- Cacao is one of the most unique, nutritionally dense and complex superfoods and on the planet.
- Cacao promotes alertness, improves working memory, and increases blood flow to the brain.
- Cacao reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety by boosting serotonin and dopamine.
- Full of antioxidants, cacao improves blood pressure, reduces inflammation, and boosts immunity.
What is cacao? Isn’t it just chocolate?
All chocolate comes from the cacao bean, but not all chocolate and cacao products are created equally. Cacao and cocoa come from the same tree, Theobroma cacao, meaning “food of the gods” in Greek; however, there is a significant nutritional difference between raw cacao powder and a milk chocolate candy bar. The difference is in the processing.
“Dutch processing,” which is how most chocolate products are manufactured, diminishes most of the antioxidants in cacao beans through chemical processing and high heat. In addition to being stripped of nutrients, processed chocolate has lots of added sugar, dairy, and chemicals and not enough actual cacao to reap the best mental and physical benefits of the cacao bean.
Containing more antioxidants per gram than blueberries or red wine, raw cacao retains all the healthy flavonoids and nutrients that makes it such a high-ranking superfood. This is great news for people who love the taste of rich, quality chocolate but want to keep all the wonderful nutrients and antioxidants of the cacao bean.
How does cacao improve your mood?
A lot of people think of chocolate as a treat to elevate your mood, but is that really true? Yes! Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a compound found in cacao that has been shown to alleviate depression. In one study, 60% of patients felt sustained relief of depression after consuming PEA daily and reported no side effects from the treatment. PEA increases the activity of major neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin to increase pleasure and improve mood.
Cacao also contains anandamide, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, contentment, and anxiety. Higher levels of anandamide are linked to increased happiness and well-being and decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety. Cacao can both stimulate endocannabinoid receptors and block anandamide’s metabolization to naturally improve our mood. Ananda literally means "bliss," making anandamide the "bliss chemical" in chocolate.
How does cacao stimulate the brain?
Cacao beverages and snacks are a great way to start our day or give us an afternoon boost. Cacao has theobromine, a primary methylxanthine which has been shown to increase cognitive function and decrease mental fatigue, but without the negative side effects of other stimulants like sodas and energy drinks. In one study, theobromine supplementation activated the BDNF pathway (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor) to increase working memory which aids in learning and cognitive tasks.
In another study, theobromine and other cacao flavanols improved mood and performance during tasks that required sustained mental effort. By increasing cerebral blood flow, cacao flavanols also improve visual contrast sensitivity and spatial memory. A study of older adults showed an increase in blood flow to the brain after just one week of flavanol-rich cocoa consumption. Cacao can increase our mental alertness safely and naturally while also keeping us calm and focused.
What about physical health – what else can cacao do?
Cacao is rich in polyphenols, making it a powerful antioxidant. One of the best defenses against viruses and disease is a healthy immune system. A diet high in antioxidants and nutrients like zinc and vitamin C can boost our immunity making us less susceptible to illnesses and environmental toxins. The theobromine in cocao plays an immunoregulatory role that is responsible for cocoa's influence on both systemic and intestinal antibody concentrations. Positive changes in the immunoregulatory system were observed after a single week on a diet containing 0.25% theobromine.
Cacao is a powerful prebiotic, meaning it promotes the growth of healthy microorganisms in the intestines. Advances in molecular biology show that changes to gut microbiota are linked to many diseases and disorders. Consuming theobromine in cacao decreases the bad bacteria and feeds the beneficial bacteria, and other cacao compounds could also act on intestinal bacteria, enhancing theobromine’s effects. An increase in healthy gut bacteria improves digestion, increases calcium absorption, and enhance carbohydrate metabolism.
The breakdown of cacao beans in the colon also creates nitric oxide, which has a positive impact on our cardiovascular system. Cacao has been shown to improve heart health by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. A review of nine studies found higher chocolate consumption linked to lower risks of heart disease and stroke. Cacao increases arterial flow, and even one small serving a day led to an obvious improvement in vascular function in healthy adults.
We will get the best benefits for our gut health, immune system, and cardiovascular system if we choose products that contain raw cacao and not sugary candy bars. Over the years, processed chocolate has increased our consumption of sugar and dairy which can spike insulin levels, while at the same time those products contain less and less real cacao. The higher the concentration of cacao we consume, the more benefits we can realize from this proven superfood.
What is the easiest way to add cacao to my diet?
Cacao is very versatile and can be consumed in a variety of ways. One of the easiest ways to work cacao into your diet is to use it to replace highly processed chocolate products. The flavor of cacao is richer than processed milk chocolate and much more satisfying. Cacao can also easily blend with other nootropics such as blueberries or lion’s mane mushrooms to improve their taste.
We can add cacao powder to warm milk, mix it in smoothies, or buy beverage mixes that contain cacao and other nootropics. In baking, cacao powder is a healthier substitute for regular cocoa powder but still provides the rich chocolate flavor we love. Cacao powder can also be sprinkled on oatmeal, granola, and yogurt for a healthy snack or breakfast. Cacao nibs can be eaten as a snack by themselves or added to trail mix, cereal, or cookies.
When that next chocolate craving hits, enjoy healthier, nutrient-rich cacao beverages and snacks bars to reap all the benefits of cacao’s antioxidants. By sticking to raw cacao, we can enjoy our chocolate while also giving our mind and our mood a pleasant boost.