Having a bite of chocolate or a sip of cacao is a sure way to transform your mood at the end of a challenging day. And there is science to support it. Cacao improves stamina, helps overcome melancholic thoughts and even tackles chronic stress. It is no wonder then that the Maya Indians believed it to carry blood of the gods which empowered mortals when consumed.
According to this ancient myth, the magical brownish red beans were produced by the earth for the god of wildlife Yum Kaax when he was wounded in battle. They helped him restore his energy and defeat the Mayan death god Batik of Ah Puch, leaving the beans behind as a gift to humans. Modern science is here to verify just how invaluable this offering was.
Moderate amounts of cacao and dark chocolate are beneficial for heart health and cognitive functions and can even be used as a preventative measure in skin ageing. Its uses do not stop here though. Irresistible taste aside, we have put together seven compelling reasons to introduce cacao into your diet.
The treasures of Aztecs and Maya
The belief in cacao beans’ divine origins was shared with the Maya by Aztecs. For them, cacao harvest was nothing other than particles of the goddess Tlaltecuhtli’s soul. According to the legend, part of it she gave away to create the celestial sky, while the rest was spent entirely on this love potion. “Drinking it will make humans realise that they are not alone in the world and their hearts will fill with love.”
Indeed, cacao beans were valued so highly that the legendary Aztec ruler Moctezuma II preferred to receive his subordinates’ taxes in beans over gold. With their aid he brewed a drink for his warriors to provide them with health, strength and stamina.
Aphrodisiac and dope
We now know that there is more to these legends. Aphrodisiac qualities of dark chocolate, for instance, have already been demonstrated in the 18th century. Take the prolific lover Casanova who apparently treated the ladies that took his fancy to nothing other than cacao.
Somewhat unsurprisingly it has often been on the church’s agenda to attempt to ban cacao products for their addictive qualities, a claim that remains unchallenged to this day. In fact, we should pay our dues to Renaissance doctors for standing by cacao and its significant health benefits. Modern science is very much in agreement.
1/ Tops up mineral deficiency
Cacao beans contains around 380 known chemical substances and elements, including such rare minerals as magnesium, copper and iron. Magnesium is not only beneficial in protecting us from the adverse effects of stress but also speeds up numerous biological processes in our bodies, including protein synthesis and energy production.
Copper deficiency leads to reduced glucose metabolism and difficulties in digesting iron. Iron deficiency in turn can lead to lower immunity. Regular cacao consumption can help prevent the development of iron deficiency anaemia linked to various associated liver concerns and heart failure. Another mineral found in cacao beans is potassium, which is vital for the health of our muscles, heart, vessels and the overall nervous system.
2/ Stimulates the immune system
Cacao products contain a precious butter which acts as an immunostimulant for the human body. Due to its high saturated fatty acids content, cacao butter is akin to a magical armour against the viruses and inflammatory lung processes.
In a 2012 Spanish study, patients consuming polyphenol rich cacao products demonstrated lower levels of plasma leukotrienes. Therefore cacao reduces inflammatory processes in the body and helps tackle oxidative stress, hence reducing the risk of cancer related illnesses.
3/ Benefits the heart
A large-scale UK study with around 160,000 participants demonstrated that high chocolate consumption is linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Flavonoids contained in cacao reduce the levels of bad cholesterol and have a series of protective qualities for the heart and vessels.
The good news is that regular sampling of good quality chocolate can actually be a good preventative measure for atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease and stroke. What is important to bear in mind though is making sure to opt for chocolate with low sugar content, as the latter would pretty much cancel out all benefits of cacao.
4/ Anti-ageing benefits for the skin
Cacao is rich in antioxidants which neutralise oxidative stress, the main factor behind dull skin and early signs of ageing. Scientists worldwide agree that by protecting our cells from within cacao is not only capable of healing skin conditions but also preventing it from premature ageing. Topical application is also known to neutralise photodamage, prevent wrinkles and promote collagen production.
5/ Improves cognitive functioning
There is a reason we crave chocolate before an important exam or meeting. Indeed, flavanol is known to strengthen vessels in our brains and improve cognitive abilities in young people. However, its full benefits only come with consistent use.
A study to assess these findings was also carried out with a sample of elderly participants. Italian scientists formulated a dedicated diet for ageing people suffering with brain disease. The diet, which included high amounts of cacao products, prompted significant improvements in blood circulation to the brain. It was concluded that cacao flavanols can protect against cognitive ageing and are highly beneficial in preventing dementia.
6/ Normalises arterial pressure
It has been observed that Kuna Indians living on desolate islands of Panama demonstrate a surprising lack of arterial pressure concerns among their ageing population. Following in-depth studies of their lifestyle and diet much has been attributed to their high cacao consumption. A similar study carried out in 2017 in Australia demonstrated a reduced pressure in elderly people whose diet included chocolate in some shape or form.
An important factor to bear in mind is the Kuna Indians’ use of cacao fruit without the addition of sugar or milk. A typical traditional recipe involves boiling dry cacao beans in some water on an open fire, then adding a bit of cinnamon and chilli pepper to intensify the taste and aroma. This classic recipe which bypasses those extra calories is bound be beneficial to our health.
7/ Benefits the teeth
Warnings about the negative effects of excessive sweets consumption for our teeth are all around us. However, when it comes to dark chocolate, it can actually make them stronger. A study recently undertaken in Valencia demonstrated that cacao powder - specifically its phenolic substances - can prevent caries. The key is to choose quality chocolate with the “right” ingredients, i.e. no sugar, milk or artificial sweeteners.