaping tablespoon unsweetened organic cocoa powder
*pinch of cayenne pepper
*pinch of cinnamon
*pinch of pure xylitol, stevia, unrefined sugar or agave
*Add hot water slowly while stirring