If you’re like most of western society, you love chocolate in all of its incarnations: ice cream, candy bars pressed into Halloween shapes, milkshakes, cookies, cake, brownies, as a fruit dip, smeared into peanut butter sandwiches, and even (if you’re particularly hedonistic) as a decadent cloak for bacon. But as much as we enjoy the contents of our trick-or-treat bags and our stockings, there is always a feeling of guilt. Delicious as it is, the angel on our shoulder always hides her head in shame when we sink our teeth into a sweet candy bar. Chocolate is not, tragically, a health food.
…Or is it? (Spoiler alert: it totally can be.)
First, what exactly is real chocolate? The real, whole-food component of quality chocolate comes directly from cacao seeds. Cacao is one of the oldest, most potent, best-loved super foods in history—particularly in South America. Though cacao is renowned for its fantastic health benefits, most of the cheap candy you scored at Halloween contained little or no cacao at all. That is why Halloween candy is not a health food.
Fruit-bearing cacao trees, which grow naturally in South America, produces fruits which are commonly referred to as pods. Each one of these pods weighs a little over a pound when fully mature, and contains between 30 and 50 seeds, usually called ‘cacao beans’. The natural, minimally processed version of these beans make up the superfoods we see on the shelves today: cacao nibs, cacao butter, et cetera.
Central and South American peoples have indulged in cacao for thousands of years—it served as a treat, as a powerful medicine, and even as currency! Most famously, the Mayans occasionally used cacao beans to barter for clothes, food and other services. The Mayans are also responsible for the very first cup of hot chocolate (or, more accurately, hot cacao), which consisted of ground-up cacao beans, water, and various spices. This drink was typically consumed only by the highest-ranking members of society. As empires rose and fell, cacao held onto its prestigious place.
Cue imperialism. When the Spanish showed up, they quickly recognized cacao as a precious resource, and as they colonized Mexico, they began growing and trading the valuable beans. When they exported foods derived from cacao beans to Europe, they had to add sweeteners to cater to the European palate. This practice, unfortunately, continues to this day—the most popular products derived from the cacao tree are so saturated with sugar and additives that they have none of the health benefits of raw, whole-food cacao beans.
Cacao first showed up in the United States in 1765 in the hands of an Irish immigrant named John Hanan, who imported the beans from the West Indies. With the help of James Baker, he founded America’s very first chocolate factory. You may recognize their product as Baker’s Chocolate. From then on, the popularity of chocolate has skyrocketed, while its humble and healthy origins have been largely forgotten by the western world.
Until now. As the general population has become more interested in health, fitness and super foods, cacao has started showing up in stores as nature intended: whole, raw, and loaded with health benefits.
So, what are some of the health benefits of raw cacao?
Health Benefits of Raw Cacao
1. It’s loaded with antioxidants.
Raw cocoa is packed full of antioxidants, which combat dangerous free radicals and reduce the amount of harmful oxidation that occurs within the body. One study published in 2003 found that cacao contains higher levels of antioxidants than black tea, red wine, and even green tea!
Increased intake of antioxidant-heavy foods is associated with a reduced risk of serious illness, such as diabetes, heart disease and several cancers, and death. They are also thought to improve immune function.
2. It can protect you from cardiovascular disease.
Cacao’s high antioxidant levels make it an extremely heart-healthy food. The powerful polyphenols found in cacao can lower bad cholesterol, but they can also make the cholesterol in your blood less harmful by preventing it from becoming plaque! How?
The plaque in your arteries, it turns out, is the result of LDL (bad cholesterol) oxidation. Since antioxidants reduce oxidation, less plaque builds up in your arteries, and your circulation improves—which means you are less likely to suffer from heart disease.
3. Cacao can improve your mood.
Healthy foods in general have been shown to improve mood, but cacao has an effect more potent than your standard serving of leafy greens: it contains a mood-boosting chemical called anandamine, which has been linked to mild euphoria and happiness. In addition, cacao stimulates the production of serotonin, the brain’s very own feel-good chemical.
But that’s not all. Cacao also boasts quite the magnesium content, which can combat fatigue and boost your energy levels in a significant, but sustainable, way. And who isn’t happier when they’re full of energy?
4. It can improve insulin sensitivity and lower your risk of developing type II diabetes.
Today, type II diabetes runs rampant in adult populations, and it is more common than ever even among children. While sprinkling cacao nibs over your oatmeal will not serve as a magic pill, several studies have linked cacao products to a reduced risk of insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes).
One study in 2015 found that participants who consumed medium or high levels of cacao-derived flavonols greatly improved their insulin sensitivity.
5. It can boost cognitive function.
In addition to the clarity provided by a boost of energy, cacao’s effect on your insulin sensitivity may have the added effect of improving cognition! The aforementioned 2015 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that the participants who consumed the most cacao flavonols also experienced the biggest improvement in memory. According to one of the study’s authors, this represents only a small piece of the growing evidence that insulin resistance and diabetes may be linked to impaired cognition. Who knew cacao could be brain food?
6. Cacao can reduce the negative effects of aging on our skin.
Want to grow older and wiser without growing capital-O “Older”? Cacao’s antioxidants prevent the cell damage that causes us to look and feel our age. This is why antioxidant-heavy foods so often cause the much-desired youthful glow enjoyed by citrus lovers the world over.
7. It can protect you from suffering from a blood clot or stroke.
One study performed at the University of California found that cacao reduces the risk of blood clots by thinning your blood—the effect was as significant as taking daily aspirin!
Another study in Sweden followed over 35,000 Swedish men for a period of ten years. At the end of the study, they found that those who consumed the most chocolate were the least likely to suffer from a stroke. This echoes the results of a German study in 2010, which found that participants who ate the most chocolate had the lowest blood pressure. As we know, high blood pressure increases your risk of stroke. Lower blood pressure, lower stroke risk.
Because both of these studies involved chocolate rather than pure, raw cacao, researchers were quick to warn against eating too much of the high-fat, high-sugar milk chocolate so many of us love. Imagine what kind of results the studies would have yielded if they relied on whole, raw cacao instead of processed chocolate!
8. Cacao may protect against sunburn.
This is a weird one! A study conducted in Germany found that women who consumed a cocoa beverage that was chock full of flavonoids did not burn nearly as quickly as women who went without the pre-UV exposure cup of cocoa. When they did burn, their skin did not redden to the same degree.
This is apparently only one study in a bunch of recent experiments done that have linked antioxidant consumption to a reduced risk of sun-induced skin damage. That being said, you should still put on sunscreen before you go swimming!
9. They contain fiber.
This is one thing you’re not going to get from your standard chocolate bar! An ounce of cacao nibs has nine grams of fiber. Fiber is linked to improved digestion, reduced constipation, and a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease.
10. It contains high levels of healthy fats.
Though a segment of the population is still stuck in the fat phobia of the 1990s diet scene and believe the myths, those invested in the current health and nutrition research have come to realize that healthy fats are a necessary component of overall wellness. Fats are necessary for hormone production, brain health, regulating mood, healthy skin, healthy hair, and even immune function.
Raw cacao is full of healthy fats that are similar to the type of fat most commonly found in olives and olive oil. And, as a bonus, raw cacao doesn’t have any of the unhealthy saturated fat found in milk chocolate!
11. It may help aid weight loss.
Processed chocolate is not a weight loss aid, but raw cacao may be! Cacao contains chemicals that reduce your appetite, so you don’t feel compelled to eat as much. And, perhaps more obviously, raw cacao is lower in calories than its processed counterpart.