Cacao (or cocoa) beans are technically not beans or legumes, but rather the seeds of the fruit (pods) of the Theobroma cacao tree. This superfood is commonly enjoyed in a number of forms, including as cacao nibs (cacao beans that have been removed from their husks and broken down into small pieces) and cacao powder (cacao nibs that have been ground into a powder after most of the fat (aka cacao butter) has been mechanically pressed out).
Cacao can be consumed raw or roasted, but like so many food items, it’s most nutritious when consumed raw because cacao in its raw state hasn’t undergone any high heating and therefore retains more nutrients and health properties.
Antioxidants, which are found in particularly high concentrations in certain plants, are compounds that protect against various metabolic diseases, heart disease, brain disorders and age-related syndromes, as they help the body combat cellular damage caused by free radicals (reactive chemicals containing oxygen).
Cacao has been found to contain relatively high concentrations of certain compounds called flavanols, which can act as strong antioxidants. Cocoa flavanols have been associated with a number of health benefits, including anti-inflammatory actions, improving blood flow and the elasticity of arteries, and decreasing blood pressure.
When tested against a number of “superfruits” touted for their antioxidant properties, the antioxidant capacity of cacao powder, as measured by oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) tests, was significantly greater than that of blueberries, cranberries and pomegranate powder on a per gram basis, and the total flavanol content of cacao was significantly greater than all of the other fruit powders tested.
Cacao is chock-full of nutrients. It’s a great source of dietary fibre to help keep you regular, and is one of the highest food sources of magnesium, a mineral needed for hundreds of biochemical reactions in our bodies and key to muscle and nerve function. Just one ounce (28 grams) of cacao nibs contains 87 milligrams of magnesium. Cacao is also an iron-rich food that can help combat iron deficiency. You can get about 5% (women) and 11% (men) of the recommended daily iron intake from one ounce of cacao nibs.
Many would argue that chocolate is the food with the greatest impact on mood! A number of studies have been conducted to evaluate whether chocolate (or its compounds) were capable of influencing mood, and in fact, improvement in mood or reduction of negative mood has been observed. Yet, it remains uncertain whether the effects of chocolate on mood are due to the sensory experience of taste or the pharmacological actions of its compounds.
Cacao has been found to contain compounds very closely similar to anandamide, a molecule whose name is taken from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning "joy, bliss, delight", which binds to the same brain sites as cannabis. However, studies suggest that any association with pleasure from chocolate is likely to be indirect since these anandamide analogues have been found to inhibit the breakdown of anandamide in the body. To date, the anandamide-mood connection remains inconclusive.
Since all palatable foods stimulate the release by the brain of endorphins (chemicals produced by the brain that produce ‘feel-good’ sensations), researchers have suggested that the taste and feel of chocolate in the mouth is the most likely mechanism for the elevation of mood.
Studies exploring the potential effects of Cacao on cognition are in relatively early days, yet showing some promise, suggesting possible neuro-modulatory and neuro-protective actions in humans. (1, 2) Cacao flavonoid compounds absorbed by the body appear to accumulate in brain regions involved in learning and memory.
It is suspected that the neurobiological effect of these flavanols is twofold: (1) via cellular interactions that promote nerve growth and function and brain connectivity, and (2) via blood-flow improvement and blood vessel development in the brain and sensory systems. Studies have shown protective effects of long-term flavanol consumption on neuro-cognition and cognitive decline in animal models of aging, dementia and stroke, and a few human observational studies appear to support these findings. Studies on more immediate benefits of cocoa flavanols remains limited and inconclusive, however research is ongoing.