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Cacao could be considered a healthier version of cocoa. It’s a raw, unprocessed chocolatey superfood that is packed full of nutrients and is made by cold-pressing cocoa beans to preserve their goodness. This process ensures that the living enzymes in the cacao are kept alive, while separating the fat (cacao butter) and producing the nibs. The nibs are the small, chipped pieces of the bean that are left over once it has been fermented, dried and pressed. Cocoa, by comparison, is roasted at high temperatures and heavily processed, which rids it of many of its nutrients. It’s also packed full of sugar.
The cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, originated from Central and South America, where it was cultivated, and the seeds of its fruit were consumed by the Pre-classic Mayan civilization as early as 600 BC.1 The cacao bean was even once used as a currency in trade and was served at royal feasts and presented to warriors as a post-battle reward!
When the new world began to colonise these ancient civilisations, they brought their own innovations to cacao, adding sugars and spices to reduce the bitterness. For many years, cacao, and chocolate, were an exclusive commodity, but with the Industrial revolution came the onset of steam-powered machines that made its production easier and brought it to the masses.
Cacao beans are naturally packed with many essential minerals including magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium and manganese. These nutrients are available in high amounts in raw cacao, and come with a host of health benefits:
Research has shown that raw cacao may help to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease because of the bioactivity of certain flavonoids2 – a plant compound associated with antioxidant activity. These are thought to improve circulation to the heart to lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation and reduce blood stickiness.
Cacao is not only good for your physical health, but your mental health too. Cacao contains phenylethylamine (PEA), a natural compound that’s made in our brain, which is associated with positive mood, as well as tryptophan – an amino acid that the body uses to make serotonin. Eating cacao raises the level of serotonin in the brain, acting as a natural anti-depressant and promoting a sense of wellbeing.3
Flavanol-rich foods, like cacao, have been shown in studies to improve circulation to the skin, increase skin hydration and help protect the skin against sun damage.4 Many skincare products contain cocoa butter – the butter derived from cocoa seeds contains large quantities of essential fatty acids and phytosterols, which studies have also shown may help restore the elasticity of the skin and benefit some skin conditions.
How you choose to consume raw cacao will depend largely on your dietary preferences and tastebuds. While related to chocolate, it’s more bitter and not as sweet, but there’s still no mistaking the taste similarity. It’s fantastic when added to smoothies or desserts when you’re missing a chocolate fix, and if you miss the sweetness, you can always add a little honey or fruit as a natural sweetener. Using it to make a warm beverage is also a popular choice!
One of the easiest ways to eat raw cacao is to combine it in a smoothie. Try blending up a few teaspoons with a banana and some almond milk for a delicious morning breakfast! You can also combine cacao with plain yoghurt, or simply stir it with hot water, milk (or milk alternative) and some honey for a hot chocolate alternative.
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