Also known as the cacao bean, it comes from the cacao tree, and grows in yellow pods surrounded by a white pulp. The tree itself grows to thirty feet and can produce the seeds for up to four years.
The beans themselves are light brown and dark brown in colour and are about the size of a large bean.
During harvesting the seeds are taken out of the pods, and are the raw ingredient for chocolate. The cacao has a nutty but bitter taste but unlike chocolate it offers the best health benefits as its nutrients are still intact.
The origins of Cacao
The Mayans used cacao to prepare a beverage that was shared during important cultural ceremonies.
The tree grew wild in the dense rainforests of South and Central America. The cacao beans were held so highly in the South American ancient civilizations that they were used as a form of currency.
The tree flourished in the wild but the exact origin of cacao is not known though the Mayans are thought to have cultivated the beans around 1000 BC.
The nutritional component of Cacao
Cacao is rich in the nutrients:
- Total carbohydrates
- Vitamins A and C
- The minerals magnesium, zinc, copper, sodium, iron and calcium
- Dietary fibre
- Saturated fats
How to use Cacao
You can get the cacao butter and the powder from most health stores and some supermarkets which stock them. There are several ways in which you can use the raw form of cacao, such as:
- Make smoothies with the cacao powder by blending it with milk and adding some of your favourite fruits.
- Make your own healthy chocolate by mixing the cacao powder and your choice of a natural powder.
- Cacao nibs can be sprinkled on your desserts to add that nutty, coffee like flavour to it. It can also be added to ice cream and other treats to add nutrients to them.
The health benefits of Cacao
Helps with depression
Cacao contains phenylethylamine, which regulates your moods, especially pleasure and the warm feelings a person gets when they are in love. It is also a stimulant which keeps you mentally alert.
The high levels of magnesium in cacao helps you to feel more relaxed during stressful times.
The flavonoids in cacao are linked to many benefits to our heart, such as:
- Reducing bad cholesterol
- Lowering blood pressure
- The antioxidants on cacao and theobromine, which is a stimulant, improve the flow of blood in the arteries and reduce the build-up of plaque, which is a heart disease risk factor.
Reduce the risk of cancer
The antioxidants present in cacao arrest the free radical in the body thought to contribute to the growth of cancer cells.
They also repair the damage already caused by the free radicals and toxins.
Helps with weight loss
Cacao in its raw form is sugar free and contains few calories. It is also an appetite suppressant helping you to control your hunger in between meals.
The fibre in cacao also sits in your stomach for longer, making you feel full for long periods.
Many beauty products incorporate cacao into their manufacture for the antioxidants present which help the skin glow. Cacao:
- Reduces stretch marks
- Helps with dry and oily types of skin by keeping it well hydrated
- Helps with skin problems such as eczema and skin irritations.
Helps with digestion
The fibre in cacao helps to stimulate digestive enzyme production, making your gut function properly and protect you from digestive disorders.
Cacao contains similar polyphenol antioxidants as though found in green tea. These protect your body cells from destruction from oxidation thus keeping you looking younger.
The sulphur content in cacao also helps with healthy skin and hair.
Give you energy
The magnesium in cacao helps to combat fatigue by optimising the use of oxygen as well as balance brain chemistry and regulates blood pressure, all of which are causes of feelings of fatigue and weakness.
Cacao is also a rich source of iron, used by the body for energy metabolism and the distribution of oxygen throughout the body cells.
Vitamin B2 in cacao is used by the body for energy production and well as for cell respiration.
Vitamin B1 also used for the production of energy in the cells.
Fight tooth decay
Cacao helps to protect your teeth from decay, perhaps even more than fluoride! The extract present in cacao helps to harden the tooth enamel.
Cacao is an aphrodisiac which contains phenethylamine, a compound that triggers the release of endorphins and other neuro-chemicals.
The practice of giving dark chocolate on Valentine’s Day comes from this research that shows the presence of those compounds in cacao that induce feelings of pleasure and raise the libido.
Hormonal mood swings
Women who suffer from PMS , experience terrible mood swings. Cacao boosts the presence of serotonin, a brain chemical that makes you feel good.
When going through PMS, the levels of this brain chemical drop, which is what causes the mood swings.
Cacao helps to regulate insulin levels in diabetes sufferers and also prevents insulin resistance.
Cardiovascular diseases affect many diabetic patients. Cacao aids with blood vessels functioning, reducing the risk of heart disease caused by diabetes.
Studies have shown that cacao thins blood and prevent blood clots which can be life threatening.
Precautions to take when consuming Cacao
• Cacao is a stimulant and if taken after three o’clock it may affect your sleep.
• People allergic to chocolate should also avoid cacao because they can get the same reactions from it as they get from chocolate.
• In moderation, cacao is recommended for diabetic sufferers however too much of it can have the opposite effect and interfere with the control of blood sugar levels.