Cacao has captivated the world for hundreds of years. The Mayans cultivated cacao as early as 300 CE on the Yucatan Peninsula. The Aztecs were still using it regularly for a drink 1200 years later. Now cacao is still a big part of modern cuisine in the form of chocolate.
Cacao has a significant impact on everything from cholesterol levels to stress and even exercise recovery. Its health benefits include decreased inflammation, improved heart and brain health, and blood sugar and weight control.
Most of the research focuses on the powerful phytochemical group known as flavonoids, of which cacao is one of the best sources in the world. It has more than tea and wine; two foods often touted as superfoods for their flavonoid content alone. However, in cacao, flavonoids are far from the only beneficial compound; it’s also a rich source of various nutrients that work splendidly with flavonoids.
Cacao: A Nutrient-Dense Superfood
Cacao is more than a phytochemical powerhouse; it is also a source of fiber, healthy fats, and minerals such as copper, magnesium, and iron.
But phytochemicals and antioxidants are where cacao shines. Antioxidants such as polyphenols are at the forefront of nutritional science. They are naturally occurring compounds that scavenge the body for damage-inducing free radicals.
These polyphenols have been linked to numerous health benefits, including reduced inflammation, better blood flow, lower blood pressure, and improved cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Cacao and Hypertension
Cacao can reduce high blood pressure or Hypertension. Researchers first noted this effect in the people of Central America, who drank cocoa regularly and had much lower blood pressure than their mainland relatives.
Hypertension is often called the silent killer because approximately one-third of those who have it do not know. High blood pressure causes the heart and blood vessels to work harder and subsequently become damaged.
Cacao and its flavanols have a positive impact on endothelium function. It turns out that many people have endothelium dysfunction because it’s related to increased oxidative stress and reduced nitric oxide production. Here is where flavanols come in hand; they improve the level of nitric oxide in the blood, relaxing and dilating the arteries and blood vessels and improving blood flow.
Cacao and Type 2 Diabetes
We know now that the flavanols in cacao increase nitric oxide production; this process improves vasoconstriction and vasodilation (the narrowing and widening of blood vessels that control blood flow). When the blood vessels are functioning correctly, the endothelium is less susceptible to damage from diabetes.
Additionally, epicatechin, a specific type of flavanol, may improve insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance, inflammation, and oxidative stress in muscle and fat cells.
These factors reduce the significant negative impact type 2 diabetes has on the cardiovascular system.
Cacao and Brain Health
Cacao has numerous positive effects on the brain and cognitive function, including increased cerebral and blood flow and concentration, mood improvement, reduced mental fatigue, and reduced risk of dementia, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Stroke is defined as a rapid loss of blood to the brain because of blockage or bleeding. Those who consume cacao regularly have a lower risk of stroke because cacao’s flavonoids influence the production of nitric oxide, which relaxes the muscles of the blood vessels, improving blood flow and blood supply to the brain.
Besides, cacao’s ability to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes risk indirectly protects against stroke.
Cacao doesn’t only protect from strokes; it also improves cognitive functions. Studies found that there is a strong correlation between regular cocoa consumption and cognitive function. In fact, studies suggest that daily intake of cocoa flavanols can improve mental performance in people with and without mental impairments, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
We also can’t forget about the stimulus effect of cacao. It contains small amounts of the stimulant methylxanthine in the form of caffeine and theobromine. Even though the amount of these stimulants is low compared to coffee and tea, they are pharmacologically active compounds and may explain the feel-good nature of chocolate.
One study found that drinking high-polyphenol cocoa improved calmness and contentment.
Cacao and Physical Activity
In pre-Columbian times, Aztec warriors ate cacao regularly because they believed that cacao imparted strength and inspiration. Today cacao and chocolate are still popular foods for athletes during workouts and in recovery.
Cacao is calorically and nutrient-dense; it supplies small amounts of stimulation from theobromine and caffeine that may help prolong physical activity. It may also improve the widening of blood vessels, which brings more oxygen to your muscles. Plus, it’s delicious.
Cacao holds a unique position as a phytochemically-rich, calorically-dense food that can play a crucial role in getting the energy you need for your physical activity in a health-promoting way.
The majority of calories in cacao come from fat, but cacao also contains carbohydrates and protein, nutrients required for physical activity. Even cocoa powder, which is much lower in fat because the cocoa butter has been removed, is still a good source of the beneficial components of cacao.
Cacao, of course, is more than calories and energy. The other nutrients it contains, magnesium and iron, do more than help you meet your recommended daily intake; they can actually improve physical performance.
Pick the Right Cacao
Choosing and buying the best chocolate can be daunting. There is an array of cacao and chocolate on the market. But you can narrow down the choices by knowing the optimal cocoa percentage.
When choosing dark chocolate, look for bars with a cocoa content of 70% or higher. Higher-percentage dark chocolate contains a higher concentration of antioxidants and nutrients than chocolate with a lower cocoa percentage.
Besides, a higher cocoa percentage means that it’s lower in sugar.
If you wish to make full use of this fantastic plant, make sure to choose wisely.