Chocolate continues to captivate our taste buds with its heavenly taste. Cacao, which is the main ingredient of chocolate, has been described as “Food of Gods” in Latin and “Black Gold” in Spanish for its perceived health benefits and taste as well. It is interesting to note that in many ancient civilizations, cacao was used as currency because of its high intrinsic value. Cacao in its varied forms also used to be frequently recommended by doctors in older days. So, anyway what is cacao?
What is cacao?
People are often confused about words like cacao bean, cacao butter, cacao oil, cacao powder, etc. It is that simple. Cacao trees produce cacao pods. Cacao beans grow inside these cacao pods. Each seed pod can bear as many as 40 cacao beans. These beans are usually one inch long in length. It is the cacao beans that are converted into cacao butter, powder and oil through various manufacturing processes. People also are confused between cacao and cocoa. They are essentially same. Cacao turns into cocoa when the bitterness is removed and a sweetening agent is added.
Cacao cultivation requires right combination of climatic, topography and environmental factors. Cacao tree cannot grow in every kind of climate. They grow well in humid and tropical climate with regular rains and short dry season. The tree needs even temperature between 21 and 23 degree Celsius with regular rain fall of 1000 to 2500 mm per year. Cacao trees need extremely controlled sun lights, preferably shadowed by taller trees and vegetation. These trees don’t bear until they are four years old. They grow taller and have height of 20 feet on average. A healthy cacao tree can produce seed pods for 75 to 100 years.
Varieties of Cacao
There are four major varieties of cacao trees that are being cultivated, i.e. Criollo, Forastero, Trinitario and Nacional. The criollo variety is famous for high quality cacao beans and is found in Mexico and Central America. It has also sub varieties like Chuao, Porcelana, Puerto Cabello and Carupano. The Forastero variety constitutes 80% of total cacao production and is mostly grown in West Africa, Central America. This variety known to grow faster and gives higher yield. The Trinitario is a crossbreed between the Forastero and Criollo and is mainly gown in South East Asia and Central America. The Nacional variety is known for its pleasant aroma and are cultivated in west of Andes and South America.
Health benefits of cacao
Like its heavenly taste, Cacao is also known for its healing benefits. People in early days were aware of its healing properties. Early colonial records state that cacao not only was luxury food but also as a medicine. It was believe to be the best remedy for variety of diseases and discomforts like fatigue, fever, anaemia, low sex drive, cardiac arrest, respiratory disease and low appetite. Cacao butter was also used for treatment of skin problems like psoriasis, burns and eczema.
Cacao is full with many beneficial chemical compounds. Over 300 beneficial compounds have been identified in cacao. Scientists have studied the effects of several of these compounds and discovered interesting properties of this delicious super food. Cacao has following important compounds:
Flavonols: Flavonols are anti-oxidants found in cacao beans. These compounds lower nitric oxide level in the blood and improve responsiveness of blood vessels to changes in blood flow. In addition, it improves memory level and prevents cancer. However due to its bitter taste, manufacturers usually remove majority of flavonols from cacao product.
Theobromine: This compound is much like caffeine, but it contains a hydrogen atom whereas the latter has a methyl group. Theobromine reduces sleepiness. It has also some properties of drugs like cocaine and nicotine, which causes mental and physical relaxation in humans. It washes the toxins out of body.
Anandamide: Anadamide is a euphoric substance that produces a blissful feeling and has a calming effect on human body. The term “Anand” is derived from Sanskrit word, which means bliss. It is a psychoactive substance that belongs to cannabinoid family.
Phenylethylamine: Phenylethylethylamine occurs naturally in cacao nib. The amine concentration in cacao nib increases in fermentation of cacao and decreases during roasting. It is an antidepressant. It produces a peaceful yet not necessarily sedated experience.
Serotonin: Serotonin is basically a neurotransmitter in the human body. Due to its anti-depressant properties, it helps build “stress defence shield” in human body. Cacao found to raise the serotonin level in the brain. It stimulates and balance brain activity. It induces better sleep.
Tryptophan: Tryptophan is an amino acid that is converted into stress protective neurotransmitters like serotonin and melatonin. This is a heat sensitive substance. So it can vanish if heat in the manufacturing process is not controlled.
Cacao has also score of vitamins and minerals. Essential vitamins found in cacao are Vitamin A, B1, B3, C, E and Pantothenic acid. It has also essential minerals like Magnesium, Sulphur, Iron, Zinc and chromium. The presence of magnesium and iron help the heart to pump blood efficiently builds strong bones and lowers blood pressure. Sulphur in cacao is responsible for healthy skin, nails and hairs. Zinc plays a critical role in the immune system in our body by its involvement in thousand s of enzymatic reaction in human body. Chromium has role in balancing sugar level in blood. It detoxifies blood from alcohols when we make bad choice of foods.
Despite the immense medicinal benefits of cacao, there are some misconceptions still persist. One popular misconception is that eating chocolate makes you gain weight. Actually it is not cacao but other fattening substance that added during the manufacturing process that increases weight. Many scientific studies demonstrate that eating raw cacao can help you lose weight naturally. Another popular misconception is that cacao contains caffeine. True, cacao has some elements of stimulant drugs but it does not contain caffeine. The supposedly caffeine in chocolates are usually added during the manufacturing process to make it a stimulant.
Cacao is perhaps nature’s best super food. The super taste it has and the health benefit it provides is simply incomparable. Like every other substance, cacao has also few negatives. It is bitter if consumed rough. It has also some elements that can induce fake pleasure and hallucination in humans. Nevertheless, its positives far outweigh the negatives.