July 23rd 2009

Know your cacao

We often are intrigued by the so-called “Superfoods” that make their way onto the supermarket shelves. Regardless of the proclaimed health benefits of gogi berries, acai, spirulina, or kefir, are these Superfoods really beneficial to our health – and worth the extra toll on our wallet?

Some of them are. It’s likely you’re familiar with indulging in your favourite version of cocoa, whether slow simmered as hot chocolate or among chocolate chips dotting your much-loved banana bread. It’s  root ingredient– raw cacao – is one of the Superfoods worth sleuthing.

What is cacao?
Pronounced “ka-kow”, its chocolate in the purest sense, stemming from the dried seeds of a South American evergreen tree.

Food of the Gods
Cacao is scientifically known as Theobroma which means “food of the gods”. Derived from Mayan civilizations they loved the taste and eventually used it in sacred rituals, honouring their cacao god, Ek Chuah, every April.

Cocoa vs. Cacao
Historically speaking, “cacao” and “cocoa” are interchangeable, but technically, “cocoa” should reference the powder, and “cacao” should reference the bean itself.

What is raw cacao?
Raw cacao, on the other hand, is processed at low temperatures, which ensures maximum nutritional benefit. The beans are peeled and cold-pressed, as opposed heated extraction which kills of the nutrients.  Although cocoa does contain nutritional attributes akin to cacao, the raw version holds levels far more concentrated, due to the nutrients that aren’t lost in the heating process.

The benefits of eating it raw
Cardiovascular health
Cacao contains three neurotransmitters: phenylethylamine, a chemical that raises blood glucose levels, resulting in increased alertness, overall well-being and happiness; and serotonin and dopamine, both of which promote a positive mental state and may help alleviate  depression.

Antioxidants
Pomegranates, green tea, coffee, and red wine don’t compare to what cacao has to offer. Research has shown that cacao is one of the richest sources of antioxidant flavonols. Antioxidant consumption is linked with the reduction of some cancers, and promoting HDL “good” cholesterol levels.  Flavanols also stimulate blood flow to the brain.

Magnesium, Iron and Fibre
Cacao is rich in magnesium, which supports cardiovascular health and reduces the risk of blood clots. It’s also high in iron, which is needed to carry oxygen in the red blood cells to the muscles. And with 7 grams of soluble fibre per 1oz. scoop of raw cacao, it aids in lowering blood cholesterol levels and  controlling blood sugar.

Raw Cacao 101

Three main forms adorn the supermarket shelves: powder, nibs, and beans.

The powder: Once the whole beans are peeled and cold pressed, the oil is extracted and the cacao powder remains. It resembles the cocoa powder likely familiar with and can be used in place of it for your favourite recipes.

Try it:

  • add to your next smoothie or replace when a recipe calls for cocoa powder
  • mix with agave nectar and a little hemp oil for a rich chocolate sauce
  • process nuts and dates to make a stiff paste, roll into balls, then roll in cacao powder for a high energy snack

The nibs: cacao nibs are partially ground cacao beans. Crunchy, natural, and delicious, they add a little extra to any recipe – raw, cooked, or baked.

Try it:

  • add to your favourite cookies in lieu of chocolate chips
  • mix some into your trail mix
  • sprinkle in cereal for a morning treat

The beans: chocolate in its purest form, cacao beans are great to snack on their own. With a unique taste, they are perfect to enjoy to satisfy your snack attack with a lot of added nutritional

Try it:

  • on their own for a new taste sensation
  • stuffed in a date for a rich combination
  • roughly chopped and added to your favourite baked goods

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Laurie's Biography

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As a musicologist, writer, personal fitness trainer and food-enthusiast, Laurie just can't decide what she likes best - so she does them all. She is also the editor of Ecoki.com, an eco-lifestyle community bringing you all things green.