Because cocoa beans were prized for their medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties, they were traded just like currency among ancient South American civilizations. Rumor has it Casanova was fond of them.
The earliest known evidence that cacao was processed for ingestion goes back as far as 1,400 B.C.E., gathered from discoveries of its residue on pottery excavated in Honduras, possibly to ferment the pulp for making an adult beverage. Sweetened forms came about when the Europeans landed in the New World and tasted cacao in liquid form. Although they hated it at first, someone discovered that adding honey made it downright palatable. By the 17th century, this form of chocolate was all the rage in Europe, and subsequently, the world. It still is.
There's been a lot of discussion about free radicals and antioxidants, but some are unsure of what these terms mean in regard to our health. Exposure to the sun, cigarette smoke, pollution, and toxic chemicals, such as chemical weed killers, and unhealthy foods can all release free radical activity in the body, however they also can be produced by factors like stress, damaging healthy tissue. Antioxidants in the foods you eat reverse that process, helping to combat disease by zapping harmful free radicals.
That's where cacao comes in. Raw cacao powder contains more than 300 different chemical compounds and nearly four times the antioxidant power of your average dark chocolate - more than 20 times than that of blueberries. Protein, calcium, carotene, thiamin, riboflavin, magnesium, sulfur, flavonoids, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids are also present. The precise blend of all these elements combined serve to kick in naturally occurring phytochemicals that have incredible benefits throughout the body, such as lowered LDL cholesterol, improved heart function, and reduced cancer risk.
Phenethylamine, or PEA, is one of them. Large doses of this compound are said to be released into the brain when we're attracted to someone, but natural pain- and stress-relieving chemicals known as neurotransmitters stimulate the secretion of endorphins to help us stay alert and focused.
Studies have shown that chocolate affects your emotions and mood by raising serotonin levels, which explains why chocolate is often craved when gloominess looms. Also to the rescue is a neurotransmitter called theobromine, a mild stimulant sometimes used as a treatment for depression. It releases the compound anandamide, which produces uniquely euphoric feelings of relaxation and contentment.
For those who think chocolate must be bad for you (it has to be if it tastes so good, right?), rest assured: there's only one gram of sugar in a half-cup serving of raw cacao. It's what's done with it that makes the difference. Unfortunately, high heat from processing and refining to produce different types of cocoa or chocolate damages the cocoa bean's micronutrients, along with the health benefits.
Not only that, but additions like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), sugar, and partially hydrogenated oils limit the amount of actual cocoa, and dairy products actually block the absorption of antioxidants, so if it's nutritive benefits you're looking for, your average chocolate bar isn't likely to supply much.
According to one study, black tea, green tea, red wine, and cocoa are all high in phenolic phytochemicals, such as theaflavin, epigallocatechin gallate, resveratrol, and procyanidin, respectively, which have been extensively investigated due to their possible role as chemopreventive agents based on their antioxidant capacities. Cocoa contained much higher levels of total phenolics and exhibited the highest antioxidant activity. These results suggest that cocoa is more beneficial to health than teas and red wine.
Another study showed that while eating lots of fruits and vegetables was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, there was also a similar relationship found with cocoa, a “naturally polyphenol-rich food." Intervention studies strongly suggested that cocoa has several beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, such as lowering of blood pressure, improving vascular function and glucose metabolism, and reducing platelet aggregation and adhesion. Proposed mechanisms through which cocoa was thought to exert its positive effects included activation of nitric oxide synthase, increased bioavailability of nitric oxide, as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
All you need to do is scout around your local health food store for some organic, raw chocolate. Most will contain raw honey like the above pictured, Good Stuff Cocao.