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As I write this I've just eaten a fair amount of cacao (not cocoa) powder and it's given me quite a buzz. I've googled the effects and the Internet seems to think it's somehow psychoactive although it's hard to find a reliable source for the details.
Some sites describe the ceremonial preparation of cacao but I'm wondering if someone here knows the actual science behind the effects of cacao.
Can you please help me understand the underlying processes better?
Cacao and products made from cacao contain a number of bioactive compounds. As far as the subjective sensation of a "buzz", there are three related alkaloids present in cacao that may account for this effect. Theobromine is present in the highest concentration, but is probably less potent of a stimulant. It's not well researched. Theophylline has a number of effects, and is well studied. It has CNS stimulant effects, with a similar mechanism of action to caffeine, as a competitive antagonist at adenosine receptors. Caffeine is also present in cacao. The stimulant effects of caffeine are known generally, but if you'd like to read more about the pharmacology this is a good review.
There are probably over a hundred compounds in cacao that might possibly have effects on humans. I don't want to speculate on the ones that are not known. One that is known is theobromine.
I have seen a claim that cacao does not actually have caffeine, but I haven't checked it. Cacao might not have theophylline either. The link did not work for me.
no caffeine in cacao
Here is a picture of the structure of adenosine.
Here is a picture of the structure of theobromine. .
Theobromine is kind of similar to a part of adenosine. Adenosine causes your heartbeat to slow etc. There are four known receptors for adenosine which cause different cells to do different things. It's complicated.
what adenosine does
So it's plausible that theobromine might interfere with adenosine attaching to those receptors, and might cause the result you'd get with less adenosine in your bloodstream.
Salsolinol is kind of similar to dopamine. It is created in the human brain and some gets excreted. It might possibly have some use itself and not be a waste product of something that matters. Here's one link from 2006 speculating about that.
The link I gave which appears to show serotonin up to 5% by weight is probably extremely misleading. Other sources have that in micrograms per gram. Serotonin in food is emetic -- you shit it out fast. Likely serotonin in cacao doesn't give you a lot of serotonin in your bloodstream. But it could be worth a better lit search.
Cacao vs Coffee: Can Cacao Replace Your Morning Cup of Coffee?
Some say that cacao, chocolate&rsquos raw ingredient, offers coffee-like stimulation without the crash. Is it true? Here you&rsquoll learn the facts behind these claims.
Imagine forgoing your morning coffee and starting each day instead with a mug of cacao. To a coffee lover, this sounds almost sacrilegious. Most of us think of chocolate in the context of something that&rsquos forbidden an indulgence that leads to weight gain. Likewise, cacao lacks that kick of caffeine that we all love in coffee.
However, not only does cacao compare in taste to coffee, but there is also mounting research that shows it just might be a healthier choice. Before we explain why, let&rsquos first look at the difference between cacao and cocoa powder, the primary ingredient in chocolate.
How Raw Cacao Is & Isn’t Raw
The term “raw cacao” suggests cacao as it appears in nature. But the reality is a little more complicated. All cacao sold to consumers is processed.
Gustavo Cerna, a Nicaraguan producer, says that the name is confusing. “Raw cacao [the term] has been overutilized. There is much confusion.” So, what is it?
To make cacao into what we recognize as an ingredient in chocolate, the beans are fermented . Secondly, they’re traditionally placed in a wooden box and wrapped in banana leaves to trap heat. Yeast, bacteria, and other microorganisms break down sugars in the beans.
Fermentation happens naturally whether we want it to or not. C ontrolling th e process adds body and changes i ts final taste profile .
Checking cacao beans as they ferment under banana leaves at a farm in El Salvador. Credit: Miguel Regalado
Although the word “raw” just means uncooked, the contemporary raw food movement considers raw foods to be whole, unprocessed foods that haven’t been heated above 118°F/48°C.
Robbie Stout, one of the founders of Ritual Chocolate , is clear that during processing, cacao regularly surpasses the raw temperature limit. “Basically, it’s impossible to make cacao taste like chocolate without going over 118°F during fermenting, drying, roasting, or even grinding.”
Greg D’Alessandre, sourcer and co-founder of Dandelion Chocolate , highlights that in actions like grinding and pressing, high temperatures are a natural result of the friction in the procedure.
If cacao were kept below this 118°F/48°C limit, chances are it would be unpalatable. However, f emermentation breaks down the c acao’ s high tannin levels. Fail to do this and creates a bitter product that you wouldn’t want to eat or use in chocolate.
De-shelled, unroasted cacao.
Potential Cognitive Effects of Snorting Cacao Powder
It’s a stretch to call cacao or chocolate a drug. However, because chocolate cravings are somewhat similar to symptoms of substance dependence, some researchers have been inspired to examine the mechanistic effects of chocolate on the brain.
Anandamide Compounds: Two analogs of anandamide are found in chocolate. These anandamide analogs are similar to cannabinoids (marijuana) and may result in euphoria. Instead of directly causing euphoria, however, these anandamide compounds exert a more circuitous effect by inhibiting the breakdown of endogenous anandamide which are already produced in the body.
Serotonin Effects: Serotonin moderates a number of physiological processes in the body, including sleep, impulse control, and appetite. For a long time, experts hypothesized that serotonin linked food cravings and mood and that craving for chocolate and carbohydrates somehow sated serotonin deficiencies—especially in those people who are depressed.
In fact, studies involving people with seasonal affective disorder and atypical depression somewhat support this hypothesis. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of chocolate craving as a biological response to depression is most obviously undercut by the fact that many people with melancholic depression don’t crave food at all.
Another reason the hypothesis that chocolate consumption is linked to serotonin and positive mood may be flawed has to do with research that suggests serotonin levels are raised only after consumption of foods that are less than two percent protein calorically, chocolate is five percent protein.
Research published in 2013 also suggests that the mood benefits of chocolate and carbohydrates occur independently of serotonin, suggesting that these mood benefits are likely much more complex than can be explained by serotonin alone.
Opioid Effects: People who are dependent on heroin and other opioids often crave sweets like chocolate. Additionally, other physical states including pregnancy, menstruation, alcohol dependence, and eating disorders also change endogenous, or intrinsic, opioid levels in the body. These associations have led experts to suggest that opioids and chocolate are associated in some way.
Research from 2010 tends to support this hypothesis. Specifically, endorphins, which are opioids, are released after eating delicious foods like chocolate. Moreover, the release of such endorphins after eating chocolate or something else that’s sweet and palatable appears to produce analgesia, or pain relief, as well as mood elevation.
Moreover, the analgesic effect of sweet stuff like sugar solutions and chocolate can be reversed by naltrexone, an opioid antagonist which is also given to people who experience heroin opioid dependence.
Catechin and Epicatechin: The flavonoids catechin and epicatechin present in cacao rapidly make their way into circulation after consumption of chocolate. Furthermore, based on animal studies, epicatechin and catechin cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brain. This accumulation of flavonoids may exert beneficial cognitive effects.
Cerebral Blood Flow: In order for our brains to function well, we need good cerebral blood flow or circulation. Proper cerebral circulation is necessary to supply glucose and oxygen to the brain and clear waste products.
Research suggests that cacao, wine, grapes, berries, tomatoes, and soy are all polyphenol-rich foods that promote vasodilation of brain blood vessels and thus enhance brain circulation. These brain effects may help explain improved motivation, attention, concentration, memory, visual tasks, and other cognitive and cerebral benefits of cacao.
Interestingly, flavonoids present in cacao may also decrease blood-vessel endothelial senescence in those who eat it, suggesting anti-aging effects. In other words, chocolate may help make your brain younger. Flavonoids may also protect neurons from damage caused by neurotoxins, reduce inflammation of neurons, and improve learning, memory, and cognitive function.
Dopamine Effects: People no longer eat predominantly to satisfy energy deficits but rather eat mostly for pleasure. If you’ve ever had dessert at a restaurant after stuffing yourself on appetizers and the main course, you may agree.
The mesolimbic dopaminergic system is involved in the effects of drugs of misuse. Consumption of cacao and chocolate may also activate the body’s dopamine receptors. This activation is likely not specific to chocolate per se and caused by the consumption of other foods, too.
Health Benefits of Cacao
Need another reason to eat chocolate, err, cacao? Here&aposs a rundown of cacao health benefits, according to experts and research.
May Reduce Cancer Risk
ICYMI above, cacao beans are teeming with antioxidants. "Antioxidants inhibit the activity of free radicals by neutralizing them," explains Louloudis. This is key because high levels of free radicals can lead to cell damage and oxidative stress, a major factor in the development of chronic conditions such as cancer and heart disease. Cacao contains "antioxidants such as epicatechin, catechin, and procyanidins," which belong to a group of plant compounds called polyphenols, according to Louloudis. Cancer lab studies suggest that these compounds have beneficial effects against cancer. For example, a 2020 lab study found that epicatechin can destroy breast cancer cells another 2016 study found that cacao procyanidins can kill ovarian cancer cells in test tubes. (Related: Polyphenol-Rich Foods to Start Eating Today)
The antioxidants in cacao beans can also help control inflammation, according to an article in the journal Pain and Therapy. That&aposs because oxidative stress can contribute to chronic inflammation, increasing the risk for diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So, as antioxidants in cacao combat oxidative stress, they can also pump the brakes on inflammation. What&aposs more, these antioxidants can also decrease the production of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines, thereby reducing your risk for inflammation to begin with, according to Bansari Acharya, M.A., R.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist at Food Love.
Improves Gut Health
Craving some chocolate (and thus, cacao)? You might want to go with your gut. The polyphenols in cacao beans are actually prebiotics, according to an article in the journal Nutrients. This means they "feed" the good bacteria in your gut, helping them grow and flourish, which, in turn, can help you avoid both temporary and chronic digestive issues. Simultaneously, the polyphenols may also work against the bad bacteria in your tum by inhibiting their proliferation or multiplication. Together, these effects help maintain microbial balance in the gut, which is key for supporting basic functions such as immunity and metabolism, according to the article. (Related: How to Improve Your Gut Health — and Why It Matters, According to a Gastroenterologist)
Supports Heart Health
Aside from combatting oxidative stress and inflammation — two contributors to heart disease — the antioxidants in cacao beans release nitric oxide, which promotes vasodilation (or widening) of your blood vessels, says Sandy Younan Brikho, M.D.A., R.D., registered dietitian and founder of The Dish on Nutrition. In turn, blood can flow more easily, helping decrease high blood pressure (aka hypertension), a major risk factor for heart disease. In fact, a 2017 study found that eating six servings of chocolate a week could reduce heart disease and stroke. (In the study, one serving equaled 30 grams of chocolate, which is equal to about 2 tablespoons of chocolate chips.) But wait, there&aposs more: Magnesium, copper, and potassium — which are all found in cacao — can also reduce the risk of hypertension and atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in your arteries that&aposs known to inhibit blood flow, according to Louloudis.
Helps Control Blood Sugar
The aforementioned 2017 study also found that chocolate can also lower the risk of diabetes and it&aposs all thanks to (surprise!) the antioxidants in cacao beans, and therefore, chocolate. Cacao flavanols (a class of polyphenols) promote the secretion of insulin, the hormone that shuttles glucose into your cells, according to an article in the journal Nutrients. This helps stabilize your blood sugar, preventing it from spiking. This is important because chronic high blood sugar levels can increase your risk for diabetes. Cacao also contains some fiber, which "[slows] the absorption of carbohydrates, thus stabilizing blood sugar levels and [providing] you with a more steady stream of energy throughout the day," notes Louloudis. For instance, just one tablespoon of cacao nibs offers around 2 grams of fiber that&aposs nearly the same amount of fiber in one medium banana (3 grams), according to the USDA. The more controlled and stabilized your blood sugar (due to, in this case, the fiber and antioxidants in cacao), the lower your risk for developing diabetes.
All that being said, it&aposs important to note that a lot of cacao-containing products (i.e. traditional chocolate bars) also have added sugars, which can raise your blood glucose levels. If you have diabetes or pre-diabetes, use caution when buying cacao products such as chocolate, advises Louloudis, who also recommends consulting your doctor for specific recommendations to make sure you&aposre keeping your blood sugar in check as best as possible. (Related: How Diabetes Can Change Your Skin — and What You Can Do About It)
Enhances Cognitive Function
The next time your brain needs a pick-me-up, grab a cacao product such as dark chocolate. In addition to containing a bit of caffeine, cacao beans are one of the richest sources of theobromine, a compound that stimulates the central nervous system, according to an article in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (BJCP). A 2019 study found that dark chocolate (which contains 50 to 90 percent cacao) seems to improve cognitive function the researchers hypothesized this may be due to the psychostimulant theobromine in the chocolate.
So, how do theobromine and caffeine work, exactly? Both compounds interfere with the activity of adenosine, a chemical that makes you sleepy, according to an article in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology. Here&aposs the deal: When you&aposre awake, the nerve cells in your brain make adenosine adenosine eventually accumulates and binds to adenosine receptors, which makes you sleepy, according to John Hopkins University. Theobromine and caffeine block adenosine from binding to said receptors, keeping you awake and alert.
The epicatechin in cacao might help, too. Oxidative stress can damage nerve cells, contributing to the development of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer&aposs disease, according to research published in the journal Molecular Neurobiology. But, according to the aforementioned research in the journal BJCP, epicatechin (an antioxidant) may protect nerve cells from oxidative damage, potentially reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disease and helping keep your brain strong.
Now, if you&aposre sensitive to stimulants such as coffee, you might want to go easy on the cacao. Not only is cacao a natural source of caffeine, but the theobromine in cacao can also cause increased heart rate and headache at high doses (think: closer to 1,000 mg), according to a study in the journal Psychopharmacology. (Related: How Much Caffeine Is Too Much?)
Okay, what is cacao?
The cacao tree is native to tropical regions in Central and South America, and its fruit was consumed by pre-Columbian cultures like the Mayans over 4,000 years ago. "Cacao" originates from the Olmec word "ka-ka-w," and Aztec ruler Moctezuma II famously enjoyed drinking a frothy, bitter beverage made from ground cacao seeds called xocōlātl. Today, 70% of cacao is grown in West Africa. Cacao plants have two edible parts: the seeds (also called beans) and the fruit. If you've ever eaten chocolate, you've eaten cacao seeds. They're fermented, ground into a paste, sweetened, and sometimes flavored to create everything from Hershey's chocolate bars to Guittard's gourmet chocolate wafers. Cacao fruit isn't as ubiquitous in the U.S., but is blended into beverages in Ecuador, and slowly making its way stateside as well.
PSA: Eating Cacao Before Bed Is a *Really* Good Idea
Things that have never been more popular: CBD and cauliflower&mdashand now cacao. The superfood is a staple in healthy recipes, snacks, and desserts. But beyond the taste, are there any legitimate benefits of cacao?
Enter Well+Good’s new video series, Plant-Based, which aims to dig deep (pun intended) into all things that grow in the ground and how they impact your health and nutrition. For the first episode, we talked to herbalist and holistic nutritionist Rachelle Robinett to get the goods on all things cacao and, TLDR, I really want to run to Whole Foods and grab some cacao nibs right now.
Cacao is not the same as chocolate. Like cocoa powder and chocolate, it comes from the cacao bean, but cacao is made from unroasted, cold-pressed beans and without added sugar. This helps it preserve a very impressive nutrient profile, says Robinett.
“Cacao is very nutrient dense,” says Robinett. It’s high in antioxidants as well as nutrients like magnesium (which can help reduce stress), potassium, and iron. Cacao is also high in healthy fats to help us stay satiated and energized, she adds.
Another perk to cacao is its alkaloid content. Alkaloids are naturally-occurring compounds often found in plants the alkaloids in cacao, Robinett says, “interact with different neurotransmitters in our body and help us feel good.” So, yeah, there’s a reason why eating a piece of dark chocolate makes you feel so damn good.
All of this makes cacao a great before-bed snack. “I am a huge fan of cacao or dark chocolate before bed,” Robinett says. Cacao has only minimal amounts of caffeine and considering its magnesium and alkaloid profile, it’s something to try when you want to calm down, she says. Yet another reason to look forward to bedtime, IMO!
For more on the benefits of cacao, plus a delicious dark chocolate recipe straight from Robinett, be sure to watch the video above.
Speaking of trendy foods, here’s what a nutritionist really thinks about our obsession with apple cider vinegar. And it should go without saying but, please don’t snort cacao, okay?
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Raw cacao is full of antioxidants called flavanols. Eating foods rich in flavanols has a variety of health benefits for your body, including the following:
Many scientific studies show that flavanol-rich foods might help lower your blood pressure and improve the way your blood vessels’ walls function, lowering your risk of heart disease.
Improved Digestive Health
Cacao contains fiber that bacteria eat to create fatty acid chains. These fatty acids benefit your digestive system. Drinks made with cacao might also increase the number of good bacteria in your gut.
Research shows that eating dark chocolate can reduce stress, which boosts your overall mental and physical health.
Improved Cognitive Function
A specific flavanol in cacao called epicatechin may help with some parts of brain health, including cognition, blood flow, and risk of dementia.
Lower Risk of Diabetes
Studies show that eating cacao may lower your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Cacao grows in the forest understory to a height of 6–12 metres (20–40 feet), usually remaining at the lower end of this range. Its oblong leathery leaves measure up to 30 cm (12 inches) in length, and are periodically shed and replaced by new leaves that are strikingly red when young. Its flowers are either foul-smelling or odourless they can be present at all times but appear in abundance twice a year. These flowers grow in clusters directly from the trunk and limbs and are about 1 cm (0.4 inch) in height and breadth. They can be white, rosy, pink, yellow, or bright red, depending on the variety, and are pollinated by tiny flies called midges in many areas.
After four years the mature cacao tree produces fruit in the form of elongated pods it may yield up to 70 such fruits annually. The pods, or cherelles, range in colour from bright yellow to deep purple. They ripen in less than six months to a length up to 35 cm (14 inches) and a width at the centre of 12 cm (4.7 inches). Each pod has numerous ridges running along its length and holds 20 to 60 seeds, or cocoa beans, arranged around the long axis of the pod. The oval seeds are about 2.5 cm (1 inch) long and are covered with a sweet sticky white pulp.
Cacao thrives at altitudes of 30 to 300 metres (100 to 1,000 feet) above sea level in areas where temperatures do not range much below 20 °C (68 °F) or above 28 °C (82 °F). Rainfall requirements depend upon the frequency and distribution of rain and the degree of water retention by the soil the minimum necessary rainfall is about 100 cm (39 inches) evenly distributed throughout the year, but 150–200 cm (59–79 inches) is optimal. Successful cultivation also requires deep well-drained soil that is porous and rich in humus. Protection against strong winds is necessary because of the tree’s shallow root system.
Chocolate gets its sweet history rewritten
Long believed to have been domesticated in Central America some 4,000 years ago, cacao has a more interesting story than previously thought.
A Maya Love for Chocolate
When did humans first start cultivating chocolate? It's not just a candy conundrum: the question has long interested both biologists and anthropologists who wonder how and why cacao became so important to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya and Aztecs, both of whom cherished chocolate so much they used it in religious rites and as currency.
Archaeological evidence has pointed to the first use of cacao in Mesoamerica about 3,900 years ago. Traditionally, archaeologists have assumed that Mesoamericans were the first not just to use cacao, but to cultivate it.
Now, new research published in Communications Biology suggests that cacao was first domesticated around 3,600 years ago—and not in Mesoamerica.
The Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making
In their hunt for the origins of domesticated cacao, researchers analyzed the genomes of 200 cacao plants, then sussed out how each subspecies was related. As they worked, they looked for a telltale sign of domestication: genetic differentiation.
When a plant is domesticated, people select for desirable characteristics, breeding it over and over and correcting for things like size and taste. As a result, the genes of a domesticated plant don’t have as much variety as those of its wild relatives.
One likely candidate early domestication was Criollo—the world’s most coveted variety of cacao—which was cultivated by the ancient Maya. The extremely rare variety of chocolate (it makes up just 5% of the world chocolate crop) is beloved by candy fans who love its deep and complex flavor, and students of cacao know that Criollo trees found in Central America are markedly different from the ones found in the Amazon basin. (Can GMOs save chocolate?)
“If we compare all the different [cocoa] populations, the only one that shows a very high amount of genetic differentiation consistent with an event of domestication is Criollo,” says Omar Cornejo, a Washington State University population geneticist who was the lead author on the study.
In this case, says Cornejo, early cacao cultivators seem to have bred Criollo from an ancient relative called Curaray. As they bred the plants generation after generation, its flavor shifted and its theobromine content—the compound that gives chocolate its bitterness and stimulant qualities—increased. Its susceptibility to disease rose as well, leading to its ever-increasing rarity.
According to Cornejo, cocoa domestication may have happened at any point between about 2,400 and 11,000 years ago, and the “most likely scenario” seems to be about 3,600 years ago. Surprisingly, Criollo was also found to have first been domesticated in South America (present-day Ecuador), not in Central America as previously thought.
But how did cacao get from the Amazon basin to Mesoamerica? Another newly released study gives a possible answer. Archaeologists have found the earliest example of cacao usage in the Americas on pieces of stone and ceramic from Mayo-Chinchipe sites in Ecuador that are about 5,300 years old—1,700 years earlier than the evidence from Mesoamerica. And since the Mayo-Chinchipe were in contact with groups along the Pacific coast, it seems likely that they traded cacao with people who brought it north to Mesoamerica.