The Secret Health Benefit of Cacao for a Guilt-Free Indulgence

Cardinale, Grace. “Health Benefits of Cacao”. Accessed July 2021. PNG

From Nesquik to Hershey’s milk chocolate bars, everyone is familiar with cocoa powder and milk chocolate in some form or another. On the other hand, cacao powder is the un-roasted, healthier, but less well-known version packed more fully with feel-good compounds and minerals due to its unprocessed nature. Stick around to uncover the exact components that earn cacao the Mayan title of “Food of the Gods”. Later, we’ll jump into a lineup of recipes to keep you nourished throughout the whole day, touch on the history and cultural significance of chocolate, and finally discuss current controversies and how YOU can be the impetus for change. Our aim here at Cook & Culture is to show how eating chocolate (the right way) is just about the best decision you could make at any given moment for your health. (Yes, even for breakfast and dessert every day, just watch the saturated fat and caffeine content!)

Keep in mind that to reap the full physical benefits of chocolate in bar form, stick to 70-75% dark chocolate or higher. Another disclaimer: the cacao bean truly is a superfood and has a wide variety of healthy compounds, molecules, and minerals that cannot be covered in a single blog post. This article, however, will be covering the ones most clearly correlated with specific mental and physical benefits to health. So let’s get started!

3 Physical Health Benefits of Cocao

1. Flavanols (Antioxidants)

First and foremost, chocolate is known for its flavanol content. Nerd alert: flavanols are a type of flavonoid, which are a type of polyphenol, which are a type of antioxidant. (Believe me, it took me approximately an hour to wrap my head around these distinctions).

Free radicals are any molecules that enter the body via pollution and toxins and contribute to cancer and other unwanted physical afflictions through cell damage. The antioxidant nature of cacao’s flavanols fight them, however, helping to lower:

  • Blood pressure
  • Inflammation
  • Your risk of cancer, diabetes, and coronary heart disease

It’s quite efficient at it, too, considering how raw cacao possesses 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries, another superfood. Studies reveal that the flavonoid Epicatechin, in particular, is strongly correlated with increased blood flow, meaning improved cardiac health and even cognitive health.

Warming cacao powder on spoon, peeled cacao beans in background all on wooden table.

2. Iron

In the body, iron is critical for building proteins that carry oxygen to your muscles and from the lungs to the rest of your body. And what is the highest plant-based source of iron? You guessed it; it’s cacao. At a miraculous 7-8 mg per 100 grams, it has you covered. For anyone on a vegan diet, cacao may be the only iron-rich food you really need to take.

3. Fiber

The prebiotics contained in the fibers of dark chocolate aid tremendously in digestive health. Prebiotics are the foods your healthy gut bacteria need to flourish and carry out essential functions. In addition, given that digestive and gut health are linked with the brain, the fibers also aid in mental health.

5 Mental Health Benefits of Cacao

While cacao’s physical benefits are superb – reducing risk factors for many diseases and contributing to general health – there is much more to be said about what it can provide. We’ll now jump into the mood- and cognition-enhancing effects you can expect!

1. Theobromine

Caffeine and theobromine are both xanthine alkaloids (please excuse the scientific jargon), meaning their effects are similar, only the latter is milder. Theobromine is my favorite psychoactive component of cacao especially since its name is even derived from the Genus Theobroma that the cacao tree falls under. “Theobroma” itself literally translates to “god food” in Greek, so this mild stimulant could explain a lot of the magic that is felt when consuming chocolate products. In any case, studies widely regard the mixture of theobromine and caffeine as the main reason humans find chocolate irresistible.

Similar to polyphenols, theobromine lowers blood pressure. But on the psychological  side of things, you can count on theobromine to improve your mood and sustain it much longer than caffeine can, which tends to have a more immediate, stress-building effect.

2. Caffeine

Yes, dark chocolate has a significant amount of caffeine in it, so it will keep you buzzed for several hours as a result. There seem to be just as many studies touting the beneficial aspect of caffeine in treating depression and suicidal thoughts as there are studies suggesting the opposite is true. A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t already have anxiety, the moderate amount of caffeine in dark chocolate will work to improve your mood. Just try to avoid indulging with a whole bar of dark chocolate for dessert, if you know you’re sensitive. 70% dark chocolate contains 25 milligrams of caffeine per ounce (approximately 1/4 of a cup).

3. Phenylethylamine (PEA)

Known as “chocolate amphetamine” due to its chemical similarity with the drug, this is a stimulating neurotransmitter that promotes attraction, excitement, and the feelings of wellness and being lovestruck through endorphin release. It’s no wonder, as it is released in mass quantities during the initial “honeymoon” period of any loving relationship. Along with tryptophan, PEA is very likely the cause of the aphrodisiac nature of chocolate. It was discovered in the 1980’s that no other food on Earth possesses quite the amount of PEA as chocolate!

4. Magnesium

Magnesium is one of the most essential and abundant minerals in your body. Magnesium stores in the body are depleted when there is chronic, or severe and ongoing, stress. “Emerging evidence confirms that nearly two-thirds of the population in the western world is not achieving the recommended daily allowance for magnesium” (Schwalfenberg & Genuis, 2017), with the symptoms of this deficiency being self-evident. Fortunately, cacao has one of the highest magnesium sources in natural foods. By consuming a 1 ounce serving of dark chocolate you are already meeting 16% of your daily Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI). Studies suggest that by replenishing levels of magnesium this way, we become more resilient in fearful situations, and can improve our mood, energy and sleep difficulties as effectively as antidepressant medication. If you’re interested in other magnesium-rich foods and a bit more of the science behind the different varieties, see our other article, “Chill Out and Sleep Well with Foods High in Magnesium”!

5. Anandamine

Another fantastic stress-reducing component of cacao is anandamide. Ananda-what now? It is a neurotransmitter that mimics the high you get from ingesting THC, or cannabis. Although there are only trace amounts, cacao also contains chemicals that slow its breakdown. This added feature indirectly allows you to reap all the calm but stimulating mental benefits!

A Day In the Life of a Chocolate Lover

Dried red chili pepper on top of dark chocolate bars.

Moving on, we will do our best to offer you a recipe for any occasion or mood you happen to find yourself in. We want to cater to different palettes whether you appreciate the bitter, sweet, healthy, or indulgent side of chocolate. You can try these out to celebrate World Chocolate Day (July 7) or even better, try them out on any day to make it feel special!

Breakfast

The notion of a no-bake “energy ball” packed with nutrients AND flavor definitely hits home for me as it satisfies the need for a quick pick-me-up breakfast. In these energy balls you will find not only dates, walnuts and nut butter of your choosing, but tart-tastic cranberries. Be sure to swap out the cocoa powder for cacao powder to get your dose of flavanols.

Afternoon Snack

To have cacao peanut butter toast, just sprinkle on some powder; no recipe is needed for this simple but filling snack! And why not wash it all down with a traditional spicy chocolate drink, the way the ancient Mesoamericans had it? Be forewarned, you are more likely to appreciate this concoction for its novelty than for its flavor.

Dinner

There are, notably, fewer savory dishes that utilize cacao, but that’s not to say they are less worthy of experimenting with. Behold, chocolate chili! The cacao powder adds a definitive richness that almost cancels out the harsher acidity of other common chili ingredients like tomatoes. Give it a whirl!

Dessert

Dessert time! One of our favorite ways to indulge our sweet tooth is by acquiring the darkest chocolate bar we can find at the supermarket and freezing that bad boy. But, we at Cook & Culture understand that many of you want to know how to enjoy cacao in a more thought-out manner. What drew us to this complex Paleo cake was its creator’s undeniable attention to detail. The first thing you will notice that separates this cake recipe from all the rest is its incorporation of three types of flour – almond as the main, coconut for structure, and tapioca for airiness. This cake is gluten free, dairy free, and even vegan if you swap the eggs for another binding agent. A Paleo diet’s dream come true!

Looking for a little more sophistication in your dessert of choice for the evening? This mousse, complete with avocado, cacao powder, honey, coconut oil, and shredded coconut, has got your back (and your stomach).

If you’re looking for more good finds, check out this diabetic-friendly compendium. Personally, we’re eager to try the black bean brownies!

Charlie and the Chocolate History

World Chocolate Day is a global event that occurs every year on July 7th, indicating the day chocolate was introduced to Europe in the mid-16th century. This is a day that, since its inception in 2009, people have come to celebrate in many different ways. Some individuals simply add more chocolate products to their shopping cart around this time, while others seek its health benefits, or acknowledge the global impact and influence of the cacao tree. In any case, there’s an understanding that chocolate could be humankind’s greatest food invention, a delicious superfood that is not confined to any one country’s borders. So how did this day come into being?

Landscape view of Chichen Itza, ancient Mayan site on a sunny day.

For most of cacao’s history, it was consumed in bitter drink form flavored only with spices. Archaeological evidence indicates that the first uses of cacao occurred in Ecuador in 3300 BC. However, cacao was first farmed, turned into a paste and used in ancient Mayan ceremonies roughly 2 millennia ago. It came to represent their culture, and was even buried alongside the dead to nourish them on their journey to the afterlife.

The Aztecs cherished cacao, too, but had to trade for it. A 16th century document shows how cacao beans were even used as a legitimate currency. In 1519, when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez dined in the royal court of Aztec ruler Montezuma II, he recognized the value in cacao, and is rumored to have introduced chocolate to the global sphere.

Let’s jump forward to the 17th century. The Spanish were occupying Belgium, and they decided to share their knowledge of turning the cacao bean into all manner of sweets. Locals developed a sweet tooth overnight. Meanwhile, in 1657, the first “chocolate houses” sprung up all over England, establishments set up to accommodate the growing need for locals to enjoy the aphrodisiac, hangover-reducing qualities of the chocolate drink.

Innovation continued into the 19th century, when Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten created the first ever cocoa solids that were given an alkalizing agent to reduce the natural bitterness. Although this Dutch processing streamlined and popularized chocolate consumption even further, it removed much of the antioxidants cacao normally contains (by 70 to 90%, to be precise).

Soon after, Nestlé was born when cocoa solids and butter were mixed with powdered milk in 1875. In the WWI and WWII eras, they distributed chocolate energy bars to US Army soldiers. Their distaste resulted in trading with European locals, which attracted even more international fame.

Nowadays, cacao trees are grown in the equatorial, rainforest-covered regions of the world. Central and South America are the birthplaces of the cacao tree, but over two-thirds of the world’s supply of cacao is harvested from just four West African countries.

Current Events and the Future of Chocolate

We wouldn’t be surprised if your worldly selves were already familiar with the social impact of large-scale chocolate production. To meet the world’s high demand, a large global workforce was needed ever since the 18th and 19th centuries. The chocolate sourced by large companies like Hershey and Nestlé comes from slaves in countries like Ghana and the Ivory Coast. “In 2015, Tulane University researchers revealed that a shameful 2.3 million children were working on cocoa production in the Ivory Coast and Ghana alone, 90% of whom were slaves” (Flight, 2018).

In February of 2021, a huge controversy surfaced relating to multinational chocolate corporations like Nestlé and Hershey, the controversy being their allowance of the ongoing enslavement of African children for cocoa harvesting. A class action lawsuit followed, the first of its kind to be raised in the U.S. against chocolate companies. With the lawsuit, the thinking is that these companies can finally be forced, legally, to stop their unethical business practices.

While the cocoa industry is almost entirely dependent on child trafficking and overseas slavery, and how this has been since the 18th and 19th centuries, the good news is that it’s possible to enjoy the benefits of cacao without contributing a single penny their way.

How You Can Eat the Right Way

Bowl of cacao beans and cacao powder on black background.

From Aztecs to Mayans, ritual use of cacao was quite common and royal ceremonies would often be performed wherein the consumption of cacao was linked with a deeper connection to their respective gods. Even in more modern times, these traditions of ancient Mesoamerican societies are held intact in some circles.

Ceremonial grade cacao avoids industrial manufacturing methods that all but destroy much of chocolate’s nutritious value. “Ceremonial-grade cacao” is a term referring to pure, fermented cacao bean paste that retains even more of the healthy compounds that are already in abundant supply in products like dark chocolate and cacao powder. Specifically, one of the two main cacao varieties is utilized: the criollo bean. This bean is higher in compounds such as theobromine, serotonin, PEA and anandamide, especially when it is prepared the more traditional way. Lastly, cacao becomes ceremonial grade when it is organic and contains minimal or no added sugar.

Ceremonial grade cacao avoids industrial manufacturing methods that all but destroy much of chocolate’s nutritious value. “Ceremonial-grade cacao” is a term referring to pure, fermented cacao bean paste that retains even more of the healthy compounds that are already in abundant supply in products like dark chocolate and cacao powder. Specifically, one of the two main cacao varieties is utilized: the criollo bean. This bean is higher in compounds such as theobromine, serotonin, PEA and anandamide, especially when it is prepared the more traditional way. Lastly, cacao becomes ceremonial grade when it is organic and contains minimal or no added sugar.

Infographic distinguishing the differences between ceremonial grade cacao and industrial cacao powder.

 Pena, Katherine. “Ceremonial-GradenCacao Production Process”. Accessed June 2021.

So how to acquire this cream of the crop cacao? You can peruse here for some starting ideas, but Firefly offers arguably the best products for beginners to try.  Let’s hear it from the founder himself!

Jonas Ketterle, the founder of Firefly, had many wonderful insights to share with me. In our conversation, we discussed his reasons for consuming cacao the way he does, how his story began, and what benefits of cacao he finds most transformative in both a personal and communal context.

Jonas figured it was worth mentioning that preparing and sharing cacao in the traditional, unsweetened drink form are always the highlights of his experience with it thus far. That it alters our neurochemistry in such a way that we are given better mood and energy, is what allows individuals to care for their bodies and minds. He finds that, perhaps unlike most of the foods we consume, we can actually develop a relationship with cacao, and share our life and gratitude with it as if it was a person. This personification requires some humility on his part, but in return he and others can receive guidance and creativity.

Jonas is a subscriber to the whole foods movement, which is why the cacao paste is preferable over the powder. Not only does the butter found in it act as a “carrier mechanism” that Jonas affirmed “any healthy substance needs”. He acknowledges that people can come to recognize the cacao-specific mood and energy boosts, which are distinct from the sugar rush many are accustomed to, and also that cacao comes from a certain, unique supply chain. “Every dollar we spend, we are voting on something”, he told me.

You can enjoy chocolate in a number of ways thanks to society’s ancient and modern adaptations of the cacao tree. With that being said, there are certain ways to buy, prepare and enjoy it so it not only elevates your own mental and physical health, but preserves the sanctity of our planet as it heads further into the 21st century.

Want to reap the mood-lifting benefits of cacao AND support fairtrade, bean-to-bar initiatives? Feed two birds with one scone by hopping over to Jonas Ketterle’s brainchild website, Firefly Chocolate!

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Written by Case van der Burg