The Healing Power of Cacao

We all know and love chocolate for its taste—irresistible, warm, velvety bittersweet. You may also have heard about the “health benefits” of chocolate. But is that just a marketing gimmick or is it really true that chocolate heals?

Health and food are two sacred things, and they are inextricably related. You are what you eat, goes the adage. Food is medicine. For centuries, food has been known and utilized for both its nutritive and medicinal properties… until our modern profit-driven industrial agriculture system began injecting chemicals into soil, animals and plants, commoditizing Nature’s precious resources, and creating all sorts of artificial “foods.” Even chocolate has not escaped its long tentacles: turn over any commercially produced candy bar, and you’ll see things like PGPR, TBHQ, vanillin, and artificial colors. M&M’s, anyone?

For the indigenous people of Mesoamerica, cacao is a time-honored sacred plant. Culinary use of cacao dates back as far as 3,500 years, according to researchers. It was so sacred that for the cacao-producing regions of Mesoamerica, the World Tree, or Tree of Life, was the cacao tree, not than the ceiba tree most of us are familiar with. The Maya used cacao for spiritual ceremonies and rituals of birth, marriage and death, allowing only priests and royalty to drink it on a regular basis.

But the peoples of Mesoamerica also routinely employed cacao’s healing and restorative powers. Ancient soldiers are said to have mixed cacao with cornmeal and spices into cakes they would take with them on long journeys. Chocolate was used to soothe female ailments and aid fertility. It was known to alleviate pains associated with pregnancy, anemia, poor appetite, fever, tuberculosis, gout and kidney stones, to stimulate breast milk production, and to improve digestion and the functioning of the nervous system.

And despite the current vertiginous rate of technological advancement and the relentless pace of “progress,” neither cacao nor the human body has changed over the millennia much in their basic nature and function. With the exception of our microbiomes, we are not all that biologically different from our ancestors. Which means, good news! Cacao’s health benefits still apply to the modern human.

Cacao’s Benefits
Here is a list—by no means exhaustive—of the areas that cacao has been shown to positively impact. And here is a much fuller description of these benefits.

• Cardiovascular
• Mental health
• Digestion
• Respiratory
• Weight management & Diabetes
• Endurance & Longevity
• Vision
• Skin

In fact, one scientific paper from 2003 reports that “cocoa has more phenolic phytochemicals and a higher antioxidant capacity than [green and black] teas and red wine.” The actual numbers vary—some sources say cacao has 300 nutrient compound, while others take that number to nearly 800. However many hundreds of nutrients, it’s a stunning finding, and one good for all of us chocoholics!

How to Eat Your Chocolate
If you want to maximize cacao’s nutritional and medicinal qualities, experts recommend eating it raw and organic.  Raw cacao typically comes in the form of cacao nibs, which are pieces of the shelled cacao bean, or seed.  Why raw? Certain molecules in cacao, like the flavanols, are fragile and break down with the heating and processing that chocolatemaking requires.

Drinking chocolate is also recommended—this is, after all, how the peoples of Mesoamerica originally consumed their chocolate. Just make sure it’s as pure as possible (see below for ingredients to avoid in any chocolate product).

For dark chocolate bars, try not to go below 70% cacao. If you’re used to the saccharine sweetness of commercial chocolate bars and of milk chocolate, don’t dispair! Let your body and psyche adjust. Give it time. It’s perfectly normal for our palates (and stomachs) to undergo a bit of a shock when we quit something we’ve been eating for a long time cold turkey and introduce a new food. You are effectively re-training your gut flora, and that doesn’t happen overnight. Of course, for some of us the change will be quite welcome and take no time at all.

And the sooner you can wean your children off candy bars and introduce them to the high quality stuff, the better. I introduced my daughter to fine dark chocolate as soon as she started on solid foods, grating it over her oatmeal in the mornings.  Whether or not her intelligence can be attributed to dark chocolate will remain to be seen (I like to think her parents’ genes have a little something to do with it!), but there is no argument about the addictive—and harmful—power of sugar, especially in children.

Chocolate types and ingredients to avoid:
• Milk chocolate (unless it’s high quality chocolate with real milk)
• White chocolate (typically contains no quality cacao solids)
• Artificial ingredients—watch especially for vanillin (which is not vanilla), PGPR, TBHQ, corn starch and corn syrup, any hydrogenated oils, and artificial colors.  

As for sugar, the age-old debate continues. Bottom line, it all depends on how serious you want to get about maximizing cacao’s health benefits. No sugar is best, and the more natural your chocolate’s sweetener, the better.

One more thing. Just because a particular brand of chocolate is fair trade, organic and 80% cacao, still does not guarantee it’s the ideal healthy bar. And this is not due to anything the manufacturer has or has not done—this part is completely out of their hands. It’s about the content of heavy metals in chocolate. Yes, metals, namely cadmium and lead, which can be present in the soil and is then taken up by the cacao trees.

Here is a report done by the non profit As You Sow, which posts the results of their independent lab testing on various chocolate products. I recommend contacting them and asking for their latest updated results.

Above all, enjoy this blessed gift from the jungle, Theobroma cacao—there is a reason it’s called “Food of the gods.” And for the younger readers in your life (or the kid in you), if you'd like to slide down the rabbit hole of cacao's mythology, join Max and Itzel's adventure in Mesoamerica in "The Jaguar and the Cacao Tree."