Cacao – An ancient medicine validated by modern science
If you like chocolate, you’re not alone. People have been enjoying cacao, the base ingredient for any chocolate, for thousands of years. This delicious and nutritious superfood has a long, rich history among the peoples of the tropical regions of the Americas.
Cacao was used as a food, a medicine, and a currency. Some of us still use it in these ways today. An important and celebrated part of their culture, historians have verified its use in societal rituals and legends. After being discovered by European explorers several centuries ago, cocoa grew steadily in popularity in each culture it was introduced to, becoming a viable part of economies as it became part of their diet. The demand continues to increase even today.
The demand and popularity for chocolate and the cocoa it comes from has led to vast changes in processing from the original superfood of old. Today, comparatively, few people have ever tasted true, original cacao, the ancestor to present day mainstream chocolate, or “heirloom” chocolate. Made from the seeds of the fruit from a delicate tropical evergreen tree, theobroma cacao, cocoa beans, powder, and butter have a somewhat bitter taste. The bitter taste indicates it is true cacao, but many find it unpleasant which is why sugar and milk solids and other additives are now mixed with it. The dilution of its true taste also means its powerful phytonutrients have been diluted as well.
Most mainstream candy bars, for instance, have under 10 percent cacao, and the amount and integrity of the phytonutrients suffers from oxidation and alkalinization during processing (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21699218).
However, as modern research and experiments are conducted on cacao and its traditional uses and phytonutrient power are confirmed and validated, demand is growing for the original superfood. Most health food stores now offer a selection of cacao products, such as nibs and chocolates with up to 70 percent cacao, making it easier for consumers to experience the “food of the gods.”
Studies support the traditional use of cacao
The indigenous peoples of middle America have long believed that cacao was a gift from their creator. The perfect food; cacao has more than 300 phytochemicals, including vitamins, minerals, and dietary nutrients such as: fat, carbohydrates, fiber, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. It also has quercetin, flavonoids, flavanols, xanthenes, polyphenols, caffeine, theobromine, phenylethylamine, and anandamide, among others. It has many uses as a stimulant, antibacterial, antioxidant, and protector of the cardiovascular system. (http://www.phytochemicals.info/plants/cacao.php)
The effectiveness of cacao for many of its traditional uses can be attributed to its nutrient density. It is a “whole” food with many vital phytonutrients, including essential vitamins and minerals, as well as trace minerals, good fats, fiber, and fuel for the body. The polyphenols, flavonoids, and xanthenes further explain cacao’s health benefits, as well as the interest of researchers.
One area of interest to researchers is the effects of dark chocolate on cardiovascular health. Findings indicate that it reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, based on clinical and epidemiological studies and In vivo experiments. Results found that cocoa and chocolate lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, improve platelet function, raise HDL, and decrease LDL oxidation .(http://www.phytochemicals.info/plants/cacao.php).
A study in Australia found daily consumption of dark chocolate to be beneficial for people with metabolic syndrome, including health challenges such as diabetes and obesity. They concluded it could be an effective preventive strategy against cardiovascular problems (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22653982).
Another study of the effects of dark chocolate on blood pressure and prehypertension subjects found decreased systolic blood pressure after just 15 days of consuming 15 grams per day (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22156352).
A different study found cocoa polyphenol extract to provide beneficial effects for controlling arterial blood pressure. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22020342)
The beneficial effects of dark chocolate on cardiovascular health are, in part, due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Studies have demonstrated chocolate’s beneficial effects on endothelial function, blood pressure, serum lipids, insulin resistance, and platelet function.
A study currently underway is taking a closer look at whether or not the high content of flavonoids and polyphenols also provide a preventive effect against coronary heart disease. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21894553) Another way chocolate benefits heart health is through stress reduction. Cocoa polyphenols’ effects on plasma metabolites, hormones, and oxidative stress after exercise were studied and found to increase mobilization of free fatty acids and reduce oxidative stress markers. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21558573)
Studies support consumption of dark chocolate for more than just heart health
Antioxidants have a wide application of disease prevention health effects, offering cellular level protection and anti-inflammatory properties wherever the body needs it. In addition to heart health, the polyphenol power of cocoa extract has been demonstrated to inhibit inflammation in ulcerative colitis in mice. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21574661)
Theobroma cacao seeds have polyphenol/amino acid conjugates found to show anti-adhesive effects toward Helicobacter pylori bacterial infections (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21520488), validating traditional use of cacao as an antibacterial.
Chocolate has long been thought to boost immunity and improve overall health. A recent study shows a diet enriched with cocoa flavonoids suggests the potential of preventing and treating allergic diseases. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22342543)
As with most other studies regarding antioxidant effects on cancer, some studies suggest that the bio-active compounds in cocoa have potential chemo-preventive effects against colon carcinogenesis, due to prevention of oxidative stress and cell proliferation. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21953728)
Cocoa is good for the brain too. Traditional uses include antidepressant, mood leveler, and improvement of cognitive function due to the constituents that influence our neurotransmitters. One study suggests that adding cocoa to a the diet during nutritional recovery reduces damage caused by oxidative stress and helps to restore glutathione levels. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21826449)
Considerations for use
Some of the constituents in cocoa may aggravate people sensitive to nickel or tree nuts, resulting in dermatitis (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21371113,http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21269309). However, chocolate rich in flavonoids can also offer skin protection against UV damage, but conventional chocolate does not offer the same effects (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19735513). Chocolate can be lethal to dogs. Over-consumption of chocolate can lead to weight gain. The effects of cocoa constituents can be stimulating, quickening the pulse, providing a feeling of excitement, and boosting energy. Therefore, consume only small amounts, especially toward the end of the day.
Cocoa contains more phenolic antioxidants and flavonoids than most other foods. The bio-activity of these compounds have a favorable impact on cardiovascular health, along with the anti-inflammatory effects of the polyphenols. These phytochemicals also show positive effects on insulin resistance, thereby possibly reducing the risk of diabetes. Cocoa’s chemical constituents stimulate immune response. They provide protection to the nerves, skin, and brain, and boost energy. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21470061)