What is Cacao? Health Benefits

Cacao is a type of tropical tree, part of the evergreen family, that produces the world’s chocolate in raw form, before fat, sugar, and other “sweeteners” are added. The cacao tree grows in a few specific regions of the world naturally, including Mexico and South America, where most of the cacao or chocolate beans/seeds come from. Cacao trees only grow in tropical areas with the right combination of climate, temperature, and environment factors. You can’t just plant a cacao tree anywhere – it won’t grow or survive in the wrong conditions.

The Cacao tree has been grown and harvested for thousands of years, and still so today, for its powerful chocolate seeds. Many things are made from this raw seed, such as cocoa (pulverized cacao seed mixed with sweeteners), chocolate (candy, drinks, etc…) and cocoa butter. The cacao tree can reach a height of 25 feet, with “seed pods” growing up to four inches thick and a foot long. The shell is a leathery texture, much like that of a coconut.

Each of the pods can produce as many as 40 seeds (called beans before they are processed and stripped of their hard protective shell). The “beans” are approximately one inch wide. There are many different Theobroma tree species being cultivated in Tropical South America every year. You can also find these trees in South-East Asia, West Africa, and Mexico. The benefits of some of the better resources for finding the cacao tree are that some are grown under the shade of much bigger (and different) trees. This has a profound effect on the end resulting seeds, which tend to be more potent and higher in antioxidants.

The cacao tree will not bear any fruit (thus no cacao seeds) until the tree is at least four years old. When harvested, the seeds are separated from the pods (still in their protective shell), and laid under banana leaves and left to “ferment”. This causes it to become more potent and powerful in nature. Once fermented, the beans are dried to prevent mold from growing on the plant (this is, after all, the tropics!).

A fun fact you may not know is that, several hundred years ago, cacao beans were a form of currency, as was caffeine when it was first discovered! A sort of biological form of silver where every inch of the seed was considered valuable and the seeds would be weighed to get their true value.

The Cacao tree comes in three main species, recognized as a standard in many areas: Forastero, Crillo, and Trinitario (a hybrid of the first two!). There are even several varieties within each of these three. Now that you know what the cacao plant/tree/seeds/nibs are, let’s dive into the subculture of the cacao plant

Introduction To The Cacao Culture
The terms Cacao and Cocoa are often mistakenly used interchangeably to mean the same thing. For many years, the two terms did mean the same thing. Nowadays, however, both terms are used to differentiate different parts of the process and ingredients. Cocoa is now a term to describe, for the most part – processed and sweetened cacao – much like the hot cocoa we’re all used to!

Cacao is used to describe the seeds (actual chocolate base), the tree (where the seeds grow), and the “pods” (a coconut looking “container” that holds the actual cacao seeds/beans called nibs when you separate them from the seeds hard shell just before creating the chocolate liquor or powders).

How Does Cacao Go Into Making Dark Chocolate?
Dark chocolate is the result of crushing and liquefying nibs or cacao seeds without the shell into what is known as chocolate liquor. It’s further processed into a chocolate powder or bars of chocolate through a press. Cacao is not added TO dark chocolate; it IS chocolate at the core! You get pure cacao when you don’t add other things to it (sweeteners, fat, etc…) and the term “dark chocolate” is synonymous with “pure chocolate” to varying degrees. The darker and less affected the chocolate – the stronger and more powerful the effects of the health enhancing ingredients.

Health Benefit Of Cacao
Cacao is packed with vitamins and antioxidants that make it almost a super food or natural Multi-Vitamin! The beneficial ingredients found in the Cacao nibs (raw chocolate) are Antioxidants, Theobromine, Phenylethylamine, Essential Minerals and Vitamins. To briefly overview each benefit:

Antioxidants: One of the main health benefits of chocolate is its high concentration of antioxidants. Although processed chocolate still has a good concentration of antioxidants – the processing and cutting (adding new ingredients and mixing them together) of the raw cacao seed tends to lower that amount. If you want the best hardcore antioxidant power of cacao beans/seeds, then you will want to get it in its natural raw state – nothing added, nothing taken away.

Theobromine: This is a mild stimulant that has a diuretic affect. In other words it can make you have to use the bathroom a lot and if you don’t drink enough water, it could dehydrate you. Its benefits, however, include helping to push toxins out of your body (the diuretic process), and gives you a very mild rush, enhancing your mood.

Phenylethylamine:
This is one of the mood enhancers. In combination with theobromine, phenylethylamine can elevate your mood and make you feel what I can only describe as a sense of well being. Phenylethylamine is a super low potency antidepressant that works similar to the body’s endogenous dopamine and adrenaline (low doses).

Serotonin

Cacao can increase the levels of serotonin your brain produces. This is beneficial if you’ve been feeling down and depressed, a condition that can come with lower levels of serotonin. Eating cacao can raise your natural levels of serotonin and create a balancing effect.

If you suffer from PMS, your levels of serotonin are likely below the harmony mark, and eating chocolate or cacao seeds (raw is more potent) can raise your level. If you aren’t deficient in serotonin, this can give you a stimulating effect making you feel happy and at peace.

Essential minerals: Cacao beans are loaded with many essential minerals the body needs. These include magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium and manganese

Essential Vitamins: A, B1, B2, B3, C, E and Pantothenic acid

Other Health Benefits of Cacao:

  • Increased blood circulation which can improve focus, reduce headaches, and more.
  • Did you know chocolate is an anti-aging food?
  • Cacao can be used to suppress coughing.
  • It can reduce cholesterol which is good for heart health.
  • Known in some circles as a mild smart food (boosts brain power synergistically due to the ingredients affect on your body, blood, and more).

While cacao is highly nutritious, it can be fattening if not eaten in moderation. Even in it’s raw pure form, chocolate (nibs or cacao seeds) still contains ingredients that can cause weight gain.

To recap the health benefits, the cacao in raw form is the most potent and offers many great benefits such as mood elevation, mild antidepressant qualities, focus (caffeine), and a raise of serotonin levels. These are all three mild in nature but together it tends to strengthen the benefits. The more you eat of the raw cacao the more these benefits are present. Again be careful because although it can make you feel wonderful – it can also make you gain weight if you’re not careful.

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