By the time cacao makes it to our grocery store shelves in the form of chocolate, it’s hard to imagine that the main ingredients come from a plant. Yet for thousands of years, humans have cultivated the cacao tree, continually fine-tuning the process of turning the interior beans into the many decadent and smooth chocolate creations of today.
Most people consume chocolate because it tastes good, but high-quality cacao products have powerful positive effects on cardiovascular function, athletic endurance, and cognitive function. It basically makes your heart healthier and your brain smarter. It’s no wonder the botanical genus name translates to “food of the gods.”
|Botanical name:||Theobroma cacao|
|Parts used:||fermented seeds|
|Plant properties:||cardio protective, neuroprotective, inflammatory modulator, stimulating nervine|
|Plant uses:||improving mood, lowering blood pressure, increasing insulin sensitivity, supporting healthy cholesterol levels, supporting brain health, decreasing inflammation|
|Plant preparations:||beverage, candy, food|
When you stand in front of the chocolate display at the grocery store, you may not realize it, but you are looking at one of the most popular herbs of all time!
Long cherished by the peoples of Central and South America, cacao trees now grow in tropical locations around the world in order to fuel a global obsession with chocolate. Cacao trees probably first grew in Venezuela and were spread over time by human cultivation throughout the Amazon rain forest.
By at least 2000 B.C.E., humans were using cacao beans as food, beverage, and medicine. In time, cacao beans became the preferred currency in these areas. The Aztec empire was so enamored with cacao that taxes had to be paid in cacao beans. In 1519 the Aztec ruler Montezuma offered a chocolate drink (with vanilla and cayenne) to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.
This became the drink of the elite after Cortés brought chocolate and vanilla back to Spain in 1528. In a letter to Charles V of Spain, Cortés calls cacao “the divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.”
Medicinal Properties of Cacao
The cacao bean is rich in polyphenols, which are micronutrients with antioxidant properties. Cacao flavanols are part of the flavonoid subclass of polyphenols, and have been well studied for many health benefits. However, it’s important to note that while many of the human clinical trials done so far have been on isolated constituents of cacao, the most benefits come from eating the whole bean.
1. For Your Heart
Have you heard the story of how we figured out the incredible benefits of cacao? In the late 1990s, researchers wondered why an island off the coast of Panama had so little heart disease while Panama itself was riddled with it.
They went to the island and discovered that the Kuna people who lived there were drinking many cups daily of a beverage made out of the cacao plant. They brought samples home to study and discovered that cacao was extremely high in flavonoids and antioxidants that protect against heart disease. Since then, countless scientific studies have been conducted on cacao, and the results have been outstanding!
Studies have specifically shown that dark chocolate can reduce high blood pressure, increase HDL(the protective lipoprotein), and even increase insulin sensitivity, thus reducing the risk of diabetes.
While many in vitro studies show cacao’s ability to reduce levels of inflammation that are related to heart disease and other chronic health problems, researchers are calling for well-designed human clinical trials to confirm these effects.
2. For Your Mood
If you are a chocolate lover, then you are probably already aware of cacao’s ability to improve your mood. Scientists have been studying this elusive effect for decades with varying conclusions.
One review of the literature concluded that the most consistent mood-enhancing effects come from eating whole chocolate rather than individual chocolate constituents like theobromine, caffeine, carbohydrates, or cacao flavonoids. 8 Unfortunately, many of the human clinical trials done so far have been on isolated constituents instead of the whole cacao bean.
3. For Your Brain
Cacao not only helps your mood but also improves your cognitive function (your combined abilities of alertness, memory, and attention span). One study in elderly patients found that cacao improved their cognitive function and lowered their blood pressure.
The researchers surmise that this was due to an improvement in insulin sensitivity, making cacao a surprise ally against insulin resistance and diabetes.
4. For Fatigue
Cacao has even been shown to help people with chronic fatigue syndrome. In a double-blind clinical study researchers asked 10 people with severe chronic fatigue to rate the severity of their symptoms.
For eight weeks, half of the people were given high-polyphenol chocolate and the other half were given lowpolyphenol chocolate. After eight weeks, those taking the high-polyphenol chocolate reported a significant improvement in their symptoms and also noted a decrease in anxiety.
How To Use Cacao
But hold on . . . Before you reach for that cheap chocolate bar, there’s something else you need to know: most popular chocolate candies have too much sugar and not nearly enough cacao content to be supportive of health. One of the best ways to consume chocolate for your health is to eat dark chocolate that has a minimum of 70 percent cacao.
High-quality dark chocolate bars will list the cacao content clearly on the front label. If you don’t like dark chocolate, we recommend slowly starting to increase the percentage on your chocolate bars.
Dark chocolate may be an acquired taste, but once you prefer it there is no going back. The healthiest way to include cacao in your diet is to skip products with sugar entirely and use 100 percent cacao. Cacao nibs, cacao powder, and 100 percent cacao bars are readily available. When choosing cacao powder for your health, avoid Dutch process cacao since it has lower antioxidant content.
The daily recommended dosage for cacao will vary among people and the products chosen. The EU Commission recently issued a statement saying that to get the heart health benefits of cacao, 2.5 grams of high-flavanol cocoa powder or 10 grams of high-flavanol dark chocolate is recommended.
Some people are not able to consume cacao because they are sensitive to the mild stimulants it contains, namely theobromine and caffeine. When choosing cacao for your health, pick dark cacao powder or products with a high cacao content and low in sugar.
The source of the chocolate is another important consideration. Before indulging, do your research on chocolate brands. Some commercial chocolate makers have been implicated in the use of forced child labor and other unfair labor practices.
Unless the label says otherwise, commercial chocolate also has been grown with an array of pesticides. To get the healthiest chocolate for yourself and the planet, buy organic chocolate that has been certified fair trade.
1. Cardamom Chocolate Mousse Cake
Chocolate lovers can celebrate this exceptionally dark chocolate mousse cake. Each bite slowly melts in your mouth while the cardamom spice enlivens the senses. This is my family’s go-to dessert recipe for potlucks, and we’ve been asked for the recipe countless times. If you don’t have a double boiler, fill a pot with 1 to 2 inches of water and place a tight-fitting bowl over the top.
Yield: 1 9-inch cake, approximately 16 small servings (or 8 large servings)
- 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate
- ⅓ cup coconut oil
- ½ cup honey
- ½ cup cocoa powder (plus extra, for garnish)
- 1 (13.5-oz.) can coconut milk
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon cardamom powder
- 2 tablespoons vanilla extract sliced almonds, for garnish (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
- Put 1 to 2 inches of water in the bottom pan of a double boiler. Melt the bittersweet chocolate and coconut oil in the top.
- When they are melted, remove from the heat. Add the honey and cocoa powder and mix well.
- Add the coconut milk and mix well.
- Whisk the eggs in a small bowl. Add the whisked eggs, cardamom, and vanilla extract to the chocolate mixture and combine well.
- Pour the mixture into a slightly oiled 9-inch pie pan.
- Bake in oven for 30 minutes.
- When the cake is done, the top should be cracked but the middle should still be soft and wiggly.
- Cool overnight to allow it to set. Sprinkle with sliced almonds, if desired.
- Sprinkle some cocoa powder on top before serving.
2. Chocolate Strawberry Pudding
This light pudding is a perfect way to enjoy fresh spring and summer strawberries. The avocados give it a creamy consistency but otherwise don’t distract from this delicious chocolate dessert.
Yield: approximately 3 cups
- 1 ounce 100%cacao unsweetened baking chocolate
- ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- ¼ cup honey
- ¾ cup coconut milk, full fat
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 very ripe avocados, peeled and pitted
- 1 cup diced strawberries, stems removed
- Put 1 to 2 inches of water in the bottom pan of a double boiler. Melt the baking chocolate in the top. Remove from heat when completely melted.
- Into the same bowl, mix the cocoa powder, honey, coconut milk, vanilla extract, salt, and cinnamon.
- Combine the chocolate mixture with the avocados and strawberries in a food processor. Puree until it has a smooth consistency.
- Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours, and enjoy within 24 hours.
3. Hot Chocolate
This recipe isn’t going to taste like the sugary, light chocolate of your youth. Instead this is a dark, frothy, and delicious blend for your grown-up taste.
If you are new to appreciating dark chocolate, you may want to start out using half cacao powder and half Dutch process cocoa.
Yield: 2 cups, 2 servings
- ¼ cup 100%cacao powder (16 grams)
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
- 2 tablespoons butter (or coconut oil)
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon honey, or to taste
- Put 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan and turn the heat to high. When the water is hot (not boiling), whisk in the cacao powder and cinnamon.
- When fully mixed, remove from the heat, then add the butter, vanilla extract, and honey. Stir to combine until the butter and honey have melted.
- Pour the liquid into a blender. Put the lid on loosely so steam can escape, and blend on high for 30 seconds.
- Pour into cups and enjoy immediately.
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