Edition 26: December 2010
What Herb is That?
Good News for Chocoholics - the real raw stuff is good for you
THE CHOCOLATE tree, or cacao, is a native of Central America and South America's Amazon basin where it has been cultivated for thousands of years.
Embedded within the pulp of the football-shaped fruits, which are gathered twice a year, are about fifty bitter seeds - the cocoa beans.
Cacao was considered divine and revered by the Mayan, Incan and Aztec ancient cultures for centuries.
Long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, Meso-American Indians created a ceremonial drink from crushed cocoa beans mixed with spices for their religious rites and Mayan rulers.
They made a cocoa paste to treat wounds and help heal skin eruptions and burns; this remedy is still used by their descendants in Guatemala.
The Aztecs from Mexico named the pounded seeds Chocolate; their ritual offering to a pantheon of deities.
It was such a valuable commodity that it was used as currency and the small seeds were used as coins for small transactions; this method is still in use in some parts of Mexico.
Cacao was used in herbal medicine to fight fatigue, counteract constipation and calm the stomach. Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, gave cocoa, gold and silver, as gifts for the explorer, Hernan Cortes, when he arrived in Mexico.
The Spaniards sweetened cacao with sugar, vanilla, cinnamon or honey, and it was imbibed as a hot drink; a popular but expensive luxury in the royal courts of Europe and set aside only for the upper classes.
In 1753 Swedish botanist Carl von Linnaeus christened the chocolate plant Theobroma cacao, which is a literal translation from Greek, meaning ‘cocoa - Food of the Gods’.
Cacao beans are the raw ingredient from which all chocolate is made. The Swiss refined the use of chocolate as we know it today, isolating the various elements of the cocoa bean into cocoa powder and cocoa butter, also developing milk chocolate and a smooth texture.
The beans (which contain more than fifty percent fat) are fermented, dried, roasted and ground as a paste (cocoa mass), from which cocoa butter is extracted by expression, leaving the well-known cocoa powder.
As herbalists we are interested in this powder being raw and organic without the common heat and solvent processing. The yellowish solid cocoa butter is also of great value to us because it is not greasy, tastes bland and is pleasant smelling; it is perfect for and use in soaps, cosmetics and emollient creams because it does not easily turn rancid. Herbalists employ cocoa butter when preparing suppositories.
Cacao is one of the richest flavonoid foods available and researchers have proved that consuming more flavonoids lowers the death rate from heart disease.
Cacao provides excellent support for healthy blood circulation and heart function. It is high in magnesium, known to increase the overall vigour of the heart muscle and decrease blood coagulation, which lowers blood pressure and reduces the likelihood of blood clots and strokes.
Choose the best snack
In today’s chocolate market very little is organic. Most mass processed chocolate consists of refined sugars, artificial flavours, polyunsaturated fats and hydro- genated oils. The final product is 10 to 20 per cent authentic and much higher in fat, calories and unnatural, unhealthy additives. Choose organic cacao chocolate for fewer calories and more health benefits. Of course it is ethically best to buy fair trade as well.
The latest research on Cacao, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed this and a 2009 study demonstrated that antioxidant-rich cacao lowered blood pressure comparable to Captopril, a pharmaceutical anti-hypertensive drug.
Cocoa's alkaloid, theobromine, acts as a diuretic, that stimulates the renal epithelium; this helps to increase the flow of urine which is helpful for accumulation of body fluid, particularly in cases of cardiac failure.
Cocoa has been used for millenia as a stimulant to combat fatigue. Contrary to popular opinion, cacao is a poor source of caffeine; it is its constituent theobromine that provides the body with a burst of energy that can last several hours.
Theobromine is a herbal stimulant frequently confused with caffeine but has very different effects on the human body; it is a mild, lasting stimulant with a mood-improving effect, whereas caffeine has a strong, immediate effect.
Cocoa's stimulating action is the reason why soldiers have carried chocolate into battle from the US Civil War to modern times; and also why it is wisely included in hikers snacks.
It is well understood that cocoa improves one's state of mind and is an aphrodisiac. It contains the mood-elevating chemical phenylethylamine.
PEA also plays a role in increasing focus and alertness. This is the same chemical that our brain produces and emits when we feel happy or ‘in love’ or when the libido is stimulated. This is one of the reasons why love and chocolate have a deep correlation and the mild ‘rush’ we get from PEA may explain our ‘addiction’ to chocolate.
A State of Bliss
Cacao's composition makes it a food capable of inducing blissful states; containing the adrenal-related neuro-transmitter called anandamide (known as the bliss chemical). Cacao contains enzyme inhibitors that decrease our bodies' ability to breakdown anan- damide and serotonin, keeping us happy and, interestingly, diminishing appetite.
Cocoa relaxes the smooth muscle lining the digestive tract, which is why chocolate can be so soothing after a heavy meal.
Recent research has shown that even the aroma of cacao can relax you by increasing theta waves in the brain.
The feel-good factor one gets from eating chocolate is even more prevalent when eating raw cacao because the responsible chemical compounds are not inhibited by dairy or sugar.
Commercially made chocolate creates unstable glucose levels in the blood; raw cacao brings all the benefits of chocolate without the side effects.
Scientists have reported that consuming a diet enriched with 10 per cent cocoa increased levels of anti-inflammatory compounds in the brain, which can repress inflammatory responses linked to migraine headaches.
The theobromine in cocoa has recently been found to have an antitussive effect that inhibits the cough reflex and helps to stop coughing. It helps open the bronchial passages and provides some relief from chest congestion.
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition 2006 said that flavonoids, found in plenitude in cocoa, protect skin from sun damage, making it more tolerant to ultraviolet light exposure and preventing the skin from ageing.
Women in the study who consumed higher amounts of cocoa had improved skin quality with less roughness and scaling and the skin was denser and better hydrated by the end of the study.
Indeed, used externally, cocoa butter also softens and heals damaged skin, soothes burns and is said to smooth skin wrinkles.
There are many good reasons to eat raw cacao
It is an incredibly complex food; a natural elixir containing 1,200 different substances where
none dominate but rather synergistically create the irreplaceable taste. Besides
the mood enhancers: PEA, anandamide, dopamine and serotonin, it is high in magnesium, iron, chromium, tryptophan and antioxidants. (Cocoa has twice the protective antioxidants of red wine and up to three times of those found in green tea and blueberries.) The principal flavonoids in cocoa, epicatechin and catechin, are believed to be responsible for its health benefits, helping the body to ward off malignant diseases and degenerative illness. Women crave chocolate during their period probably because cocoa, the highest whole food source of magnesium, has been shown to help with premenstrual symptoms. Magnesium, chronically deficient in most western diets, helps to build strong bones, encourages healthy bowel movements, relaxes muscles, increases flexibility and increases alkalinity within the body. Magnesium is also a key to proper brain performance. Cacao is rich in sulphur which is associated with strong, beautiful skin, hair and nails as well as a clean liver and pancreas.
Latin name: Theobroma Cacao
Family: Sterculiaceae, other members include kola
Other Common Names: Chocolate tree, cocoa
Therapuetic Properties: Stimulant, nervine, anti depressant, vasodilator, nutrient, digestive, antioxidant, emollient, tonic, anti-carcinogenic, anti-tussive.
Precautions: Raw cacao is regarded as safe with no known precautions, so long as it’s raw and pure and, like anything, not excessively consumed. A recent study showed that only one out of 500 people who thought they were allergic to chocolate actually tested positive. Allergies to chocolate are quite rare; it is typically the case that the person is in fact allergic to the milk solids used. Cacao has a slightly bitter taste on its own but if mixed with something sweet such as a banana, bee pollen or goji berries the unmistakable taste of strong dark chocolate begins to reveal itself.