This article was medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RDN, LD.
Cacao is the name given to both a tree and the fruit which it bears. The Theobroma cacao tree, native to South America, produces the cacao bean. Even though the fruit is sometimes referred to as the cocoa bean, there are some differences between cacao and cocoa.
The theodroma cacao tree produces seed pods. The seeds inside these pods are called cacao beans. They can be eaten raw but have a bitter taste. The processing of the seed determines whether it remains as cacao or becomes the more refined cocoa. The purer cacao provides the greater health benefits.
In this article we will examine the many health benefits that have been identified in the cacao bean.
Cacao is listed as a superfood primarily because of its potent antioxidant properties. The antioxidants that cacao provide are able to negate the effects of free radicals, which can cause major damage to your cells.
Scientists are able to enumerate the antioxidant capacity of foods by calculating its ORAC value. This stands for oxygen radical absorbance quality. According to its ORAC value of close to 10,000, cacao has a greater antioxidant capacity than any of the other foods that are classified as superfoods, such as acai, blueberries and pomegranate [source]. This ORAC value reduces dramatically in milk chocolate or lower cocoa content food products.
Researchers at Cornell University found that raw cacao has twice the antioxidants as red wine and three times that of green tea.
The most powerful antioxidants contained in cacao are phenolic phytochemicals and flavonoids. These flavonoids prevent fatty substances in the bloodstream from clogging up the arteries by improving the function of HDL and by reducing total cholesterol and LDL. They have also been shown to control blood pressure and may super charge your immune system.
There are a number of studies that suggest that cacao can act as a preventative for cardiovascular disease. Several meta-analyses have shown intake of cocoa to be associated with reduced blood pressure and improved vascular function.[source]
It should be noted that chocolate studies with health benefits are most often using dark chocolate with high cocoa content, with low or no sugar added.
Researchers believe that cacao provides benefits related to reducing blood clotting and blood vessel function. The flavonoids contained in cacao are thought to stimulate nitric oxide production in the body. Nitric oxide is responsible for smooth muscle (such as arteries, veins, intestines and the urinary tract) relaxation and minimizing oxidative damage to arterial lining.
A study out of Italy, which involved close to 5,000 participants, also suggests that there may be a link between cacao and reduced levels of C-reactive protein (CRP). High levels of C-reactive protein indicate systemic inflammation of the heart and blood vessels and are correlated with a high risk of heart attack and stroke.[source]. Those who ate 1, 20 gram, serving of dark chocolate every 3 days had lower CRP than those who did not eat chocolate, or those who consumed high amounts.
Reduced Diabetes Risk
Type 2 diabetes is rampant in our society. However, this disease can often be controlled by lifestyle and diet. Cacao has been shown to play a part in lessening the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Cocoa flavonoids appear to slow carbohydrate digestion and digestion as well as protect pancreatic beta-cells responsible for insulin production. Research also shows cocoa to enhance glucose uptake into cells independent of insulin.
Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Cohort results showed a lowered risk of type 2 diabetes in those consuming up to 6 oz. of dark chocolate a week [source]
A large recent meta-analysis also confirms that cocoa flavonoids also improve insulin sensitivity and cholesterol levels. [source]
In a human treatment study involving 60 individuals with type 2 diabetes and hypertension, those who ingested a 25g chocolate bar a day containing 83% cocoa had improved blood pressure, fasting glucose, and triglycerides after 8 weeks. [source] This was equilavent to 143 calories from a high percentage cocoa chocolate a day.
Those with diabetes who aim to include chocolate in their diet should choose low sugar options with greater than 70% cocoa content. Unsweetened cacao power provides only 0.1 grams of sugar in 50 calories. It also contains 1.6 grams of fiber and 3.2 grams of carbohydrates.
Research indicates that, in addition to helping to lower blood pressure, cacao can also bring down cholesterol levels. Cacao has been seen to have a dual effect on cholesterol levels, raising the good HDL cholesterol and lowering the bad LDL cholesterol. In addition, cocoa reduces the oxidation of LDL, a risk factor for disease. [source]
The fatty acid called stearic acid and polyphenols like procyanidins are beneficiary compounds in cacao that work to reduce cholesterol.
An animal study in 2009 found that cacao procyanidins reduced the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines from the diet and was thus able to reduce the blood levels of cholesterol. [source]
A study out of the University of Illinois, funded in part by Mars, Inc. included 49 people of both genders with high LDL cholesterol levels and high blood pressure.
Half of the participants were given a daily dose of cacao-based dark chocolate with added plant-sterols, while the others were given a placebo. The chocolate bar group lowered their total cholesterol levels by 2 percent, and their LDL cholesterol levels by 5.3 percent.[source]
A new review of the literature on cacao out of the University of Mississippi Medical Centre reveals that dark chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that bring on feelings of pleasure. It also boosts levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which acts as an antidepressant.
Cocoa’s flavonoids and antioxidant content have also been associated with protection against cancer. [source]
An additional benefit of chocolate was identified in a 2008 Australian study. As well as providing flavanols, they have the effect of increasing the body’s absorption of nitric oxide as mentioned above. Nitric oxide (NO) keeps blood vessels dilated and generally promotes a healthy blood flow. This allows for a constant and unrestricted flow of blood to muscle cells. The resultant health benefits include enhanced energy levels, improved sexual performance (improved NO output helps with erectile dysfunction) and blood distribution around the body. Dark chocolate was seen to be especially beneficial in promoting blood vessel health.
One ounce organic raw cacao powder contains:
Calories: 120, Calories from Fat: 23
Total Fat: 2.5g, 4% Recommended daily value
Saturated Fat: 1.5g, 7%
Sodium: 20mg, 1%
Total Carbohydrates: 19.0g, 6%
Dietary Fiber: 7.0g, 28%
Vitamin A 0%, Vitamin C 0%, Calcium 4%, Iron 16%