Cocoa or Cacao?
When it comes to reaping the benefits of the cocoa plant, it's good to know some of the terms you might see used in reference to it. Here are the essential definitions you'll need to know:
- Cacao: The cacao is a tree of the evergreen family. Its formal name is theobroma cacao, but it is also known as the cacao or cocoa tree. Its seeds are cacao or cocoa beans.
- Cocoa: When cacao seeds are harvested, roasted, then ground into a powder, it is known as cocoa. It is a low-fat product, the fat portion of the cacao seed can be separated and sold as cocoa butter.
- Chocolate: When roasted cacao seeds are blended to make a solid, it is known as chocolate. This can be sold as a candy or food, and is usually sweetened.
Cocoa has been used by humankind for thousands of years. Archeologists have found remnants of cocoa in Mayan pottery dating back to 600 BC. Until this pottery was discovered, it was thought that chocolate dated back at least to 400 AD. However, we now know that humans have been eating chocolate for at least a 1000 years before that. Raw cocoa, however, differs drastically from what is sold commercially today. Raw cocoa is unsweetened, and much more nutritious than what you find in commercial products that have been heavily sweetened.
Why Pure Cocoa is the Healthiest
Flavonoids are a class of chemicals produced by plants. They belong to the antioxidant-rich group of chemicals known as polyphenols or phytochemicals. Flavonoids are by definition antioxidants, although some have more potent antioxidant effects than others.
The antioxidant qualities of cocoa powder have been supported by a number of scientific studies. A 2003 study revealed that drinking one cup of cocoa (made with pure cocoa powder) a day provided two times as much antioxidants as is found in red wine. In addition, cocoa had two times as much antioxidants as green tea, and up to five times as much as black tea.
Dark chocolate that hasn't been processed has been found to have positive health effects in a number of studies. Regular consumption of dark chocolate has been shown to improve control of diabetes, blood pressure, and heart health.
Of course these findings don't clear the way for blatant over-consumption of chocolate or cocoa. Instead they indicate that the flavanoid component of cocoa holds potential health benefits, and regular consumption of moderate amounts can be beneficial.
Another study by a Harvard professor demonstrated the benefits of epicatechin, an antioxidant found in cacao. Dr. Normal Hollenberg studied indigenous peoples of Panama who consume cocoa at a rate of up to 40 cups a week, and found that they had a lower risk of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. Their risk was less than 10% for these diseases, which are the most common in western countries.
What to Look For When Eating Chocolate
If you decide to add chocolate to your diet, there are some qualities you can look for to maximize its health benefits. First, the closer the cocoa is to raw, the better. Raw cocoa has the highest antioxidant levels and is the healthiest to eat.
You should also look for cacao that is low in sugar. Cacao has a bitter taste, so usually a sweetener is added to make it more palatable. Sometimes, however, manufacturers will also remove flavanols, which contribute to bitterness. The darker the chocolate is, the higher the cacao content and the more nutritious the chocolate is. So a good rule of thumb is to look for dark chocolate with a low sugar content.