Where has this year gone? It's amazing to me to think that a few months ago, I was high up in the Andes Mountains. During my time there, I got to visit the maca fields and tie up some technical business stuff in order to bring some of my favorite Peruvian superfoods to our country. It does not seem like it was that long ago, but here we are!
It's the beginning of December, and Christmas and the start of a new year are literally just around the corner. With that being said, we are approaching that time of year when so many of us show our love and appreciation for one another through cooking and baking. If you've got the same fixation on chocolate that I do, then perhaps your baking will contain lots of cocoa. Or if you're trying for something a bit healthier, maybe cacao instead!
Cacao is one of those superfoods that is not just healthy, but it tastes absolutely amazing. Raw, unprocessed cacao is something that is very different from the processed, sweetened version of chocolate that we all know and most of us love. Yet that raw, unprocessed cacao is where traditional chocolate starts. It all begins in the cacao beans, which are native to many areas of South America--including my native Peru. So just what is it that makes cacao good for you?
History of Cacao
Before talking about what makes cacao good for you, it helps to have a little bit of background. Right now, cacao is all the rage in health food stores and in many diets. It seems to be getting more attention lately, as there are frequent studies done on the active ingredients in cacao in recent years highlighting all of the wonderful benefits of the fruit.
This might lead people to believe that it is a fairly recent discovery. It certainly is not anything new. Cacao has been used for over 5,000 years at this point. The Mayo-Chinchipe people were cultivating cacao around 5,300 years ago. Some evidence suggests that prior to the chocolatey taste becoming popular, cacao seeds were used for making a fermented alcoholic beverage, which is what first drew the attention of the Americas.
From that point on, the cacao bean was a common currency throughout central and South America. The cacao plant was given its scientific name by a Swedish scientist. When he first classified the genus and species of the fruit, it was named Theobroma cacao, which literally translates to "food of the gods". It's no wonder why it's so heavenly! It is rumored that Moctezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, only took liquid chocolate served in a gold goblet and flavored with vanilla, chili powder, or other spices with his meals.
The trees grow in areas along the Amazon and in certain places in the Andes mountain range. The pods are harvested over the course of many months, as there is no particular harvest season in most places. Instead, pods are picked as they ripen.
The harvested pods are opened and the beans are exposed. The pulp and seeds are then removed and arranged to "sweat". During this process, the pulp liquefies and trickles away leaving behind just the seeds. These seeds are where almost everything we know and love about chocolate comes from.
They are fermented, dried, and roasted in a number of ways to deliver to customers around the world. Whether it is a cacao nib, powder, or whole bean, it has a deep, rich, chocolate taste with a silky yet crunchy mouth feel and isn't the slightest bit sweet.
Cacao Health Benefits
And now at last we get into the important part and the question being begged by many--is cacao good for your health? The short answer is yes. It is absolutely good for your health.
The active compound, theobromine, is responsible for many of this wonderful superfood's health benefits. Just to name a few, it has been shown to have 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries. This superfood is also the highest plant-based source of iron. Additionally, it contains high levels of magnesium. It has more calcium than traditional dairy milk. It is a natural mood-elevator and anti-depressant. And it is also considered an aphrodisiac.
The health benefits of this Peruvian superfood are countless. It has also been shown to prevent cancer. A February of 2016 study concluded that "Cocoa is a high–nutritional value food with bioactive compounds that have been demonstrated to be effective in some physiological and pathophysiological processes, and previous studies have suggested the efficacy of cocoa as a potential anti-proliferative agent." In other words, there is a lot of good stuff in it that can help prevent cancer. What's not to love about that?
Aside from the physical health benefits, cacao also offers some emotional and mental health benefit. Most people think of eating chocolate as decadent. It's something that is a treat. It's often used as a reward. There is high value placed on chocolate. The reason why we give such value to chocolate could very well be a deeply rooted biological response.
Some of the active ingredients in cacao are natural mood elevators and anti-depressants. Chocolate has also been considered an aphrodisiac for centuries. Maybe that's why people often present chocolate to their dates! The truth is, these claims are backed by scientific research. A 2006 study showed that while the changes in mood might only last a short time, they absolutely exist.
There are very few moments that go by when chocolate isn't on my mind. I would eat chocolate all day, every day if I could. But we all know that eating that much chocolate isn't healthy.
Interestingly enough, the base that gives chocolate its amazing flavor IS healthy. In fact, it's one of the healthiest foods in the world. Cacao grows in many temperate regions of the world, and of course it also grows in my native Peru. Cacao is an amazing superfood because it can be used in so many ways. Of course the version most of us know is highly sweet and calorie dense.
Raw cacao, however, is unsweetened. For many, the fact that raw cacao isn't sweet can be off-putting. However, it can very easily be substituted for cocoa in baking and cooking. This time of year, in particular, when so many people are showing their appreciation for family through baking sweets. Make those holiday cookies healthier by using cacao instead of cocoa. While it won't make chocolate cheesecake candy cane bars any less decadent, it can make them a teeny bit healthier with a boost of anti-oxidants and natural anti-depressants.