Did you know that people have been consuming cacao for more than 5,300 years? Cacao has its origins in Mexico and some regions of South America. It has a long and interesting history, and today, you can find cacao powder and its more refined form, chocolate, just about anywhere.
But what are the benefits of cacao? Many people think of chocolate or cacao powder and immediately think that it must be unhealthy because it is often associated with sugary sweets, but this is not the case. Cacao is actually a superfood and adding it to your daily diet can do a lot of good for your health.
But what is cacao exactly and why is it so good for you? Where does it come from, what is its history, and how can you use it? Keep reading and learn more about the benefits of cacao below.
A Brief History of Cacao
As mentioned before, cacao has a very long history. The first thing you should know is that cacao comes from a tree that lives in the moist and tropical regions of South America. This tree is quite unique since it produces very large seed pods which contain cacao.
Just by looking at these large pods, you might not expect that they are the origin point of cacao powder and chocolate, but that is indeed the case. What you really might not expect is that natural cacao is not at all sweet but instead quite bitter.
You might have known this was the case if you have ever tried pure dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate.
Dark chocolate is very close to pure cacao since it does not have very much sweetness and it is not diluted with milk or corn syrup. For thousands of years, the indigenous people of Central and South America have been using cacao for all sorts of things. Many hundreds and even thousands of years ago, these people used to refine the cacao beans until they would become a liquid.
Back then, cacao could only be liquified rather than made into a solid. In fact, solid chocolate would not be invented until the 1800s. Civilizations such as the Aztecs believed that this chocolate drink was a drink of the gods. For that reason, this drink was usually only reserved for those of the upper classes, such as the emperor or priests.
This drink was not very similar to the cacao products that we are familiar with today. This is especially true since this ancient drink was often mixed with strange ingredients like red chili peppers and other spices, along with vanilla beans. The result was a bitter and spicy drink that was said to invigorate whoever drank it.
Many ancient people were sure that chocolate had spiritual properties, and for that reason, it was often used in religious ceremonies and rituals. Only when Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Central and South America in the 1400s and 1500s did the news of this product start to spread. From that point, cacao slowly spread to several European countries and started to become quite popular.
This is especially true once people figured out that they could mix sugar into cacao to create a rich, sweet, and creamy drink. Ever since then, cacao remained a very popular product, and it is still popular even today (even though it does not have the spiritual connotations that it once used to). But what kind of health benefits does it have to offer, and why should you bother adding it to your diet?
1. Cacao Can Keep You Looking Young
The Aztecs not only used to believe that their famous cacao drink was something spiritual, but they also believed that it was connected with eternal youth and vigor. As it turns out, the Aztecs weren't far off. In more recent years, scientific studies have found that the regular (if not daily) consumption of cacao can indeed keep you looking younger for a longer period of time.
Does this mean that this is your free pass to start eating all the chocolate bars you want? Not necessarily. Eating your favorite chocolate sweets like milk chocolate or white chocolate (which doesn't even contain any real cacao) won't help you with your anti-aging endeavors.
This is because these products mostly consist of milk and sugar with a little bit of cacao powder mixed in. On the other hand, if you opt for very pure dark chocolate or pure cacao powder, you'll be on the right track. The more pure cacao you consume, the more benefits you will reap.
But why is cacao so good for anti-aging? It all has to do with the antioxidants that this substance contains. When it comes to healthy eating and healthy living, you should know that antioxidants are some of the most important things you can consume.
What You Need to Know
Antioxidants are important for a variety of reasons, mainly because they help fight free radicals in the body. Free radicals are harmful substances, specifically atoms that have lost an electron and become unstable. These unstable atoms form in the body as a reaction to stress or pollution.
Once they form, they can cause all sorts of damage to the body. They do this by interacting with your cells through a process known as lipid peroxidation. This process will physically damage your cells and cause a variety of bad things to happen.
Specifically, scientific studies have shown that excessive free radicals can cause the body and brain to age faster than usual.
However, you can stop this dreaded process by consuming more antioxidants. This is because antioxidants are naturally able to stop the damage that free radicals cause, and they are also able to limit the number of free radicals in the body.
Does this mean that as long as you consume enough cacao, you'll look young forever? Unfortunately, this is not quite the case. You will still age, but the regular consumption of cacao may help you age more slowly. This is true not only for the appearance of your skin but also for the rest of your body.
Regular aging woes such as deteriorating joints, brain health, and organ health may slow down due to the fact that free radicals won't have the chance to ravage your body as usual. So, if you want to try and slow down the aging process, find yourself some fresh cacao or products that contain pure cacao, and you'll be on the right track.
2. Cacao Can Reduce Muscle Stress and Tension
Cacao has the interesting habit of being able to increase energy levels and reduce stress at the same time. The Aztecs, again, were far ahead of their time since they also knew that the consumption of their favorite cacao drink allowed a person to experience an unusually pleasant state of relaxation. But why?
Cacao relaxes the body due to a variety of factors, and it is particularly good at relaxing the skeletal muscles in the body. Skeletal muscles are the muscles that you can control voluntarily that are connected to your bones. These muscles are different from smooth muscles, which you cannot control and line your blood vessels and other parts of the body.
The main reason why the consumption of cacao is so good for relaxing your body and muscles is that it is rich in magnesium. Magnesium is very good for your muscle health for a variety of reasons. If you don't know how muscles work, you should know that once they start to become exhausted, lactic acid will start to build up around your muscles and cause them to cramp or become sore.
This happens when your muscles no longer have enough oxygen or nutrients to function. As a result, they will shut down and try to give themselves a chance to relax. This is why you may experience muscle spasms or pain after exercising too much.
What to Know
This can also happen if you strain your muscles in some way such as from an injury or sitting in an unhealthy position. Whatever the case, the magnesium in the cacao is important because magnesium can prevent the generation of acid in your muscles. This will keep your muscles from getting too sore or from experiencing cramps caused by a buildup of acid.
Does this mean that as long as you consume cacao, you can endlessly exercise your muscles without any consequences? Unfortunately, no. However, you will find that many athletes incorporate cacao into their diets because it can help one's muscles stay relaxed and healthy even after a lot of exercise.
Besides reducing the acid production in your muscles, this magnesium can also reduce inflammation and pain in your muscles. As you can imagine, this can be particularly helpful before, during, and after an intense workout. Even if you don't exercise all that often, consuming the magnesium that cacao has to offer can keep your muscles relaxed, limber, and healthy.
3. Cacao Can Make You Happy
Yet another thing the Aztecs knew about the consumption of cacao is that it has serious mood-boosting powers. The Aztec emperors who regularly drank cacao drinks often were in very happy moods for hours at a time. This correlates with more recent scientific studies that show that the consumption of cacao does indeed improve a person's mood.
Specifically, it has been discovered that the consumption of chocolate will create a chemical reaction in the brain and body that is very similar to the feeling you get when falling in love for the first time. But why? Again, it all has to do with the little chemicals that cacao releases in the body when you consume it.
Specifically, cacao contains a substance known as phenylethylamine (PEA). You may not have heard of this substance before, but the human body naturally produces it from the adrenal glands when a person becomes excited. PEA has the unique ability to make the heart quicken its pace.
Another thing this chemical can do is improve focus and alertness. This result is what makes it very similar to the way a person feels when falling in love. The process of falling in love will cause the heart rate to quicken, and it will also change the brain's chemistry and way of working.
As a result, your mood will get a big boost. But this boost isn't just from PEA alone (although it does play a big part). Another chemical that has a big role is anandamide. This chemical has been nicknamed the "bliss" chemical for obvious reasons.
Reducing Depression With Cacao Chemicals
Scientists have discovered that this chemical has the unique ability to reduce symptoms of clinical depression. This is not to say that consuming cacao will cure depression, but it can certainly reduce its severity for a period of time. The reason why anandamide does this is due to the fact that it is able to alter a person's blood pressure as well as a person's levels of blood sugar.
This will not only cause changes in the body but also in the mind, creating a serious boost in a positive mood. Anandamide also improves a person's alertness and focus. Some people call this chemical a chocolate amphetamine because it does indeed affect the body and brain in a way that is similar to amphetamine.
Of course, it is nowhere near as strong or dangerous. The amounts of anandamide that you get from cacao will produce a very healthy amount of mood-boosting power along with increased alertness. Keep in mind that the body also produces anandamide naturally because it is an endorphin.
Usually, the body will produce this chemical after a session of intense exercise like a long jog. This is why runners often claim that they will experience a "runner's high" after running for long periods of time due to the release of endorphins. While exercising is all well and good, you can get those endorphins just from eating some cacao on a regular basis.
4. Cacao Can Boost Your Energy Levels
While it might be tiring to hear that the ancient Aztecs were right about another cacao-related fact hundreds of years before science confirmed it, you should know that the Aztecs already knew long before us that consuming cacao could give a person a serious boost of energy. The interesting thing is that cacao has very little caffeine when compared to coffee.
Specifically, one serving of coffee has around 95 mg of caffeine. On the other hand, one serving of raw cacao only has around half of this amount. So, why is cacao so good at boosting a person's energy levels if it has only very small amounts of caffeine?
First of all, you should know that even small amounts of caffeine can produce a significant boost of energy. You might be wondering how this is the case if some people can drink a huge mug of coffee and still be tired. This is because drinking too much coffee or consuming too much caffeine, in general, will cause your brain to become used to it.
For that reason, you will need to consume more and more caffeine to get the same stimulating effect. But if you don't habituate yourself in this way and instead stick to smaller and more reasonable amounts of caffeine, this won't happen. This is why some people who don't consume huge amounts of caffeine can get a reasonable energy boost from black tea or cacao, which have lower levels of caffeine compared to coffee.
Besides the presence of caffeine in cacao, there are other factors that come into play. This is because cacao is rich in a chemical called theobromine. You likely have never heard of theobromine before, but it is a well-known stimulant of the cardiovascular system.
An Energy Boost Without the Crash
Specifically, this substance will cause your blood to flow faster through your body, and it will also improve your heart function. This chemical is able to do this due to the fact that it can dilate your blood vessels. When your blood vessels become dilated, this means they will become wider than usual due to their muscular walls relaxing.
This will make it easier for blood to flow throughout the body. When it is easier for blood to flow through the body, this makes it easier for the entire body, including the brain, to absorb all the oxygen and nutrients the blood has to offer. The heart won't have to work nearly as hard as usual to do this, and your brain, in particular, will be enriched with an excess of nutrients and oxygen.
This, of course, will make your brain more alert and active, which will contribute to increased energy. The great thing about theobromine is that it won't cause you to crash later on. This is in contrast to the high caffeine levels of coffee, which may make you feel great for the moment but will then force you into a terrible caffeine crash later on.
5. Cacao Decreases Bodily Stress and Inflammation
We have already seen how cacao can decrease muscular stress and tension due to the presence of magnesium, but this substance can do much more than that. Besides just helping your muscles, consuming cacao on a regular basis can also reduce stress and inflammation throughout the body. This, of course, is important for a variety of reasons and it again has to do with antioxidants along with a few other factors.
Tryptophan is a very important amino acid that you can absorb when consuming cacao. Tryptophan is important to the human body for many different reasons, most importantly being that this amino acid can transform into various neurotransmitters in the body, most notably melatonin and serotonin.
If you don't know what serotonin is, it is one of the most famous "feel-good" hormones that the body produces. It is important for the reduction of stress and anxiety and it is also important for boosting one's mood. Studies have found that low levels of serotonin seem to be linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression.
Melatonin, on the other hand, is important in its own right for being the famous sleep chemical. The body produces melatonin naturally when the eyes perceive low levels of light such as a sunset. This will make the mind feel tired and will promote healthy sleep rhythms.
Abnormal levels of melatonin may cause insomnia and other problems involving sleep and mood. Its presence is particularly significant for reducing stress levels.
Because cacao contains tryptophan which can turn into both serotonin and melatonin, it only makes sense that adding cacao to your diet is a significant thing to do. Besides improving your mood and sleep pattern, the presence of antioxidants can also reduce inflammation throughout your body.
This is because being a great anti-aging substance, antioxidants also have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Even if your body doesn't feel inflamed, you are likely experiencing some kind of inflammation somewhere in your body or brain. Consuming cacao will help soothe this inflammation so that you can lead a healthy lifestyle.
All About the Health Benefits of Cacao
By now, you have learned all about the major health benefits of cacao. Some of the most prominent benefits include reduced inflammation, improved mood, more energy, and healthier muscles, among other benefits. Simply adding cacao to your daily diet can allow you to reap these benefits and more.
For Wellness' Superfood Energy Bites includes cacao and other amazing superfoods.