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The Health Benefits of Cacao: History and Science

The Health Benefits of Cacao: History and Science

Introduction

Did you know that during ancient times cacao (which is natural and unprocessed chocolate or cocoa) was believed to have various health benefits and was prescribed as a medicine to cure or prevent certain ailments and diseases? Did you also know that modern scientific studies suggest that cacao can in fact have positive health benefits? In this blog post, we survey the history of cacao as a perceived health food, discuss the modern scientific evidence regarding the health benefits of cacao, and then summarize the scientific evidence behind cacao husks (also known as cacao shells), which are used to brew a special drink called cacao tea.

Ancient History of Cacao as Health Food

For thousands of years, cacao has been believed to have numerous health benefits. In fact, due to its perceived health effects, cacao was considered to be a food of the gods, an association that gave rise to the scientific name of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, from the Greek words theo (god) and broma (drink).[1]

One of the earliest references to the perceived health benefits of cacao dates back to 1552. In that year, a document called the Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis (Latin for "Little Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians") was published. This document, also known as the Badianus Manuscript, was an ancient Aztec herbal manuscript, describing the medicinal properties of various plants used by the Aztecs. The Badianus Manuscript described the perceived health benefits of cacao and listed the many ailments that the Aztecs believed could be treated with cacao. Research has shown that the ancient Aztecs identified approximately 150 medicinal treatments involving the use of cacao.

Shortly thereafter, in 1570, the Spanish doctor and explorer Francisco Hernandez travelled to the New World on a scientific expedition for the purpose of studying medicinal plants, including the cacao tree from which cacao beans are derived (and from which chocolate is made). During this expedition, Hernandez documented the fact that the ancient Aztecs used cacao beans to treat a multitude of different ailments, including fever, sore throats, cough, chest pains, fatigue, dental issues, stomach pain, diarrhea and much more. Hernandez also observed that in order to treat these ailments, cacao would often be mixed with other ingredients, such as plants roots and tree bark, in order to create a medicinal chocolate drink.

Modern scientists have obtained some epidemiological evidence of the beneficial effects of cacao from the indigenous Kuna Indian population of the islands of Panama. This population has been characterized by a low prevalence of atheroscleroris, diabetes, and hypertension. Studies suggest that the ‘secret’ behind the good health of the Kuna Indians is their daily intake of homemade cacao drink. Interestingly, studies show that these traits disappear after the migration of Kuna Indians to urban areas on the mainland of Panama and subsequent changes in the diet, namely the consumption of less cacao.[2]

Health Benefits of Cacao

As it turns out, modern science does support some of the perceived historical health beliefs in respect of cacao. In particular, the recent discovery of biologically active phenolic compounds in cacao has stimulated a wealth of new research on its effects in ageing, oxidative stress, blood pressure regulation and artherosclerosis.[3]

In particular, studies have shown that cacao beans contain large concentrations of flavonoids known as epicatechin, catechin and procyanidins.[4] Flavanoids are antioxidant compounds which studies have shown can help prevent clogged arteries, promote healthy blood flow, and improve cognitive function.[5]

Interestingly, studies have also shown that cacao has the greatest concentration of flavonoids in almost any food that we eat, greater even than tea and wine.[6] Further, studies have found that cacao is rich in special kind of flavonoids called procyandin flavonoids, and that the levels in cacao are comparable to the levels in procyandin-rich apples.[7] Over the last two decades, numerous studies have reported on the health benefits of cacao flavonoids.[8]

In addition, many studies have demonstrated positive relationships between cacao flavonoids and a healthy cardiovascular system.[9] In particular, antioxidants in cacao have been found to inhibit plasma lipid oxidization and prevent oxidative stress, which has in turn been shown to help prevent cardiovascular disease. Accordingly, some studies have suggested that daily consumption of dark chocolate could be an effective preventative strategy for patients with cardiovascular issues.[10]

Studies have also shown that cacao can have the effect of lowering blood pressure. In particular, a large-scale, long duration study in the Netherlands found that men who consumed cacao regularly over the course of 15 years had significantly lowered blood pressure than those who did not. The exact mechanism behind these effects is not known, but researchers suggest that it may arise from the presence of flavanoids in cacao, as discussed above.[11]

Studies have also found that cacao includes significant concentrations of the methylxanthine known as theobromine, which is a valuable bioactive compound and a central nervous system stimulant.[12] Other studies have found theobromine to be characterized by important pharmacological functions, including anti-cancer effects and muscle relaxant effects.[13] These studies have also shown that theobromine has antioxidant properties.[14] You may be interested to learn that the cravings we sometimes feel for chocolate are caused in particular by the presence of theobromine and other methylxanthines contained in cacao.[15]

Chocolate for Therapeutic Purposes

In light of the science, researches have determined that there is some scientific evidence to justify eating a moderate amount (approximately 2 oz) of dark chocolate on a daily basis.

However, the major criticism against the consumption of chocolate for therapeutic benefit is the high amount of sugar and triglycerides contained in chocolate which would need to be consumed to reach what has been documented to be a potentially therapeutic dose.

As a result, a person that eats chocolate on a daily basis for therapeutic purposes would need to compensate for the additional calories by increasing the amount of daily exercise or reducing caloric intake of other fats, sweets or carbohydrates in order to prevent obesity and the metabolic and cardiovascular risks related to it.[16]

However, there may be a way to obtain the benefits of chocolate while avoiding these negative effects. The current scientific evidence suggests that the beneficial effects of chocolate are attributed mainly to its concentration of flavonoids, especially epicatechin, as well as the presence of theobromine. Accordingly, researchers believe that there may be benefit in direct dietary supplementation with these compounds rather than with chocolate consumption.[17]

In fact, because some flavonoids have a bitter taste, many chocolate manufacturers have established processing techniques for cacao which eliminate the bitterness altogether with flavonoids. Unfortunately, this is typically achieved by the loss or intentional or inadvertent removal of flavonoids during the processing of cacao beans.[18] As discussed in greater detail below, flavonoids migrate away from the cacao bean during the chocolate production process.

Fortunately, as discussed in greater detail below, mother nature has provided us with another aspect of the cacao bean which presents a rich source of flavonoids and methylxanthines without the significant sugar and fat content of chocolate – namely, cacao husks.

Cacao Husks

Cacao husks are the husks or shells which surround cacao beans and are removed during the processing of cacao beans and production of chocolate. For hundreds of years, cacao husks have been used to brew a special tea called cacao husk tea (also known as cacao shell tea). In fact, as described in our blog post regarding the history of cacao, tea made from cacao husks was a particular favorite of Martha Washington, who was the first First Lady of the United States hundreds of years ago.

Cacao husk tea is unique in that it has a delicious chocolate flavor and a natural sweetness despite containing no sugar, carbohydrates or fat. Cacao husk tea is also gluten and dairy free. As a result, cacao husk tea provides an excellent replacement for regular tea and coffee and offers a great alternative to satisfying your chocolate cravings.

In recent years, cacao husks have been the subject of several scientific studies. In one of these studies, researchers qualitatively examined the mineral elements, vitamins, flavanoids, and other nutritional compounds found in cacao husks.[19] Interestingly, these scientists determined that cacao husks had significant nutritional context, including significant quantities of the flavanoids discussed above: namely, epicatechin, catechin and procyanidins.[20]

Studies have shown this to be the case due to certain biological processes which occur in cacao beans during their fermentation and processing. In particular, studies have found that flavonoids, as well as various other phenolic compounds, migrate to cacao husks during the chocolate production process (namely during fermentation and roasting). As a result of this process, cacao husks become “polyphenol-enriched”, meaning that they are enriched with flavanoids.[21]

Studies have also shown a similar migratory effect with respect to theobromine, which is the valuable compound discussed above. These studies have observed that during the fermentation process of cacao beans, approximately 40% of the theobromine content in cacao beans diffuses and migrates from the cacao bean to the cacao husk.[22] The study also confirmed that theobromine is the most abundant methylxanthine compound in cacao husks, followed by small quantities of caffeine and teophylline.[23] As a result, and as confirmed by scientific studies, cacao husks are a valuable source of theobromine.

Summary

While modern scientific studies support some of the perceived health benefits of cacao during ancient times, this does not mean we should consume large quantities of chocolate for therapeutic purposes. The key problem with the consumption of chocolate is the high amount of sugar and triglycerides contained in chocolate. Fortunately, studies have shown that cacao husks contain large concentrations of the beneficial compounds contained in cacao. Studies also show that large concentrations of these beneficial compounds migrate from the cacao bean to the cacao husks during chocolate production.

Cacao husk tea is a unique drink in that it has a delicious chocolate flavor and a natural sweetness despite containing no sugar, carbohydrates or fat. Cacao husk tea is also gluten and dairy free. As a result, cacao husk tea provides an excellent replacement for regular tea and coffee and offers a great alternative to satisfying your chocolate cravings. Learn more about cacao tea and try it for yourself today!

Endnotes

  1. R. Latif, Chocolate/cocoa and human health a review, The Netherlands Journal of Medicine, March 2013, Vol. 71, No. 2, at page 63 (“Latif”)
  2. Latif at page 64
  3. Latif at page 63.
  4. Latif at page 64; Abbe Maleyki Mhd Jalil and Amin Ismail, Polyphenols in Cocoa and Cocoa Products: Is There a Link between Antioxidant Properties and Health?, Molecules 2008, 13 (“Maleyki”) at pages 2191 and 2194.
  5. L. H. Yaoy and M. Jiang, Flavonoids in Food and Their Health Benefits, July 2004, Volume 59, Issue 3, pages 113–122
  6. Maleyki at page 2194.
  7. Latif at page 64.
  8. Maleyki at page 2194.
  9. Maleyki at page 2194.
  10. Latif at page 65.
  11. Latif at page 64.
  12. Latif at page 64; Balentic et al., Cocoa Shell: A By-Product with Great Potential for Wide Application, Molecules 2018, 23, 1404 at pages 6 and 9 (“Balentic”); Maleyki at page 2191.
  13. Balentic at page 8; Maleyki at page 2199.
  14. Balentic at page 8.
  15. Maleyki at page 2197.
  16. Latif at page 66.
  17. Latif at page 66.
  18. Latif at page 66.
  19. Josep Serra Bonvehi and Rossend Escola Jorda, Constitutions of Cacao Husks, Z. Naturforsch. 53c, 785-792 (1998) (“Bonvehi”) at page 785.
  20. Balentic at page 7; Bonvehi at page 789.
  21. Balentic at page 7.
  22. Balentic at page 8; Bonvehi at 790.
  23. Balentic at page 8.

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