The Benefits Of Raw Cacao
Today’s media is full of reports about so-called “superfoods.” While most of these reports are based on some level of fact, misrepresentation or poor interpretation of medical and scientific findings often leads to misinformation and sensational yet misleading headlines. A prime example of this is raw cacao. The health benefits of raw cacao are astounding; however, this, unfortunately, does not necessarily mean that eating a bar of milk chocolate each day will have the same effects. Read on to learn more about the ways in which raw cacao can improve your health and how to take full advantage.
What is Raw Cacao?
When purchasing raw cacao products such as powder, it is important to understand the differences between raw cacao powder and the more common cocoa powder. Raw cacao powder is very pure. It is made from raw, unroasted cocoa beans via a process known as cold pressing, which removes the fat in the form of cacao butter; much of the bean and nutrients remain intact.
Cacao is one of the best sources of flavonoids (which are potent antioxidants) available, which means that it has huge health benefits. It is also rich in protein, cholesterol-free and monounsaturated fats, fiber, natural carbohydrates, and minerals (including zinc, iron, potassium, magnesium, copper, manganese, and calcium).
Cocoa powder is produced in a similar way to cacao powder, except that it undergoes high-temperature processing during production. Although it retains significant health benefits, the high temperatures used to destroy some of the nutritional value. As cocoa undergoes further processing to make reduced-strength dark chocolate and milk chocolate, increasing amounts of the nutrients are removed. Therefore, raw cacao powder, cocoa powder, or very strong dark chocolate are recommended for optimal health benefits.
Many people are at an increased risk of cardiovascular events as they age. The good news is that the consumption of certain foods can help reduce this risk. Cocoa-based products can have significant beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system by reducing cardiovascular risk and atherosclerosis, improving circulation, lowering the levels of LDL (bad) and increasing the levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, and reducing blood pressure. Many of these effects are caused by the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of the flavonoids.
- Cacao- and cocoa-based products can reduce hypertension. For example, the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study was performed in 90 elderly individuals who received cocoa-based drinks with high, medium, or low flavonoid content. Blood pressure was reduced significantly in patients that received high- or medium-content cocoa compared with those that received low flavonoid cocoa . The subjects also exhibited improved insulin resistance and reduced lipid peroxidation.
- Cardiovascular function. A recent study assessed vascular stiffness in healthy younger (<35) and older (50–80) men who drank cocoa or a control drink twice a day for two weeks. The subjects who drank cocoa exhibited significantly improved cardiovascular function, as measured by improved endothelial function, blood pressure, and vascular stiffness . A second similar study confirmed these effects and also indicated that the consumption of high-flavonoid chocolate improved platelet aggregation (an indicator of the ability of the blood to form clots) compared with low flavonoid chocolate .
- Cholesterol. Several studies have investigated the ability of cocoa and cacao to improve cholesterol. For example, consuming 400 g cocoa powder with 500 ml skimmed milk per day increased HDL and lowered LDL cholesterol levels in elderly subjects at high risk of cardiovascular disease . Similar observations were made in young healthy and hypercholesterolemic subjects  and in elderly healthy individuals .
The available data suggest that cocoa and cacao could help protect against cognitive decline in aging individuals.
- In the same CoCoA study described above, subjects that received cocoa with a high or medium flavonoid content had significant improvements in two different measures of cognitive function: a trail making test and a verbal fluency test. The improvements were greatest in the high flavonoid vs. the intermediate flavonoid group. However, there were no improvements in the mini-mental state evaluation among groups .
- Cocoa and cacao might also protect against dementia and related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease .
The risk of metabolic diseases often increases as we age, and conditions such as diabetes and obesity are associated with reduced mortality. Luckily, cocoa could help reduce the risk of these conditions and their symptoms. Possibly the most important metabolic effect of cocoa is its ability to improve insulin sensitivity. In one study, subjects received dark or white chocolate (with high and zero flavonoid content, respectively), and insulin sensitivity was assessed using glucose tolerance tests and the quantitative insulin sensitivity check index. Dark, but not white, chocolate significantly improved both measures of insulin sensitivity and reduced blood pressure .
The symptoms of many aging-related diseases have been linked to reduced hormone levels over time. Therefore, improving natural hormone production can reduce the symptoms of many aging-related diseases. Cocoa can have beneficial effects on the production of several hormones.
- Testosterone Injections. Cocoa and cacao contain high concentrations of zinc, which has been shown to increase testosterone production .
- Stress hormones. We all know that nice, relaxed feeling that occurs when we eat a delicious, rich piece of dark chocolate. It turns out that there is a physiological reason for this! Cocoa can potently inhibit the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Healthy men aged 20–50 who consumed a single piece of dark chocolate had a significantly reduced response to a psychosocial stressor. These effects were caused by inhibiting the release of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine from the adrenal gland .
So, there you have it! Cocoa really is a super-food. It is not only delicious but, when eaten in unprocessed forms, it has significant health benefits.
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