While you may have thought you needed a good excuse to enjoy a piece of dark chocolate, the truth is the delightful and ancient superfood ingredient found in high-quality dark chocolate, known as cacao, has more to offer your health than you may realize.
In ancient texts, cacao was described as a sacred superfood, often referred to as food of the gods. The cacao bean and its consumption date back as far as thousands of years, where it was used as a powerful and healing food, including use in ancient ritual and ceremony.
Today, with much science and research at your fingertips, cacao has many well-proven benefits for your body, mind, and soul. It may be just the superfood you will be delighted to include in your day-to-day life.
Explore these five health benefits of this sacred food.
1. Antioxidant Protection
Antioxidants are nutrients (found in many foods) that stop or slow the damage to your cells, by limiting the oxidation process in your cells and protecting your body (and cells) from free radical damage. Antioxidants are primarily found in plant-based foods and when found in high amounts, these foods are frequently known as superfoods (or super fruits).
One study showed (performed with dark chocolate with 70 percent or higher cacao content) that cacao had an equivalent or significantly greater oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) value (a scale used to measure the antioxidant potency of food).
2. Improved Brain Health
Did you know that reaching for a piece of dark chocolate after a long stressful day, a challenging time in your life, or simply to help you get better focused was doing a favor to your brain chemistry?
Research has found that not only can cacao improve cognitive function and mood, but it is also may help to reduce stress, decrease brain inflammation, and improve memory. While this information is helpful, further research is in progress to learn the cause-and-effect brain-behavior relationship with cacao at higher concentrations.
When you need a little brain boost, reach for a square of high-quality dark chocolate (organic and fair trade, if possible) and enjoy the brain benefits with each bite.
3. Immune Boosting
You now know that cacao is extremely high in antioxidants, but do you know how antioxidants affect your immune system?
One study, performed with rats, suggested that after eating cacao, there was an increase in T-cells—the immune markers in your blood—suggesting that dark chocolate (cacao) directly boosts your immune system through both systemic anti-inflammatory qualities, as well as intestinal anti-inflammatory qualities and friendly gut bacteria-boosting effects. Therefore, cacao was also correlated to promote the maturation of T-cells, the lymphocytes actively involved in your immune response.
Next time you are feeling under the weather and you reach for some homemade chicken soup and some vitamin C, don’t forget to include a little cacao in your immune-boosting regimen.
4. Improve Insulin Sensitivity
Research shows that cacao may reduce insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance, and in turn reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Notably, the high-flavanol—a natural compound found in many plants—content of cacao is shown to lower insulin resistance when used regularly over a few consecutive weeks. The flavanols have been shown to both reduce oxidative stress and alter glucose metabolism.
The research demonstrates this with two separate groups. Group one was given high-flavanol dark chocolate and group two, low-flavanol white chocolate. The results showed a more substantial improvement in insulin sensitivity with the group ingesting the darker chocolate.
5. Nature’s Aphrodisiac
The famous Aztec ruler Montezuma is said to be one of the first to tap into the aphrodisiac power of cacao. He was known to enjoy cacao as a beverage spiced with chili peppers, vanilla, or allspice and this beverage was said to be the delight of the royal court.
One study describes dark chocolate as the “queen of natural aphrodisiacs,” containing anandamide (the feel-good chemical) and PEA (phenylethylamine)—the love chemical that spikes during orgasm through the release of dopamine into the brain’s pleasure centers.
Pure dark chocolate also contains the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is known for the sense of well-being and relaxation it creates. Pure chocolate is also a potent source of arginine, aka nature’s Viagra, an amino acid that elevates sexual stimulation in men and women.
Another study found that consumption of pure dark chocolate may induce vasodilation—a relaxing of the blood vessels. Nitric oxide in the body enhances blood flow and relaxes smooth muscle in the genitalia. Nitric oxide levels are elevated with increased cocoa consumption, linking the vasodilation with the nitric oxide from cacao.
How to Enjoy Cacao
- Raw cacao nibs, straight from the bitter cacao bean, are a great addition to a smoothie, a dessert, or even to mix into your trail mix.
- Raw cacao powder makes for a great hot chocolate substitute mixed with a little bit of raw honey or coconut sugar, or chocolate flavor to a dessert.
- A square of high-quality dark chocolate (with a high cacao content and a low sugar content) will never disappoint.
- Choose organic and fair trade whenever possible.
Cacao has surely proven its merit as a superfood (and super fruit). With a nutrient profile that is astonishing, a delicious flavor that many savor and the seemingly endless and tangible scientific health benefits that span brain health, heart health, immunity, blood sugar, and beyond. Treat yourself—body, mind, and soul—to some high-quality cacao or dark chocolate and see for yourself!
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.