Most of us love cocoa and chocolate but what is it that makes it so irresistible? And is it healthy?
First of all, let’s sort out what’s what – cacao, cocoa and chocolate. Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is the name of the plant, tree to be precise, from which we get cocoa. Cacao trees bear fruit in the form of large pods with beans inside. When harvested, the beans are fermented, dried, roasted (unless it’s for raw cocoa products) and processed into cocoa liquor, cocoa mass, cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Chocolate is the food or drink made up from some or all these different forms of cocoa, usually with added sugar and other ingredients, such as liquids, fats, vanilla and other flavourings.
The tropical cacao tree is native to South America and its beans have been used by native people for millennia. The Maya valued cocoa highly, using it not only as a food but also medicine and even as currency. Traditionally, cocoa was prepared by harvesting the beans, fermenting, roasting and grinding them into a paste. This paste was then mixed with water, often with the addition of chilli and other spices, and the mixture was beaten until it turned into a frothy drink. Sugar was yet to be discovered so this cocoa beverage was consumed bitter. It wasn’t until European explorers got their hands on cocoa beans and brought them to Spain that sugar was added to the traditional drink. Since then, the popularity of cocoa has sky-rocketed and eventually chocolate as we know it was created.
Cacao contains many powerful phytochemicals and some essential nutrients such as protein, iron and magnesium. But let’s face it, no one eats chocolate because it contains protein. It’s the effects of its phytochemicals that are at the heart of cacao’s allure. So just why and how does cocoa work its magic on us?
Cacao packs some strong antioxidants that help fight inflammation, protect blood vessels and DNA from damage and aid our immune system. However, probably the strongest of cacao’s phytochemicals is phenethylamine (PEA); a compound that stimulates the nervous system and triggers the release of endorphins – aka ‘happy hormones’. But that’s not all it does! PEA can also stimulate the release of dopamine, a potent neurochemical linked to sexual arousal and pleasure. It’s no surprise then that cacao can act as a mild antidepressant!
What you probably knew already is that cacao is a source of caffeine – an antioxidant and powerful stimulant. Caffeine energises the central nervous system, stimulates bloodflow in the brain and increases the production of serotonin – a neurochemical that makes you feel and sleep better. A half of a regular 100-gram bar of dark chocolate provides between 10 and 60 milligrams of caffeine, whilst a cup of coffee contains 65-200 milligrams.
A little bit of caffeine is a good thing but too much and you might end up throwing your brain chemistry off balance so don’t overdo the coffee – or chocolate for that matter.
Theobromine is another of cacao’s phytochemicals and is chemically related to caffeine, also acting as a stimulant but weaker. Theobromine has some unique properties too – it helps relax the tiny muscles in the lungs – helpful if you’re struggling with a cough – and it helps lower blood pressure. What’s probably the best property of theobromine though is that it releases the compound anandamide in your body, a powerful chemical producing blissful feelings (the name comes from the Sanskrit word for bliss – Ananda).
And there’s more! Cacao powder is a rich source of L-tryptophan, a substance which your body turns into serotonin, the feel-good neurochemical. Serotonin plays a major role in positive mood, healthy sleep and appetite. Low serotonin levels can cause disturbances of all these and even lead to depression. Women have more serotonin receptors in the brain than men, which is why they seem to be more receptive to cocoa. It can even help to alleviate the natural decrease in feel-good hormones which women experience before and during their period.
Not so sweet
Cacao farming is hard work and because of the tropical and humid conditions cacao requires, it can only be grown in certain regions. Vast majority is now grown in Africa, Asia and Latin America and despite the global popularity of chocolate, many cacao farmers live in poverty. Large multinationals pay little for their produce and many companies have also been exposed for using child labour. To avoid this exploitation, look for a Fairtrade label – that way you know cocoa farmers were paid reasonably fair wages and support sustainable cocoa farming.
What to look for
As you might have guessed, to experience the full benefits of cacao’s alchemy it’s best to choose the least diluted forms. Hence dark chocolate, raw cacao powder and cocoa nibs are the perfect choices. The less ‘cocoa content’ in a product, the less powerful the effect.
And speaking of effects – just like with everything else, how people react to chocolate is highly individual. Some might get giddy after eating a few squares whilst others feel only a mild boost. Either way, it won’t make you feel worse so what’s not to like?