Cacao – The Mayan Superfood

dry cacao beans

History of Cocoa:

Cocoa was first developed as a crop in many ancient South American cultures, with the Aztecs and Mayans being the most well-known of these indigenous populations. Researchers have found evidence of cocoa-based food dating back several thousand years. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the New World and began the process of invading, colonizing, and ultimately destroying the native cultures, they also discovered the value of the local cacao crop.

However, they brought their own innovation to the appropriated drink—the addition of sugar and spices to sweeten the bitter cocoa. After that point, chocolate became wildly popular amongst the Spanish, who kept the production method a secret from other Europeans for almost 100 years after their discovery. However, the Spanish could not hold onto their secret forever, and chocolate quickly spread across the rest of western Europe. Chocolate—then still exclusively in the form of a drink—appeared in France, and then England, in royal courts and special “chocolate houses” that served the social elite. Hot chocolate was hailed by the upper classes as both delicious and healthy, and cocoa ultimately gained the reputation of being an aphrodisiac.

Europeans began increasingly to colonise Africa, and they brought the cocoa tree with them. Cocoa was successfully planted in Sao Tome and Principe and then migrated as plantations spread throughout the African continent. In effect, since the start of the 20th century, Africa has taken the lead and has become the biggest cocoa producer.

Cocoa Vs. Cacao: What’s the deal?

Chocolate is made from seeds (beans) in the pod-like fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree. Use of “cacao” versus “cocoa” on chocolate products is inconsistent and varies by brand, so don’t assume one is better or different than another. When comparing nutrition labels of products made from cacao beans (whether raw or roasted), the biggest differences you’ll see are in the calorie, fat and sugar content. Cacao products — such as unsweetened cocoa powder, nibs and dark chocolate — are rich sources of minerals. Minimally processed, raw cacao products contain little or no added sugar and are higher in antioxidants than more highly processed products.

  • Unsweetened cacao nibs are small pieces of crushed cacao beans — or cocoa beans — that have a bitter, chocolatey flavor. Add them to smoothies, yogurt, trail mix etc. You may initally find them too bitter if you are accustomed to sugary food – however once you get used to the taste, you will love them!
  • Raw cacao powder is made by grinding and pressing fermented cocoa beans (Theobroma cacao seeds) to remove the natural cocoa butter. It leaves a bitter, minimally processed powder. The taste and quality is superior to standard unsweetened cocoa powder. However, raw cacao powder generally costs more.

Cacao Nutrition:

  • Cacao contains the highest concentration of antioxidants and magnesium of any food in the world.
  • Cocoa antioxidants — including epicatechins and catechins — help reduce inflammation, prevent the spread of cancer cells, and induce death in certain cancer cells.
  • Cocoa intake has also been shown to improve blood vessel function, blood flow, and HDL (good) cholesterol while decreasing LDL (bad) cholesterol and inflammation — all of which can protect against heart disease 
  • Cacao nibs may be one of the best cocoa products to choose for blood sugar regulation, as they’re high in blood-sugar stabilizing antioxidants and do not contain any added sugar
  • Rich in chromium, theobromine, manganese, zinc, copper, iron, vitaminC, omega-6 fatty acids, tryptophan, serotonin, and more.
  • Cacao is a highly effective natural energy enhancer and aphrodisiac. Cacao contains PEA, a chemical that we produce in our bodies when we fall in love. PEAs also play a role in increasing focus and alertness.
  • Anandamide is an endorphin that the human body naturally produces after exercise. Anandamide is known as the bliss chemical as it is released while we are feeling joy. It has only been found in one plant – cacao.

Final Thoughts: Cocoa powders and hot chocolate mixes do not have the same nutritional profile as raw/unsweented cacao products. Most of these mixes are laden with sugars, fillers, etc and the cacao content is also very low, making them unhealthy. It is best to buy an unsweetend/raw cacao products and sweeten them yourself.

cacao nibs

Resources:

https://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/blog/history-of-cocoa/

http://www.worldagroforestry.org/treesandmarkets/inaforesta/history.htm#

https://www.cacaomama.com/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5539137/

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/cacao-nibs

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