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.
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