Cacao – A Superfood that’s Best Raw
No, I didn’t misspell it! Cacao is the name of the bean cocoa (chocolate) is made from. After processing it becomes the cocoa powder, chocolate syrup, and candy we’re all familiar with.
Cacao is jam-packed with incredibly powerful nutrients. Raw cacao powder has over 300 beneficial phytochemicals and almost four times the antioxidant power of dark chocolate. It also contains protein, calcium, carotene, thiamin, riboflavin, magnesium, and healthy sulfur.
So cacao is chocolate in its most unprocessed state, but what makes raw cacoa so much better than supermarket cocoa powder?
Processing Robs Cacao of Many Nutrients
Cocoa powder and chocolate are made by chemically processing and roasting cacao, destroying many of the antioxidants and flavanols that benefit your health. A recent study finds that between 60 and 90 percent of the antioxidants in cacao are lost through the typical manufacturing process called Dutch processing (1).
Dutch processing was developed in the 1800s to reduce bitterness, mellow the flavor, and darken the color to make attractive and tasty chocolate products. But it also eliminates much of what makes cacao so good for you.
The nutrients in cacao are easily destroyed by the heat and chemicals of processing. So if you want to get the most benefit from this superfood, you need to eat it raw.
Let’s take a closer look at the amazing health benefits raw cacao.
Cacao Can Make You Healthier
Groundbreaking findings, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2), confirm what many previous studies have shown; chocolate and cocoa affect important risk factors for cardiovascular disease by:
- Reducing insulin resistance
- Reducing triglyceride levels
- Improving blood vessel function
- Reducing LDL cholesterol
- Increasing healthy HDL cholesterol
- Decreasing blood pressure
Boosts Brain Function
Cacao can provide long-term protective benefits for your brain and memory, as you age.
In a study of 90 seniors with mild cognitive impairment (usually leading to dementia), participants were given cacao for eight weeks and showed measurable improvements in their cognitive function (3). In an animal study cacao was found to help prevent changes in the brain that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease (4).
Cacao flavanols could also help long-term cognitive function through its anti-inflammatory effect (5). It’s believed that inflammation plays a big role in cognitive impairment and dementia by damaging blood vessels and reducing blood flow.
So anything that helps control inflammation can help keep the brain healthy and our memory sharp.
The damage free radicals do to healthy cells can eventually cause cancer. With its high level of antioxidant compounds called polyphenols, cacao may protect cells against this damage.
A 2016 study in Pharmacognosy Magazine (6) examined the effects of antioxidant compounds found in cacao, called procyanidins, on ovarian cancer cells. They found that procyanidin selectively killed these cancer cells and interrupted their normal growth cycle.
Cacao Makes You Happier
Eating raw cacao comes with an awesome fringe benefit; it genuinely improves our mood. Cacao does this by stimulating the production of euphoria-inducing chemicals like anandamide, endorphins, methylxanthines, phenylethylamine, and serotonin.
Even processed cocoa (as chocolate) has been shown to relieve depression and anxiety while enhancing calmness. The flavanols and methylxanthines are believed to create these mood-enhancing effects.
Of eight studies reviewed that assessed chocolate’s effects, five showed distinct improvements in mood (7).
In another study, subjects reported feeling more calm after consuming a daily chocolate drink with high polyphenol content. The group that drank a placebo with no polyphenols experienced no improvements in mood (8).
Compared to chocolate without polyphenols, high-polyphenol chocolate also improved depression, anxiety and other symptoms in people with chronic fatigue syndrome (9).
Improves Skin Health and Appearance
Researchers gave a high-dose cocoa flavonol drink (similar to what raw cacao could provide) and a low dose flavonol drink to two groups of women over a three month period (10).
Skin health was measured before and during the study. They checked blood flow to the skin along with skin hydration and density.
The study found much better outcomes in the high-dose flavonol group. Skin roughness and scaling were significantly reduced in the group that consumed the high flavonol drink.
But they didn’t stop there. The participants were exposed to forced ultraviolet light (UV) exposure to test if flavonols had a protective effect. By the end of the study, the group that consumed the high flavonol drink experienced a 25 percent reduction in skin UV damage compared to the placebo group.
- Impact of Alkalization on the Antioxidant and Flavanol Content of Commercial Cocoa Powders. Kenneth B. Miller, William Jeffery Hurst, Mark J. Payne, David A. Stuart, Joan Apgar, Daniel S. Sweigart, Boxin Ou. . Agric. Food Chem., 2008, 56 (18), pp 8527–8533 – Link
- Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Lee Hooper Colin Kay Asmaa Abdelhamid Paul A Kroon Jeffrey S Cohn Eric B Rimm Aedín Cassidy. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 95, Issue 3, 1 March 2012, Pages 740–751 – Link
- Benefits in Cognitive Function, Blood Pressure, and Insulin Resistance Through Cocoa Flavanol Consumption in Elderly Subjects With Mild Cognitive Impairment. The Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study. Giovambattista Desideri, et al. Hypertension 2012;60:794–801 – Link
- Flavonoids, cognition, and dementia: actions, mechanisms, and potential therapeutic utility for Alzheimer disease. Williams RJ, Spencer JP. Free Radic Biol Med. 2012 Jan 1;52(1):35-45 – Link
- The effect of flavanol-rich cocoa on cerebral perfusion in healthy older adults during conscious resting state: a placebo controlled, crossover, acute trial. Lamport DJ, Pal D, Moutsiana C, Field DT, Williams CM, Spencer JP, Butler LT. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2015 Sep;232(17):3227-34 – Link
- Effect of Procyanidin-rich Extract from Natural Cocoa Powder on Cellular Viability, Cell Cycle Progression, and Chemoresistance in Human Epithelial Ovarian Carcinoma Cell Lines. Shruti Taparia, Aparna Khanna. Pharmacogn Mag. 2016 May; 12(Suppl 2): S109–S115 – Link
- Effects of chocolate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review. Andrew Scholey, Lauren Owen. Nutrition reviews, Volume71, Issue10, October 2013, Pages 665-681 – Link
- Cocoa polyphenols enhance positive mood states but not cognitive performance: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Pase MP, Scholey AB, Pipingas A, Kras M, Nolidin K, Gibbs A, Wesnes K, Stough C. J Psychopharmacol. 2013 May;27(5):451-8 – Link
- High cocoa polyphenol rich chocolate may reduce the burden of the symptoms in chronic fatigue syndrome. Thozhukat Sathyapalan, Stephen Beckett, Alan S Rigby, Duane D Mellor, Stephen L Atkin. Nutr J. 2010; 9: 55 – Link
- Long-term ingestion of high flavanol cocoa provides photoprotection against UV-induced erythema and improves skin condition in women. Heinrich U1, Neukam K, Tronnier H, Sies H, Stahl W. J Nutr. 2006 Jun;136(6):1565-9 – Link