Cacao – Part 2

Cacao as a Superfood

How is cacao processed?

The cacao pods are hacked with a machete off the tree trunk or limb and then they’re split open. The rind is discarded, so just the pulp and seeds remain. Next follows a period of several days while the pulp and seeds are piled up and left to ferment. This “sweating” time is crucial to sweetening the bean, which at first is very bitter. The pulp becomes increasingly liquefied and the wet seeds or beans are separated out for several more days of further fermenting and then drying.

After this initial curing process, a slow, low-temperature heating lets the beans easily shuck their shells, and finally the beans and pulp can be used in their various ways: as nibs, butter, paste, or powder.

What are some foods made with cacao?

Since cacao was first brought to Europe in the 17th century, cultures have developed a huge number of ways to use this delicious bean.

Of course we’ve all enjoyed the candies and desserts made from chocolate:  candy bars, cakes, brownies, cookies, ice cream, pudding, and innumerable other confections.

But cacao is also the source for other products perhaps less well-known: like chocolate liqueurs, chocolate gravy, and mole.  There are even chocolate-covered potato chips!

Why is cacao a superfood?

The two most important health-promoting characteristics of cacao are its antioxidant effect and its magnesium, although many other properties are also recognized as beneficial.

Cacao’s antioxidant phenolic phytochemicals and flavonoids, known for their ability to fight free radicals, make it one of the best foods for prevention of heart disease and stroke and for improving circulation – not to mention helping to avoid premature aging!

Cacao is said to contain 40 times the antioxidants contained in blueberries, which are also considered antioxidant-rich.

Magnesium, found in high concentrations in the cacao bean, is a powerful energy booster and fatigue fighter that also protects against osteoporosis. Magnesium is thought to help balance circadian rhythm, our daily cycle of sleeping and waking time.

And there are a host of additional health benefits from the cacao bean. It’s recognized as a mood booster, for example; and by improving circulation, it increases blood flow to the brain, thereby improving mental acuity.

The healthy fats found in cacao boost growth, immunity, and metabolism. And believe it or not, one ounce of cacao nibs contains nine grams of fiber – making cacao useful in regulating the bowels and also in losing weight!

Cacao’s flavanols lower blood pressure and one of them (Epicatechin) regulates insulin levels. In addition, the amazing cacao bean contains lots of important nutrients, like iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, and more.

It’s even said to prevent dental cavities and improve the health of hair, fingernails, and skin.

Another substance in cacao, called anandamide, has a soothing effect on mood. And a compound called PEA or phenethylamine that is found in cacao allows the release of endorphins and other pleasure-producing neurochemicals, which has led to chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac. Indeed, it’s effectiveness in that area was noted even by the ancient Mayans.

If healthy chocolate is a mere after-thought in your diet, something you eat only when it’s offered to you, maybe you should re-think that. Raw cacao and other minimally-processed chocolates deserve respect for their superlative value as superfoods.  It’s quite possible that including cacao more regularly in your eating habits will result in a stronger, healthier you!