Cacao is still fairly new to the health world, not only in terms of pronouncing it correctly (!), but in the forms available to buy and its various health benefits. We’ve all heard that consuming chocolate with a high raw cocoa content is much better to munch on than other chocolate products. But, why? It all comes down to the abundance of powerful micronutrients in the cacao bean…
What is Cacao?
“Oh, you mean cocoa?”…
Let’s start by clearing up the popular misconception that cacao and cocoa are the same product. ‘Ca-cow’ is the goodness we are talking about here, and is different to cocoa (‘co-co’) due to the way it is processed, and its subsequent nutritional benefits. Cacao is derived from the nuts or seeds (beans) of the cacao tree and is often referred to as ‘raw cacao’. Once harvested from the trees, roasting the cacao beans at high temperatures will lead to the creation of the well-known ‘cocoa bean’ which will then go on to feature in products such as cocoa butter, cocoa powder and chocolate. However, due to these high temperatures, some of the nutritional value from the original bean is lost. To maintain this nutritional excellence, once harvested, the raw cacao beans can remain unroasted and be made into raw cacao nibs, cacao butter, cacao paste, or cold-pressed to make cacao powder – which is what the brilliant people of Some-Good are packaging up for you here. This process allows lots of the nutrition to remain in the end product such as living enzymes and a high proportion of important antioxidant micronutrients called flavonoids.
How does it do us Some-Good?
Cocoa still has a large number of flavonoids – just not as much as cacao. Most of the research at present has been conducted on cocoa, due to its availability as ready-made products on the shelves of our supermarkets. This growing body of research has started to explore the effects of cocoa products on the body and mind of us humans. The commonly recognised potent ingredient in producing much of the observed benefits are called ‘flavonoids’. These micronutrients are naturally-occurring compounds found in foods such as berry fruits, citrus fruits, teas, red wine and our tasty cacao and cocoa bean. Flavonoids have been found to link to improved cardiovascular health, cognitive functioning, and prevention of neurodegeneration (such as dementia) and tumour growth (for review see R. M. Lamuela-Raventós et al, 2005).
How does cocoa work in our bodies?
The cells in our bodies undergo a degree of ‘oxidative stress’ throughout daily life, and produce damaging chemical by-products called ‘free radicals’. Having a degree of oxidative stress is normal. Our body is usually good at ‘mopping up’ this stress and keeping the balance between friend and foe, especially when we are young and healthy. However, as our body ages, or if we lead an unhealthy lifestyle (such as smoking, excessive drinking or being overweight) the balance of oxidative stress can topple, with the body not being able to compensate for the extra damage. This is where some health problems can emerge, due to our body’s inability to keep the cell stress in check. Now, what has this got to do with the little old cocoa bean? Well, it has been observed that flavonoid-rich foods such as cocoa can help ‘mop up’ the oxidative stress in our bodies, resulting in fewer health problems, such as reduced tumour growth, improved insulin resistance(Grassi et al, 2005; meaning a lower likelihood of type 2 diabetes) and increased ‘good cholesterol’ circulating the body. Pretty good, huh?!
How does cocoa work in our brain?
Further research has revealed that cocoa flavonoids can increase the blood flow to our brain after consumption (Desideri et al, 2012; Lamport et al, 2015; Mastroiacovo et al, 2015). Flavonoids help to dilate the blood vessels around the body and brain, allowing more blood and oxygen to flow to its destination, whether that is in the brain, heart or surrounding tissues. This improved blood flow is thought to prevent the decline of cognitive skills (such as memory) in older adults, and also to improve short-term cognitive functioning in young, healthy adults (Field et al; 2011; Scholey et al, 2010; for review see Scholey and Owen, 2013). Studies have also shown that cocoa flavonoids can reduce blood pressure (Taubert et al, 2007), which is thought to work through the same mechanism – expanding blood vessels and therefore reducing pressure.
The final say
As a researcher and health-goer, I have tried a fair few cocoa products in my time. I realised early on I could never quite get on with nibs; I prefer the powder, straight up. I find with cocoa, the smell and taste is always very strong. Now, I love a good strong piece of 80%+ dark chocolate, but I found I was trying to minimise the amount of powder I was adding in case it would be too overpowering! It wasn’t until I had a sprinkling of a friend’s cacao powder that I think I saw the light. It was exactly that – light!I have been buying cacao since then from a local health shop, however Some-Good’s range caught my eye and I thought I’d give it a go! It is now my favourite cacao product - smooth, light, fluffy almost! Click To TweetAs soon as I got mine through the post it was straight in my porridge, then adding a teaspoon to my coffee to make a mocha, cacao-style, and sprucing up my natural yoghurt (I urge you to try this as it tastes like the richest chocolate mousse – without the sugar and additives!) As cacao is the rawest form of cocoa product, there is no doubt we are consuming an abundance of these health-boosting flavonoids each time we make a yummy concoction from our cacao powder. And with such a rich, smooth taste, it’s not going to be hard at all!
Katie Barfoot, University of Reading/KB Lifestyle
Grassi, D., Necozione, S., Lippi, C., Croce, G., Valeri, L., Pasqualetti, P., Desideri, G., Blumberg, J.B., Ferri, C. (2005). Cocoa reduces blood pressure and insulin resistance and improves endothelium-dependent vasodilation in hypertensives. Hypertension 46:398–405. doi: https://doi.org/10.1161/01.HYP.0000174990.46027.70
Field, D.T., Williams, C.M., Butler, L.T. (2011). Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in an acute improvement in visual and cognitive functions. Physiol Behav 103:255–260. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2011.02.013
Desideri, G., Kwik-Uribe, C., Grassi, D., Necozione, S., Ghiadoni, L., Mastroiacovo, D., Raffaele, A., Ferri, L., Bocale, R., Carmela, L., Marini, C., Reffi, C. (2012). Benefits in cognitive function, blood pressure, and insulin resistance through cocoa flavanol consumption in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment: the cocoa cognition and ageing (CoCoA) study. Hypertension, 60:794–801. doi: https://doi.org/10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.112.193060
Lamport, D.J., Pal, D., Moutsiana, C. et al. Psychopharmacology (2015) 232: 3227. doi:10.1007/s00213-015-3972-4
Lamuela-Raventós, R.M., Romero-Pérez, A, I., Andrés-Lacueva, C. and Tornero, A. (2005). Review: Health Effects of Cocoa Flavonoids. Food Science and Technology International, 11: 159. doi: 10.1177/1082013205054498
Mastroiacovo, D., Kwik-Uribe, C., Grassi, D., Necozione, S., Raffaele, A., Pistacchio, L., Righetti, R., Bocale, R., Lechiara, M,C., Marini, C., Ferri, C., Desideri, G. (2015). Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control and metabolic profile in elderly subjects: the cocoa cognition, and ageing (CoCoA) study – a randomised controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.092189
Scholey, A., French, S.J., Morris, P.J., Kennedy, D.O., Milne, A.L., Haskell, C.F. (2010). Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort. J Psychopharmacol 24:1505–1514. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881109106923
Scholey, A. and Owen, L. (2013) Effects of chocolate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review. Nutr Rev 71:665–681. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/nure.12065
Taubert, D., Roesen, R., Lehmann, C., Jung, N., Schömig, E. (2007). Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide. A randomized controlled trial. JAMA 298:49–60. doi:10.1001/jama.298.1.49