Chocolate is Good Food
Exploring the cacao bean
by Wendy C. Smith
There’s nothing like chocolate. I remember a friend of mine calling to say he’d asked his girlfriend to marry him. He said, “She likes milk chocolate, I like dark. We’ll never have to fight over the chocolate.” Hey, marriages have been based on a lot less. Almost 10 years later, they are still blissfully happy. I have to think he made a good point.
Chocolate, or rather the cacao bean from which chocolate is made, is a very interesting food. Cacao is at the core of many Mexican/Central American Indian myths. The bean or tree in these stories either fed the gods or the beans grew into people or other things on the earth when planted by the gods. Many of these cultures had cacao gods as well. The cacao bean was known to have many healing properties. The Mayans used cacao beans in rituals. and it was an important shamanic substance. Cultures in the Yucatan region offered up the bean pods to the gods. The Aztecs associated it with nobility and wealth, and the exchange of cacao beans was part of the marriage ritual. The Mayans were the first to use cacao beans as currency. When Cortez and his men were plundering the Aztec Empire, they heard many stories about a drink made of cacao that promoted strength and allowed men to walk all day without food. Cortez was probably the first person to bring the cacao bean to Europe.
The Europeans were the first to create what we would call chocolate. By adding refined sugar and later milk products to roasted ground cacao (a.k.a. cocoa), the Europeans created a taste sensation that people loved, although in its sugared and altered state the medicinal value and healing properties of the cacao were lowered. Cacao itself has over four pages of chemical constituents; among them are acetic acid, arginine, ascorbic acid, calcium, citric acid, dopamine, glucose, iron, magnesium, niacin, serotonin and tryptophan to name just a few.
Based on the lengthy list of cacao’s makeup, many health benefits are associated with cacao and thus chocolate, like heart health and brain power. Magnesium, a mineral deficient in many people’s diet, is important for a multitude of the chemical reactions the body must perform. One of the minerals that most supports the heart and may help to reduce blood pressure, magnesium is also key to proper brain function as it helps create ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which is the fuel for the brain. It is also needed to convert omega-3s into a form the body can use. A lack of magnesium and omega-3s is associated with ADD, ADHD, poor memory, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
Cacao is known to be quite rich in antioxidants. In fact, Cornell University discovered that cocoa powder has twice the amount of antioxidants as red wine and three times that of green tea. Antioxidants are necessary for the removal of free radicals from the body and to reduce internal inflammation, which is thought to be the beginning factor in many serious illnesses and diseases.
And we’ve all heard the rumor that chocolate is a substitute for love. The Mayans used it as an aphrodisiac, and scientists have found that chocolate contains a significant amount of PEA (Phenylethylamine), a chemical released when a person is sexually aroused. When PEA levels are high or normal, a person feels good. When low, a person feels bad. Depressed individuals have noticeably lower PEA levels. Chocolate appears to raise PEA levels and keep them high. High levels of PEA also raise dopamine and noradrenaline levels, both of which elevate the mood. It has been referred to as “Nature’s Prozac.”
Some people feel that really good quality chocolate gives them a rush, almost like a mild high. This could be because chocolate contains anandamide, which is released when a person is feeling fantastic. It locks into the same receptor sites that THC (found in cannabis) does, so there is a physical reason that chocolate produces a high (though not nearly to the level of cannabis).
Unfortunately, chocolate’s properties are most effective if it is eaten it in its raw state as a cacao bean. When these beans are excessively heated and processed (especially if dairy products are added to the mix), they lose a significant portion of their psychoactive qualities and health benefits. However, certain characteristics—such as antioxidant qualities, aphrodisiac properties, mood elevation and others—are maintained, though diminished, after processing.
There is a certain truth to qualifying chocolate as a health food. Just remember that the closer to the actual, raw cacao bean one can get, the more beneficial the health properties are. I’m not giving anyone the go ahead to consume two Mars Bars a day for health, but go ahead and eat five or six cacao beans. Or indulge in chocolate once in a while as a pick-me-up. Go for dark, 70 percent or 80 percent cacao if it’s available. The benefits are greater and the taste…well, it’s mortal ambrosia.