I am Cacao, king of the chocolates!

Submitted by Nicholas Wiid on the 5th March 2012

If you are not an avid chocolate lover, then you have obviously never had good chocolate. But, whatever your private confectionary preference, chocolate is certainly one of the most popular and most desired sweet treats on the market. Moreover, a number of studies claim that, like red wine and green tea, chocolate has a number of health-promoting properties. Now this is not completely unfounded, however, it appears to be the form in which the chocolate is consumed that determines the degree of health benefit.

Chocolate is made from the raw cacao bean, a small dried and fermented seed found in a large seed pod on the cacao tree. Raw cacao is rich in polyphenols, particularly flavonoids, which are associated with numerous health benefits in the body, including improvement in antioxidant status, reduction of inflammation, lowering of blood pressure and protection against the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and stroke.1,2,3 The beans also provide valuable nutrients, being high in carbohydrates, protein, dietary fibre and minerals such as zinc, copper, calcium and magnesium. In addition, the fat present in cacao beans is comprised predominantly of palmitic, stearic and oleic fatty acids, which do not raise blood cholesterol levels.2 In fact, the consumption of cacao is actually thought to aid in reducing LDL levels (‘bad cholesterol’) in the blood.

Raw cacao is also known to increase the concentration of ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain, including phenylethylamine (PEA) and anandamide.3,4,5 PEA results in feelings of alertness and focus and, by affecting the levels of serotonin and endorphins in the brain, induces pleasurable sensations and enhances the mood. 4 On the other hand, anandamide (the word ananda is Sanskrit for ‘bliss’) causes changes in blood pressure and blood sugar levels, promoting alertness and feelings of excitement, while also reducing the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.3,4 Both compounds are actually believed to act in a similar way to amphetamines 4,5, enhancing your mood and decreasing depression, but without the undesired side-effects or illegalities that synthetic amphetamines commonly carry. To top it all off, PEA and N-acylethanolamine compounds found in cacao have even been reported to produce aphrodisiac effects and heighten sensitivity 4, adding another good reason to consume this worthy bean.

On the flip side, there are also a few negative impacts on health associated with both cacao and chocolate. Cacoa is high in oxalate, which inhibits calcium absorption in the body.6,7 High levels of oxalate are also found in many other foods, such as spinach, beets, black pepper, most nuts and beans. Furthermore, the high sugar content in chocolate further increases the excretion of calcium in the urine. Excessive amounts of both oxalate and sugar can therefore adversely affect calcium balance and lower bone density and strength, while increasing the risks for bone fractures (especially in the elderly).8 The stimulant properties of cacao can also negatively affect certain sensitive individuals in a similar way to caffeine. Apart from these aspects, fat and sugar are major high-energy components of chocolate which, if consumed in excess, could lead to weight gain in the long term.1

In terms of choosing raw cacao beans, it is generally best to opt for organic, since mass-produced beans are normally grown with artificial chemicals. And then of course you have to ask: can I just eat loads of chocolate or are raw cacao beans better? Unfortunately for milk chocolate lovers, most of the benefits outlined above only really apply to extremely dark chocolate with low sugar content, or to the raw beans themselves. Furthermore, it is recommended that the equivalent of only a few raw cacao beans per day is optimum. When it comes to taste (some may not like the bitter raw cacao flavour), the best manner of getting the benefits of raw cacao, as well as an enjoyable experience, would be to mix the raw beans with other things, like fruit and nuts. One great way of doing this would be to eat raw chocolate balls. These tasty treats are made with raw organic cacao, dates and raisins, as well as nuts, ginseng and Fo-Ti (a Chinese herb traditionally believed to have energising qualities), and manage to maintain a good balance between rich, chocolaty, sweet and flavourful.

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References :


  1. Cooper, K.A., Donavan, J.L., Waterhouse, A.L., Williamson, G. (2008).  Cocoa and health: a decade of research. British Journal of Nutrition, 99, 1–11.
  2. 2. Steinberg, F.M., Bearden, M.M. & Keen, C.L. (2003). Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: implications for cardiovascular health. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 103, 21-223.
  3. Sathyapalan, T., Beckett, S., Rigby, A.S., Mellor, D.D. & Atkin, S.L. (2010). High cocoa polyphenol rich chocolate may reduce the burden of the symptoms in chronic fatigue syndrome. Nutrition Journal, 9, 55.
  4. Afoakwa, E.O. (2008). Cocoa and chocolate consumption – are there aphrodisiac and other benefits for human health? South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition Journal, 21(3), 107-113.
  5. di Tomaso, E., Beltramo, M. & Piomelli, D. (1996). Brain cannabinoids in chocolate. Nature, 382(6593), 677-678.
  6. Massey, L.K., Roman-Smith, H. & Sutton, R.A.L. (1993). Effect of dietary oxalate and calcium on urinary oxalate and risk of formation of calcium oxalate kidney stones. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 93, 901– 906.
  7. Aremu, C.Y. & Abara, A.E. (1992). Hydrocyanate, oxalate, phytate, calcium and zinc in selected brands of Nigerian cocoa beverage. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, 42, 231–237.
  8. Hodgson, J.M., Devine, A., Burke, V., Dick, I.M. & Prine, R.L. (2008). Chocolate consumption and bone density in older women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition Journal, 87, 175–180.