February is the month we focus on Love. And with that comes chocolates, roses, cards, candy, candles, cookies in the shape of a heart. But did you know that it is also Heart Health month?? Perfectly fitting. So I wanted to share with you one of my favorite superfoods that is delicious and helps promote a healthy heart.
About 8 years ago I was in Puerto Escondido surfing. After a nice long day at the beach, I headed into a little shop that showed movies (VHS) on a wall with bean bags and pillows for folks to chill and relax after a day at the beach. Everyone was excitedly buying little baggies filled with a dark brown substance. WTF? I wondered if this was some new sort of Mexican crack cocaine. So of course with my interest peaked, I had to buy one. Lo and behold, it was raw ground cacao beans mixed with sugar and flavors like lavender, and cinnamon. What a brilliant idea! I loved the stuff!
I totally forgot about this deliciousness until about 2 years ago when I was at the grocery store and saw raw cacao beans! On a whim purchased the box to try and see if I could replicate my memory of this powdered Mexican love. I didn't quite get the memory right (what was I thinking? it is a beautiful memory not to be replicated) so I started using it to make a warm drink in the morning as a coffee substitute while pregnant. It hit the spot and now I am now a total fan. I think other people have caught on to what an amazing thing the cacao bean is and have deemed it a Superfood!
I have been asked quite a few times lately: "What is this amazing Superfood called cacao, and what is the difference between it and Cocoa?" So, being heart health month, I thought I would share the little bit that I know about cacao with all of you.
So here is the skinny---
First domesticated by the Mayans over 2,000 years ago, cacao is one of the most nutritionally complex foods on earth.
Cacao is the main ingredient in dark chocolate. The word “chocolate” comes from the Aztec word “xocoatl,” which referred to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans.
The word cacao means “food of the gods.” It is aptly named, as cacao offers a myriad of health benefits. Raw cacao has historically been used as medicine, and was such a highly prized possession that the beans were used as currency. Although, not typically considered a sports performance food, raw cacao is definitely one superfood that athletes should consider adding to their regimen, because it delivers on so many levels.
Cacao vs. Cocoa
Raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing the whole beans, which keeps all the vitamins, minerals, enzymes and more unharmed. Because cocoa powder is heated and processed, it does not retain as many nutrients as the raw cacao has. So the raw cacao is superior nutritionally over cocoa. I like the brand Navitas- Find on Shop My Favorites. They offer cacao powder, whole beans, and nibs – which tastes nutty and chocolate (delicious as a topping –(like in this Pumpkin Cacao Chip Smoothie)! When choosing chocolates, look for the highest percentage of cacao, which means it contains more of the cacao, and less sugar – if you can find chocolate made with raw cacao, even better.
Raw cacao has an oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score of 95,500 per 100 grams, making it one of the best sources of antioxidants, which is helpful in preventing and repairing free radical damage. Exercising increases the formation of free radicals, so a diet high in antioxidants is important as we keep our bodies fit and healthy from exercise. There is also evidence that diets high in antioxidants could offer protection against many different diseases.
Cacao is also one of the best food-known sources of magnesium, which has been shown in studies to be very important for heart health. Magnesium is required for over 300 enzymatic reactions, including the synthesis of fat, protein and nucleic acids, muscular contraction and relaxation, cardiac health and bone building. Magnesium improves blood flow and plays a key role in the metabolism of adenosine triphoshate (ATP), critical for aerobic and anaerobic functions.
Low magnesium levels raise our risk of heart attack and stroke, and could be to blame in cases of sudden cardiac death in young athletes. It if estimated that most Americans do not get sufficient magnesium levels, and athletes could have more serious deficiencies since exercising further depletes levels. The following symptoms can be an indicator of low magnesium levels: muscle cramping, migraines or headaches, restless leg syndrome, twitching, heart disease, and anxiety. If you do choose to supplement instead of eating raw cacao – look for the citrate, orotate, or malate forms of magnesium (not oxide which is poorly absorbed). If the magnesium causes loose stools, make sure to reduce the dose.
Because of the antioxidant capacity and magnesium levels, it should come as no surprise that a recent study published in the Journal of Physiology found that cacao may help bolster exercise endurance. Cacao is also rich in other important nutrients for athletes including potassium, iron and more. Cacao offers a long list of health benefits including reducing heart attack and stroke, lowering blood pressure, boosting mood and brain function, lowering stress, relaxing muscles, boosting our skin’s internal SPF, and much more.
Raw cacao is also a food to consider in the fight against heart disease and Alzheimers – cacao has been shown in studies to improve blood flow to all organs in the body. It also has been found in studies to reduce dementia, and even improve the brain’s ability to perform math problems. Cacao has a protective effects on endothelial function, important for heart health. So having a square of dark chocolate or a couple of tablespoons of raw cacao daily is actually very good for you, and could even help to prevent heart attack and stroke. Plus, unlike Viagra, which improves blood flow to one region, the flavinols in cacao improve blood flow throughout the body – including to the same organ that Viagra targets! In addition, cacao contains a compound called threobromine, which has powerful mood-enhancing qualities, and also is a mild diuretic. Dogs can not metabolize theobromine, which is why it can be toxic to dogs.
Show your heart some love this month and try Cacao!!
P.S. Show me your love and share with us your favorite recipes and uses for Cacao. I would love know!