As we head into the holiday season... let's get into a typical dessert ingredient we see but rarely, truly appreciate: CACAO.
No, not your average milk chocolate bar.
Not hot chocolate in its store-bought, packaged form.
Not even a semi-dark chocolate bar.
We are talking CACAO in its PUREST form. Rich and full of nutrients.
What is Cacao?
Cacao, in scientific terms, is called Theobroma Cacao. Native to tropical regions in Central and South America, the cacao tree (it's fruit) was eaten by pre-Columbian cultures 4,000 years ago. We're talking the Mayans-- it's been around a LONG time! It was referred to as "food of the gods."
Is chocolate itself a super food? No.
But cacao?... Oh, most certainly.
So, cacao plants have two edible parts: The fruit, and the seeds. Today over 70% of cacao trees grow in West Africa.
When you use cacao in its rawest form... it isn't an ingredient meant to "sweeten" up a dish. It will add a chocolaty flavor, but it won't sweeten it. Chocolate itself (typically less than 72% cacao) will actually sweeten your dishes. Just so we are clear!
So you can imagine that cacao is used in many dishes that go beyond just dessert. It can also be used in savory dishes, especially those with meat.
Now that we have some context of cacao, let's talk about the benefits of cacao.
Benefits of Cacao
Cacao is extraordinarily high in polyphenols.
Gram for gram it has more polyphenols than blueberries!
Polyphenols are antioxidants. Polyphenols are naturally occurring micronutrients that can be found in plants, food, and teas. There are many studies that confirm polyphenols are incredible for the human body- especially for cardiovascular benefits.
A diet high in polyphenols can help take down free radicals that are scavenging your body. When you don't have enough polyphenols (antioxidants) in your body-- there will be more damage to your cells. Polyphenol intake is very important! And cacao is loaded with these powerful plant compounds.
Polyphenols can even help with inflammation, which is awesome.
It is very important to purchase cacao that has its nutrients preserved. Heat and the addition of being treated with alkaline can decrease the polyphenol content.
Cacao is rich in flavanols, which can help lower blood pressure.
Right out of the gate, there was an interesting study on a group of people who drank cacao regularly (think- an entire island of people!) and when they compared them to people who don't drink cacao on a regular basis... they noticed that the cacao drinkers had significantly lower blood pressure as a collective group.
Flavanols are a kind of flavonoid and flavonoids are a kind of antioxidant. Flavanols in general help lower blood pressure because flavanols help improve nitric oxide levels in the blood. When you have good nitric oxide levels in your blood, the function of your blood vessels performs much more effectively.
In most recent studies, those who have high blood pressure really benefited from the flavanols that came from an uptick in consuming cacao. It also helped more mature, older people (compared to younger people.)
Cacao can help your cardiovascular health
Given that we just touched on how polyphenols can help with heart health, it's no surprise that getting in pure cacao every day can help keep heart attacks and strokes away.
This controlled study was particularly interesting. It was a thorough and extensive collection of all studies done on cacao flavanols in relation to cardiovascular activity. They concluded that short term -and possibly long term- cacao most certainly does help with heart health.
Many people know that taking asprin everyday can help with thinning of the blood (which helps prevent heart attacks) but asprin everyday can have adverse effects on the liver. It is shown that taking cacao everyday can lower your cholesterol, which has a blood thinning effect. It's definitely worth looking into if heart health is a concern with your genetics.
Here is a study that will really blow your mind: There was a scientific review of nine different studies. This totaled out to 157,809 people and the conclusion was that higher cacao consumption was associated with a much lower risk of heart disease and stroke.
Cacao can improve depression and help elevate mood
What's really cool is that it's been shown that cacao is so powerful it can help age-related cognitive decline. So its link to helping depression and improving moods makes a lot of sense. Healthy mind, less stress. Less stress, longer life!
Why does cacao help improve mood? Scientists argue that it's due to the flavanols, it's ability to help produce serotonin (a natural mood stabilizer), and simply... the notion that cacao is a sensory experience, and eating it and smelling it is incredibly pleasing. There is a lot to be said about the correlation between cacao and cognitive function.
There was even a study that involved pregnant women consuming chocolate. The findings were that women who increased the amount of cacao in their diet showed having babies that had a more positive temperament.
To say that cacao is beneficial for pre-natal, babies, kids, adults, and seniors... would be a complete statement!
Strawberry Cacao Nice-Cream Recipe
This recipe is romantic (fruit and chocolate anyone?), healthy, and incredibly easy to make. In fact, it only involves three ingredients! Four, if you count water!
Beyond just the cacao nutrients, this nice-cream is loaded with other benefits. Specifically, more polyphenols and antioxidants due to the strawberries.
This dessert promotes cognitive function, heart health, decreasing inflammation, and gives you an extra boost of fiber and Vitamin C. What is not to love? It's so rich in flavor, too.
Courtesy of Katey Yurko @thevioletfog
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