This post is the second of an ongoing series on cacao, covering how cacao can impact our health and health concerns from cacao. In case you missed, read part 1 here – The Story of Cacao: Origins, Varieties and Processing.
CACAO FROM A WESTERN NUTRITION PERSPECTIVE
Cacao is good for your mood
Pure chocolate or cacao itself contains over 300 chemicals, the most well-studied ones being theobromine, caffeine, anandamide and phenylethylamine (PEA). These substances exert a profound psychoactive effect and are responsible for the feel-good effects of consuming chocolate.
Theobromine and caffeine are both stimulants and have diuretic and relaxing effects on the cardiovascular system.
Anandamide is known as the bliss chemical, its name being derived from the eponymous Sanskrit word Ananda. Anandamide is an endogenous ligand for the cannabinoid receptor, which when stimulated, gives pleasure and improves mood. However endogenous anandamide is broken down quickly and its effect is short-term. Cacao is not only the only plant found to contain anandamide, but also compounds that block the breakdown of anandamide (N-acylethanolamines). This is why when we eat chocolate, we feel a sustained sense of bliss.
PEA is the ‘love’ chemcial, produced naturally by the brain when we fall in love. This is one of the main reasons why love and chocolate have such deep connection. PEA responsible for releasing and facilitating the action of dopamine, another brain chemical that makes us feel better, happier, and more alive.. PEA is heat-sensitive and is destroyed by roasting cacao beans. Raw cacao preserves the integrity of this feel-good love chemical.
Tryptophan, Magnesium & Serotonin
Cacao also supplies us with significant quantities of the essential amino acid tryptophan and its co-factor magnesium that take part in the serotonin pathway. Tryptophan is the precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for calmness and wellbeing, and is a natural anti-depressant and anti-anxiety chemical. Nothing can bring us down when our serotonin levels are high. As with PEA, tryptophan is heat-sensitive, so a heat-processed chocolate bar will not give you the mood benefits as much as a raw cold-processed cacao bar.
Cacao is good for your heart and blood
Cacao is particularly rich in flavanoids, a class of plant based antioxidants called polyphenols. Flavonoids have free radical scavenging ability and protect against oxidative damage of biological membranes and cells. Many studies have shown that flavanols are associated with lowered levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Raw cacao maintains the integrity of these beneficial antioxidant flavanoids.
Cacao is also a good source of iron. One tablespoon (a typical serving) of raw cacao powder contains 5% of the recommended daily intake of iron. Iron is essential for the production and function of haemoglobin which carries oxygen in blood. Cacao nourishes your blood and improves oxygen flow.
Cacao health concerns
Heavy Metal Contamination
According to reports by independent testing company ConsumerLab.com, most cacao products have been found to have high levels of cadmium, about 1 to 1.5 mcg per gram – which is much higher than the World Health Organization limit of 0.3 mcg per gram. The source of cadmium contamination is from the soil, which is absorbed by the cacao trees. The degree of contamination depends on the geographic region; cacao from Latin America is found to typically contain higher levels of cadmium than that of West Africa. Lead and aluminium are other toxic heavy metals that are regularly detected in cacao products. Heavy metals are carcinogenic, can damage organs and impair neurobehavioral development and reproduction.
Manufacturers are encouraged to be open and label warnings on the packaging, although not all companies do. If we enjoy cacao in moderation, there is no reason to be overly worried about heavy metal toxicity.
CACAO FROM AN AYURVEDIC PERSPECTIVE
From an Ayurvedic perspective, cacao is bitter in taste and warming in nature. Depending on your dosha (energetic constitution), these qualities might be helpful or harmful. Bitter cacao is great to stimulate Kapha (earth) body and mind and offset lethargy and slowness. However the heat of cacao aggravates Pitta (fire), and will contribute to issues caused by too much heat, such as heatburn or irritation. The stimulating effects of cacao also provokes Vata (wind). People with Vata constitution tend to have sensitive nervous system may want to consume cacao products moderately to avoid triggering anxiety and hyperactivity. If you are a Vata and experience chocolate cravings, you can consider raw white chocolate, which contains the cacao butter (fat) but not the cacao solids where most of the stimulating chemicals are found.
CACAO FROM A TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE PERSPECTIVE
From a Chinese medicine perspective, warming cacao strengthens kidney Yang and boosts Qi. The bitter taste nourishes the heart and brings happiness (based on the Shen Nong theory that bitter herbal medicine brings health and happiness). In its sweetened form, chocolate nourishes the spleen, quells worry, and promotes calmness and wellbeing.
There are actually many similarities of the health benefits of cacao from the different schools of thought. All point that cacao is heart-healthy and good for your mood, and I’m sure you will agree too based on your anecdotal experience! However Ayurveda cautions that certain type of people will be more sensitive to cacao, such as Vata and Pitta-dominant people. Finally, there are some cautions to chocolate, such as heavy metal contamination.
We can continue to reap the benefits of chocolate by exercising moderation and choosing wisely – dark raw chocolate of minimum of 70% cacao content. A medicinal dose is a maximum of 2 squares daily. Larger amounts can undermine the benefits of chocolate and cause imbalance of mind and body.16