Modern science rediscovers ancient wisdom with cacao
Ancient civilizations considered cacao a life-enhancing, medicinal superfood, but once Milton Hershey figured out how to mass-produce milk chocolate over a century ago, cacao became synonymous with the sweet candy treat. Today, scientists are beginning to rediscover what the ancients knew: Cacao is one of nature’s most powerful, multi-tasking, therapeutic foods.
Cacao vs. Candy
Technically speaking, Theobroma cacao is the tree that bears pods full of the seeds that we usually call cocoa beans—although chocolate experts generally call the beans “cacao” and the powder “cocoa.” Either way, the beans are a concentrated source of powerful antioxidants that lower blood pressure; improve cholesterol levels and blood flow; enhance heart and artery health; regulate blood-sugar and mood; lower levels of stress hormones; and even extend life.
Chocolate emerges when ground beans or cocoa powder are mixed with fat, sugar, and perhaps milk. This combination has more calories than pure cocoa, and it dilutes—but doesn’t necessarily destroy—the beans’ medicinal qualities.
The Latest Research
A review of seven studies that followed more than 114,000 people, published in the British Medical Journal, found that those who ate the most chocolate had 37 percent less risk of heart disease, 29 percent less risk of stroke, and 31 percent less risk of diabetes. In the studies, people consumed chocolate bars, chocolate drinks, chocolate cookies, even chocolate supplements. Their overall intake was what mattered.
In another study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, found that people who regularly eat chocolate are thinner than abstainers, possibly because the antioxidants in cocoa beans improve metabolism. And British researchers found that eating 100 grams of dark chocolate two hours before cycling reduced the levels of oxidative stress that typically accompany intense exercise.
Earlier this year, the American Chemical Society, held a special symposium on cocoa where international experts presented the results of new studies, including:
- Although there is a belief that chocolate can trigger migraines, cocoa may actually be useful in treating the condition (other ingredients in chocolate could be problematic for some people). Animal research found that cocoa soothes the trigeminal nerve. When excited, this nerve is a probable cause of migraines and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder.
- In smokers, cocoa antioxidants reduce harmful blood clotting.
- In the small intestine, antioxidants in cocoa inhibit the secretion of enzymes that cause inflammation, according to an animal study.
- Cocoa may reduce the risk of colon cancer by preventing harmful changes in cells.
- Cocoa protects the liver against damage and disease, according to animal research.
Ways to Eat Cocoa
Consuming any amount of cocoa in place of less-healthy calories delivers benefits. These are some ways to do it:
- For an antioxidant boost, eat 1 oz. of dark chocolate with 70-percent cacao instead of a cookie or candy.
- As a snack, try cacao nibs—the contents of a shelled cocoa bean. Sweetened and unsweetened nibs are available.
- Sprinkle raw cacao nibs on yogurt or a bowl of berries to add crunchiness.
- For a refreshing summer drink, blend ice cubes with unsweetened cocoa powder and your favorite nut milk or hemp milk. If you prefer more sweetness, add a touch of stevia.
- Instead of pouring sugar-filled chocolate-flavored syrup on ice cream, try shaved dark chocolate.
- When purchasing chocolate flavored drink mixes and foods, look for “cacao” listed as an ingredient, rather than chocolate flavoring.
- Choose “non-alkalized” chocolate or cocoa, as the alkalizing process destroys antioxidants. “Dutch cocoa” is alkalized.
How to Benefit from Supplements
Eric Ding, PhD, an instructor and nutrition researcher at Harvard Medical School, is part of a team that reviewed well over 100 cocoa studies. “Between 400 and 500 mg of cocoa flavonoids daily will produce maximum benefits,” he says. Outside of supplements, research suggests that you’d need to eat around 6—7 100-gram (3.5 oz) milk chocolate bars or 3 100-gram dark chocolate bars to obtain that amount of flavonoids.
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