Written by Nutrition Intern & Contributor, Chloe Cassecuelle
The health benefits of cacao have been known for over 3000 years (Higginbotham E et al., 2015). As a matter of fact, cacao beverages were consumed by Mesoamerican elites in 1000 B.C. for their health benefits (Henderson JS et al., 2007).
The main health benefits of cacao are derived from molecules called epicatechins, which are a type of flavanol primarily present in dark chocolate (Higginbotham E et al., 2015). This compound is present in much higher concentrations in dark chocolate compared to milk chocolate, hence the reputation of dark chocolate being so good for you.
What is the difference between raw cacao and cocoa?
Raw cacao is the uncooked and unprocessed form of chocolate. The bean is in its raw, natural state. On the other hand, cocoa is the roasted and processed form of raw cacao beans. Many additives are added to cocoa, such as sugar and fat, for taste and texture. To maximize your nutrient intake and avoid the extra sugar and fat, choose raw cacao. It can provide greater nutritional benefits than the more processed cocoa.
Why is raw cacao so good for you?
1. Powerful antioxidant
Raw cacao contains polyphenols called flavonoids that have antioxidant effects. The two primary antioxidants in raw cacao are anthocyanidins and epicatechins. Antioxidants work by neutralizing free radicals that can damage our cells. Free radicals cause oxidative damage in the body and may increase the risk of cancer, coronary heart disease, premature aging, and dementia (Hu et al., 2011).
2. Cardiovascular disease fighter
Raw cacao decreases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by preventing atherosclerotic plaques from building up within our arteries and blood vessels (Djousse et al., 2011). Atherosclerotic plaques are formed when bad cholesterol, also known as LDL, is oxidized and accumulates in our blood vessels forming a clog. Raw cacao contains proanthocyanidin compounds that are responsible for decreasing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol particles (Lotito SB. et al., 2000). Proanthocyanidin are oligomers of catechins and epicatechins. As a matter of fact, in a study performed on rats, those that received epicatechin treatment (a compound that is present in very high concentrations in raw cacao) had a significantly lower prevalence of myocardial infarction and a greater protection against cardiovascular disease. These benefits were both related to the fact that epicatechins reduce blood pressure (Litterio MC et al., 2012).
3. Healthy blood pressure supporter
As mentioned previously, raw cacao contains elements that decrease atherosclerotic plaques. These plaques decrease the inner circumference of arteries and blood vessels. As a result, the same volume of blood must pass through a smaller surface area, increasing blood pressure. Since raw cacao helps to diminish this plaque, blood vessels remain free of blockage, maintaining a healthy blood pressure (Fraga CG et al., 2011). Moreover, lower blood pressure is highly correlated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.
4. Rich in essential minerals
Raw cacao is rich magnesium, calcium, and potassium, which are all essential for optimal bone growth and function. They are also very important for good muscle function. Raw cacao is also high in iron, which is involved in red blood cell synthesis and helps carry oxygen throughout the body (Kubow, 2016). Zinc is also highly prevalent in raw cacao. This mineral helps regulate gene expression, is involved in immune response and helps to maintain the integrity of proteins. Raw cacao also contains high concentrations of copper and manganese, which are essential for proper enzyme functions in our body.
5. Chock full of vitamins
Raw cacao is rich in vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B9, and E. As a group, the B vitamins work together to promote healthy breakdown of food for energy, cellular repair, and brain health. Vitamin E’s primarily functions as an antioxidant getting rid of free radicals that can damage our cells (Kubow, 2016). This vitamin may also play a role in gene regulation.
6. Brain booster
Raw cacao can improve cognitive function due to its high concentration of polyphenols (Kubow, 2016). As mentioned previously, polyphenols improve blood flow, including blood flow to the brain, improving brain function and memory.
Djousse L, Hopkins PN, Arnett DK, Pankow JS, Borecki I, North KE, et al. (2011). Chocolate consumption is inversely associated with calcified atherosclerotic plaques in coronary arteries: the NHLBI Family Heart Study. Clin Nutr; 30(1):38–43.
Fraga CG, Litterio MC, Prince PD, Calabro V, et al. (2011). Cocoa flavanols: effects on vascular nitric oxide and blood pressure. J Clin Biochem Nutr; 48(1):63-67.
Henderson JS, Joyce RA, Hall GR, Hurst WJ, McGoven PE. (2007). Chemical and archeological evidence for the earliest cacao beverages. Proc Natl Acad Sci; 104(48):18937–40.
Higginbotham E, Taub PR. (2015). Cardiovascular benefits of dark chocolate. Curr treat options cardio med; 17:54.
Hu W, Yu L, Wang M. (2011). Antioxidant and antiproliferative properties of water extract from Mahonia bealei (Fort.) Carr. leaves. Food Chem Toxicol; 49:799–806.
Kubow S. (2016). Nutrition Through Life course lecture material. McGill University. Montreal, Canada.
Litterio MC, Jaggers G, Sagdicoglu Celep G, Adamo AM, et al. (2012). Blood pressure-lowering effect of dietary epicatechin administration in L-NAME-treated rats is associated with restored nitric oxide levels. Free Radic Biol Med; 53(10):1894-902.
Lotito SB, Actis-Goretta L, Renart ML, Caliguiri M, Rein D, et al. (2000). Influence of oligomer chain length on the antioxidant activity of procyanidins. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications; 276(3):945-951.