What Is Cacao? Health Benefits & Side Effects

Cacao has such an important place in folk medical history that it was named Theobroma cacao scientifically.

The name “Theobroma” comes from Greek, meaning “food of the gods.”

Cacao beans were so valuable in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica that they were used as currency and as an ingredient in a ritual beverage.

What is cacao exactly? Specifically, it is a product made by cold-pressing the unroasted seeds (i.e., “beans”).

In contrast, cocoa refers to products that are made by roasting cacao beans at high temperatures. Cocoa is what goes into making chocolate. Unfortunately, the high heat used for making cocoa lowers the overall nutritional value that the raw beans contain.

Research on cacao benefits, therefore, is based on the content of the beans before they are processed into cocoa. This means that the popular notion that chocolate is good for your health is misleading.

Indeed, medical research on “chocolate” is mostly based on cacao powder health benefits, not of actual processed chocolate.

With that clarification, now let’s take a look at what modern science has discovered about cacao powder benefits and side effects.

Antioxidants

Cacao beans are packed with powerful antioxidant ingredients called flavonoids. In fact, these substances from cacao provide a higher antioxidant capacity than those of tea or red wine (2003).

Such anti-inflammatory flavonoids are, for example, responsible for cacao’s cardiovascular health benefits (2015).

Mental Performance and Mood

The main flavonoid in cacao, epicatechin, which improves several aspects of cognition (2013). It is particularly important in preserving mental performance in the face of aging.

This and other constituents of cacao also put you into a good frame of mind by driving up your levels of the mood hormone, serotonin (2013).

Cardiovascular Benefits

Cacao flavonoids boost the function of the lining in your blood vessel walls (2015). In so doing, these substances benefit cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure and increasing blood vessel flexibility.

They also help control the clotting action of red blood cells, resulting in better blood flow (2002).

Insulin Metabolism

In addition its mood-boosting activities, mentioned above, epicatechin also strengthens the insulin signaling pathway (2013). It does so by activating key proteins of that pathway that help regulate blood sugar production, even among diabetics.

Minerals

Depending on where it is grown, cacao can provide enough magnesium to overcome the rampant deficiency in this crucial mineral (1999). Reversing magnesium deficiency with cacao also helps regulate circulating levels of two other key minerals, calcium and phosphorous.

Foods or supplements with labels listing raw cacao nutrition facts should show significant proportions of the recommended Daily Values for several minerals, especially magnesium.

Side Effects

Consuming cacao, either in supplement form or processed into chocolate, is safe for most people.

Cacao is included in the U.S. FDA list of substances that are considered Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS).

Cacao contains caffeine and other chemically similar stimulants.

Although side effects are minimal, eating large amounts might cause caffeine-related symptoms. These can include nervousness, increased urination, sleeplessness, and a fast heartbeat.

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2018-08-08T18:45:09+00:00

About the Author:

Dr. Dennis Clark is a research scientist in plant natural products chemistry and herbal medicine. He enjoys teaching others how to get and stay healthy naturally.