(NaturalNews) For almost 4,000 years, cacao and the chocolate made from it have been a decadent treat. For the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica it was prized as food, medicine, and currency. Considered a gift from their gods, the natives used it in rituals, and extolled its virtues in hieroglyphs, songs, and drawings. The pre-Olmec peoples, the Olmec, the Mayas, and the Aztec all used cacao in their diets and rituals, mostly for their elite. Archeologists have found numerous ceramic and stone vessels with trace amounts of cacao alkaloids dating as far back as 1900 BC.
Most cacao today is cultivated from the theobroma cacao species. It is a beautiful, delicate-looking evergreen tree that grows in the protection of the understory of the rainforest, thriving in wet and humid climate. Less than 10 percent of the tiny, delicate, pinkish-white blossoms will mature into fruit each growing season, starting around the tree's fourth or fifth year. The fruit looks somewhat like an elongated melon with tapered ends. With shallow roots and thin bark, harvesting is not easy. The pods have a woody shell, with a husk and white fruit pulp inside. The ancient peoples used these parts, but today they are discarded for the most part. There are 30-50 seeds, called beans, inside. They are scooped out and dried for several days, often in the sun. The layer of pulp on the beans ferments as it dries, removing the bitter taste of the cocoa and developing the components of the familiar chocolate flavor. Once dried, the beans can be sold or made into cacao powder or cacao butter. It takes around 400 beans to make one pound of chocolate. (http://www.rawcacao.com/)
Today, cacao is cultivated in 20 countries on approximately 17 million acres. It is traded on the international commodities market.
Cacao has many phytochemicals
Cacao is considered a superfood due to its more than 300 nutrients. It could hardly be "the food of the gods" if it weren't powerful, with nutritional and medicinal value (which in turn gave it value as a currency as well). The vitamins, minerals, and dietary nutrients in cacao include protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. It also has quercetin, flavonoids, flavanols, xanthenes, polyphenols, caffeine, theobromine, phenylethylamine, and anandamide, among others. It has many uses as a stimulant, antibacterial, antioxidant, and protector of the cardiovascular system. (http://www.phytochemicals.info/plants/cacao.php)
In the 16th century, after cacao was imported to Europe, publications began mentioning its health benefits. The Badianus Codex and the Florentine Codex of the 1500s mention many uses for cacao, describing preparations, and identifying treatments in which it was used. These include reducing fever, treating heart weakness, kidney disease, and liver weakness, to name a few. Other important manuscripts and books included other uses such as to treat infections of the throat, kidney, and bladder. (http://www.phytochemicals.info/research/cacao-history.php)
The magnesium and valeric acid in cacao relieve stress and provide a calming effect while the caffeine and theobromine combat fatigue and boost energy. Combine these with the chemical constituents of cacao, such as phenylethylamine (an endorphin) and anadamide (a lipid), which are called "bliss chemicals," and you being to see why eating unsweetened, organic dark chocolate can provide a euphoric feeling. They are adrenal-related chemicals that are created naturally in the body when we get excited, causing alertness and a quickened pulse (http://www.naturalnews.com/022610_cacao_chocolate_raw.html). This is also why it is used as an aphrodisiac.
Cacao phytonutrients are as rich as its history
The health benefits associated with cacao's phytonutrients are many. Europeans discovered it was useful in increasing the weight of emaciated patients, stimulating the nervous system, and improving digestion. They used it for anemia, tuberculosis, gout, fever, low virility, increasing breast milk production, and to "improve mental weakness." Leaves and flowers of the cacao were used to treat stomach and skin problems, including burns. (http://www.phytochemicals.info/research/cacao-history.php)
Many studies indicate that cacao usage reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, including clinical and epidemiological studies and In vivo experiments. Results found cocoa and chocolate to lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, improve platelet function, raise HDL, and decrease LDL oxidation (http://www.phytochemicals.info/plants/cacao.php). Studies have also shown chocolate to help relieve emotional stress by relieving stress hormones and biochemical agents in the body. Chocolate allows neurotransmitters to stay in the bloodstream longer, helping a person to relax and providing a natural antidepressant benefit. (http://www.naturalnews.com/030603_cacao_medicine.html)
The flavonoids in cacao are potent as well. They were shown by a Spanish study to have a bactericidal effect on Bacillus cereus. Another study showed them to improve cognitive function (http://www.naturalnews.com/030603_cacao_medicine.html). Additionally, they are the source of the chocolate's antioxidants, known to fight free radicals and reduce or prevent damage to tissue and DNA from oxidation and stress.
Raw chocolate has a much higher nutritional value than that made with roasted beans. It has manganese, vitamin C, omega-6 fatty acids, and chromium, in addition to the nutrients outlined above. The low temperatures used to process raw cacao means more nutrients are left intact. (http://www.naturalnews.com/022610_cacao_chocolate_raw.html)
Considerations for use include making sure to keep it away from dogs as they don't have the ability to digest it, and too much may lead to cardiac arrest. Additionally, there are some who worry about the caffeine content, but it is minimal. The oxalic acid interferes with calcium absorption; one more reason to have smaller amounts of higher quality chocolate. If new to "real chocolate," start small with just five or six cacao nibs or three to four teaspoons of cocoa powder.
To benefit from the phytonutrients of cacao, indulge in rich, organic dark chocolate. Consider trying raw cacao nibs or powder. A little "food of the gods" goes a long way, and the healthful benefits are worth the extra price.