Cacao beans are the seeds of the Theobroma Cacao tree, Theobroma literally meaning "food of the gods" (from Greek, theo - "God" and broma - "food"). It is one of the most complex food sources. Although cacao still holds some mysteries, research shows many health benefits and neurocognitive effects.
These healthy effects of cacao are especially present in pure cacao. Different processing techniques like alkali (Dutch) processing, pressing cacao (to separate the butter and powder) or roasting at high temperatures, destroys favourable compounds that make cacao so healthy. This is why ceremonial cacao is processed as little as possible, learning from traditional use of indigenous cultures, which is healthier and makes the effect purer and stronger.
Nutrition of Cacao
The antioxidants in cacao beans can also help control inflammation. That's because oxidative stress can contribute to chronic inflammation, increasing the risk for diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So, as antioxidants in cacao combat oxidative stress, they can also pump the brakes on inflammation. What's more, these antioxidants can also decrease the production of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines, thereby reducing your risk for inflammation to begin with.
Improves Gut Health
The polyphenols in cacao beans are actually prebiotics. This means they "feed" the good bacteria in your gut, helping them grow and flourish, which, in turn, can help you avoid both temporary and chronic digestive issues. Simultaneously, the polyphenols may also work against the bad bacteria in your tum by inhibiting their proliferation or multiplication. Together, these effects help maintain microbial balance in the gut, which is key for supporting basic functions such as immunity and metabolism.
Supports Heart Health
Aside from combatting oxidative stress and inflammation — two contributors to heart disease — the antioxidants in cacao beans release nitric acid, which promotes vasodilation (or widening) of your blood vessels. In turn, blood can flow more easily, helping decrease high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease. In fact, a 2017 study found that eating six servings of chocolate a week could reduce heart disease and stroke. But wait, there's more: Magnesium, copper, and potassium — which are all found in cacao — can also reduce the risk of hypertension and atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in your arteries that's known to inhibit blood flow.
Helps Control Blood Sugar
The aforementioned 2017 study also found that chocolate can also lower the risk of diabetes and it's all thanks to the antioxidants in cacao beans. Cacao flavanols promote the secretion of insulin, the hormone that shuttles glucose into your cells. This helps stabilize your blood sugar, preventing it from spiking. This is important because chronic high blood sugar levels can increase your risk for diabetes. Cacao also contains some fiber, which slows the absorption of carbohydrates, thus stabilizing blood sugar levels and providing you with a steadier stream of energy throughout the day. For instance, just one tablespoon of cacao nibs offers around 2 grams of fiber; that's nearly the same amount of fiber in one medium banana.
Aside from direct benefits for the sugar levels, cardiovascular system, gut health, etc. cacao contains many compounds responsible for mood regulation - these are exactly what is causing the uplifting blissful effects of ceremonial cacao. Still, the positive influence on the mood does not end with a ceremony: these chemicals affect your cognitive function, sleep and energy levels long after the ceremonial bliss is gone - especially when consumed regularly. Now, what are these chemicals?
Theobromine is an alkaloid responsible for the stimulating effects of cacao. It is a heart stimulant, dilates blood vessels and reduces blood pressure. Compared to caffeine, theobromine gives a longer and softer energy without the peak and dip that many people experience. Also it is found to reduce coughing, alleviate asthma symptoms and harden tooth enamel.
Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a mood regulator that triggers happiness hormones like endorphin, dopamine and noradrenalin, similar to when you fall in love or have sex. It increases focus and energy and gets you in a flow where you lose track of time, which is great for working or boosting your creativity. It also increases your libido, diminishes anxiety and is used as an extract against depression symptoms.
Anandamide is called the "bliss molecule" (ananda means "bliss" and "delight" in Sanskrit) for creating a feeling of euphoria also known as the runner’s high. It regulates mood, motivation, memory, appetite and pain perception.
Tryptophan is critical for producing serotonin (a hormone responsible for happiness levels and diminishing anxiety) and melatonin (a hormone regulating sleep). At the same time modulating agents (MAO inhibitors) in cacao prevent the breakdown of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine making the effect longer and stronger.