Human consumption of cacao has a long history – dating back thousands of years.
The World Cocoa Foundation says growing cacao as a crop was started by South American cultures such as the Aztecs and Mayans. Studies of cacao history show the Aztecs consumed cacao as a bitter drink – which was later sweetened and flavoured by Spanish conquistadors according to their taste.
The commercial chocolate we now know didn’t take off until the 19th century, and today is mostly seen as an indulgence. At the same time, scientific studies are revealing there are many potential health benefits of consuming cacao as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Cacao vs cocoa: what is the difference?
Cacao is the seed of the tropical Theobroma Cacao tree which is native to the Amazon region. All chocolate and cocoa products are derived from cacao.
In a botanical sense, cocoa and cacao are the same, since the word ‘cocoa’ is the English adaptation of the Spanish ‘cacao’.
In terms of modern language and food products however, the two can be quite different. For example, when we speak about cocoa, we are usually referring to the core ingredient of processed chocolate and cocoa products which are made from roasted beans. Cacao products on the other hand are usually less processed, as they are derived from beans which are raw and unroasted.
Cacao’s health-promoting compounds
Studies on cacao are relatively new, but so far laboratory tests are providing evidence it contains many beneficial compounds.
For example, according to published research in the Antioxidants and Redox Signalling Journal, cacao contains more phenolic antioxidants than most foods. Other beneficial compounds of cacao include fibre, minerals such as magnesium, copper, iron and potassium, and monounsaturated fats such as oleic acid.
Potential health benefits of cacao
Research is showing that cacao can contribute to healthier skin, heart and brain, and even to better moods.
Here are some examples of potential cacao benefits:
- Heart health – the fibre in cacao has been shown to improve the LDL : HDL cholesterol ratio. Cacao’s phytonutrients and minerals can also reduce the risk of high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.
- Stroke prevention – some studies show a reduced risk of stroke in subjects who consumed chocolate two to three times a week.
- Brain health – cacao’s flavanols can improve blood flow to the brain, in turn improving mental performance and reducing dementia risk.
- Glucose metabolism – the insoluble fibre and copper in cacao may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Blood health – cacao is high in iron which can help combat anaemia.
- Skin protection – some studies show that consuming high-flavanol cacao can increase oxygen saturation and blood flow to the skin.
- Mood improvements – some research indicates methylxanthines in cacao may have a positive effect on mood.
Many of the studies on cacao have been relatively small, and so research is ongoing to find out more about this amazing bean.
Real-life example of cacao’s health benefits
The island-dwelling Kuna Indians of the Panama consume ten times the level of cacao than mainland Panamanians, and they have much lower rates of type-2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, cancer, and hypertension at every age.
Of course, the island Kuna do more than just eat cacao. They also eat local fish, vegetables and fruits, and consume their cacao drink as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Why consume raw cacao?
The processing and roasting of cacao beans can make it a less reliable source of healthy compounds such as flavonoids and fibre. Processing also often involves adding fats and sugars. This reduces the proportion of cocoa in the food or drink product, and it also adds calories – which can lead to weight gain.
Raw cacao on the other hand is made by cold-pressing unroasted beans which helps keep much more of the nutritional profile intact.
This is why we use raw cacao in our DUST cacao infusion range, as it makes a much healthier way to consume your delicious daily “chocolate” fix!