Chocolate is arguably one of the favourite foods of all time, and it is therefore no surprise that the evergreen tree bearing the fruit pods chocolate is made from, called Theobroma cacao, means ‘food of the gods’. The Mayans and Aztecs were the first to cultivate the cacao plant found deep in tropical rainforests more than 2,000 years ago. Prized for its healthy properties, they would use cacao seeds to make a warm beverage called xocolātl (‘bitter water’) for warriors and royalty. Cacao was so valued it was used as currency, and in sacred ceremonies.
The Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez brought the bean back to Europe in the 16th century where the beverage was called ‘chocolate’ and sweetened with sugar to satisfy Spanish tastes. It wasn’t until the 1800s that technological advances allowed chocolate to be made into the solid form we know today.
Cacao beans come from a large ovoid cacao pod that ripens from yellow to orange-red before being fermented, roasted and ground to form a liquid, paste or block. Within the cacao pod are both the brown cacao seed and rich, buttery white cacao butter – the fattiest part of the fruit, loaded with omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. Both are used in the creation of chocolate.
The Real Deal
Cacao and cocoa sound similar and come from the same plant, however they have different tastes, nutritional benefits and costs. Cacao is the purest form of chocolate, which is raw and much less processed than cocoa powder. In the market today you can find cacao powder, nibs and paste, which are rich in nutrients and fibre since the whole cacao bean is intact and cold-pressed. Cacao powder is made from ground raw cacao beans keeping living enzymes intact; cacao nibs are made from chopped cacao beans and resemble chocolate chips without the added fat and sugars; and cacao paste comes from slowly heating cacao nibs to preserve nutrients – a less-processed form of dark chocolate bar. All forms of cacao are popular with vegan and raw foodies as a nutrient-rich ingredient for smoothies and desserts.
Cocoa powder is raw cacao that has been roasted at high temperatures and made into the powder many of us are familiar with in baking and drinks. Unfortunately the roasting changes the molecular structure of the cacao bean, reducing the enzyme content and much of its nutritional value.
Many chocolate candy bars use cocoa powder with significant amounts of sugar and fat. If you want the health benefits found in chocolate, stick to dark chocolate since the creamy sweetness of milk chocolate comes from the addition of milk solids, cocoa butter and sugar. When milk solids are added to the cacao (milk chocolate), the powerhouse of nutrients and antioxidants that cacao offers aren’t able to be absorbed. And white chocolate technically isn’t even chocolate because it is made from cacao butter, milk solids, sugar and flavourings and contains none of the health benefits of dark chocolate.
Now you can enjoy your favourite dark chocolate guilt-free knowing that raw, unprocessed cacao is truly a superfood loaded with organic compounds like polyphenols, flavanols, and catechins that are biologically active antioxidants. It is also a source of alkaloids such as caffeine, which acts as a stimulant and can improve mental alertness; and phenylethylamine which stimulates dopamine to enhance mood. Cacao both contains and stimulates serotonin production which also increases feelings of pleasure. Helping with energy levels, hair growth and skin repair, dark chocolate contains significant amounts of iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, fibre, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium, not to mention vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B8 and E.