Botanical name: Theobroma cacao.
The name is derived from the Greek, and literally means “Food of the Gods”.
Cacao is the seed (nut) of a fruit of an indigenous South American jungle tree; it is from where chocolate is derived. While some might think cacao and cocoa are one in the same, they are not. Cacao is the botanical name, while cocoa is the product made from it. Edible parts of cacao pods and the beans inside them can be processed to make chocolate after being dried and fermented.
Most of the special and beneficial properties of cacao are destroyed and lost by heating, cooking, refining, and processing. There is an extensive difference in health benefits, between cacao that has been heated to high temperatures, and cacao that is raw (heated to a maximum of 42*C).
Because cocoa beans were prized for their medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties, they were traded just like currency among ancient South American civilizations.
Cacao can improve heart health, cholesterol, stress levels, and inflammation, to list just a few physical advantages. Antioxidants protect us from age-related health conditions and illnesses. They shield our DNA from free radical damage. Raw cacao contains more than 300 different chemical compounds and nearly four times the antioxidant power of your average dark chocolate – more than 20 times than that of blueberries. It contains protein, calcium, carotene, thiamin, riboflavin, magnesium, sulfur, flavonoids, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. The precise blend of all these elements combined serves to kick in naturally occurring phytochemicals that have incredible benefits throughout the body, such as lowered LDL cholesterol, improved heart function, and reduced cancer risk.
Phenethylamine, or PEA, is one of them. Large doses of this compound are said to be released into the brain when we’re attracted to someone, but natural pain- and stress-relieving chemicals known as neurotransmitters stimulate the secretion of endorphins to help us stay alert and focused.
Studies have shown that chocolate affects your emotions and mood by raising serotonin levels, which explains why chocolate is often craved when gloominess looms. Also to the rescue is a neurotransmitter called theobromine, a mild stimulant sometimes used as a treatment for depression. It releases the compound anandamide, which produces uniquely euphoric feelings of relaxation and contentment.
Chocolate bars get a bad press because of all the stuff it’s usually mixed it with – white sugar, hydrogenated fats, soy and dairy products. For those who think chocolate must be bad for you (it has to be if it tastes so good, right?), rest assured: natural raw cacao has none of the downsides of processed chocolate. It’s what’s done with it that makes the difference. Unfortunately, high heat from processing and refining to produce different types of cocoa or chocolate damages the cocoa bean’s micronutrients, along with the health benefits. The great properties of cacao can be destroyed by high heat, so it’s important to know just what type of processes your chocolate has undergone.
The earliest known evidence that cacao was processed for ingestion goes back as far as 1,400 B.C.E., gathered from discoveries of its residue on pottery excavated in Honduras, possibly to ferment the pulp for making an adult beverage. Sweetened forms came about when the Europeans landed in the New World and tasted cacao in liquid form. Although they hated it at first, someone discovered that adding honey made it downright palatable. By the 17th century, this form of chocolate was all the rage in Europe, and subsequently, the world. It still is.
Now, we can eat raw chocolate, which is free from refined sugar, and ultimately brings us the health benefits, the energy, and the love that Cacao truly is!