The seeds of the cacao tree are often called cocoa beans, eaten raw or turned into chocolate, these seeds have impressive benefits for your health and mood.
Is raw cacao just a fad, or does it really have health benefits?
The seeds of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) grow inside large thick-skinned pods. Each pod contains about 50 seeds, often called cocoa beans. Chocolate is made from the seeds, or beans, of the cacao tree.
The main ingredients in chocolate are cocoa butter—an edible fat extracted from the beans—and cocoa solids, a dark powder made by grinding the beans after the fat has been taken out. Most of chocolate’s beneficial substances are found in the solids, which contain more than 300 chemical compounds. Many are polyphenols, potent antioxidants that may help prevent illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.
Cacao has been known to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, suppress coughing, and may ease or reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes
How does it work?
Cocoa beans are the most concentrated natural source of the alkaloid compound theobromine, a stimulant similar to caffeine. Though toxic in large amounts, it generally has positive effects on the human body: it relaxes muscles in the digestive tract, which can reduce gastrointestinal problems, and widens blood vessels, which reduces blood pressure.
So, is chocolate good for you?
White chocolate contains only cocoa butter; milk and dark chocolate contain both cocoa butter and cocoa solids, with dark chocolate having more of the latter. Given that most of the beneficial compounds are in the solids, dark chocolate is therefore the best choice.
As long as you only eat dark chocolate, you’ll get the benefits without increasing levels of body fat: a 2012 study at the University of California found that eating more chocolate can actually help reduce the ratio of fat to weight and height (a measurement known as the body mass index). The authors of the study proposed that chocolate increases the metabolic rate and thus burns off the extra kilojoules. So, regular—but not excessive—chocolate consumption can be part of a healthy diet! Try tossing some chocolate into your diet with either dark chocolate or raw cacao.
Chocolate as a mood enhancer
Every chocoholic, whether they prefer their chocolate processed or raw, knows that chocolate tastes delicious—but there is more to it than that: chocolate makes us feel good. At the University of Sussex in England, scientists moni- tored couples’ heart rates and brains after eating dark chocolate and after kissing; the effects of the actions were similar, but stronger and longer lasting after eating chocolate.
The pleasurable and almost addictive properties of cocoa-based products remain something of a mystery, but researchers have found some possible explanations. Theobromine crosses the blood–brain barrier and acts on the central nervous system: it is a stimulant, like caffeine. Chocolate, moreover, contains a compound called salsolinol, which stimulates the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Present, too, are other pleasure-giving neuroactive chemicals, called tetrahydro-beta-carbolines.
Modern research and studies on the health and mood-boosting benefits of cacao
In 2011, the British Medical Journal published a review of the evidence on the potential benefits of chocolate. It concluded that higher levels of consumption lowered the risk of cardiovascular disease by more than one-third. It also cited a Japanese study that found eating chocolate reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes; this is consistent with other studies that have shown that the antioxidants present in cocoa can reduce insulin resistance, a major cause of the disease.
In 2005, a team of scientists based in the Britain and Hungary also found that theobromine was more effective than the standard treatment, codeine, at suppressing coughing.
A team of scientists in Italy, Switzerland and Israel discovered in 1996, cocoa products also contain a compound called anandamide, a chemical that activates the same brain receptors as cannabis does. There are only tiny amounts of this compound in chocolate—it would take several kilograms of dark chocolate to get the “high” provided by a cannabis cigarette—but there are 2 other chemicals that mimic it, which may well add to the effect.