(5 min read)
Theobromine Cacao, often referred to just as Cacao, is one of the most talked about superfoods in the common era of wellness, and a staple in many of our apothecaries and pantries alike.
The Cacao hype today seems to be reminiscent of this sacred bean’s ancient history as a food, medicine and currency.
Unfortunately, as with so many plant medicines today, the history, culture and therapeutic value of Cacao is often not fully acknowledged and understood.
Welcome to the blog post that will reclaim the lost knowledge of what is widely referred to as the ‘Food of the Gods’.
Cacao NOT Cocoa:
It is very important to first establish a very commonly misunderstood vernacular error. Cocoa and Cacao are not the same thing, and although they share a source and a few commonalities, the overall differences are significant.
The origins of Theobromine Cacao (Botanical name) are rooted in ancient Latin American culture, dating all the way back to the Olmecs – the first major civilisation in the Mexico region. The word Cacao is just as old and has passed through the Mayan culture and onto the Spanish as well. ‘Cocoa’ is believed to have been a slight misspelling of the original term and has ever since been adopted by most western cultures.
Despite Cocoa often being used synonymously with Cacao, there are some major differences to note.
Cocoa is made when Cacao beans are roasted and processed to produce a ground up powder product which we commonly associate with chocolate.
Cacao on the other hand is the raw, unprocessed Cacao beans which are either ground into a powder, left in mass form, or made into cacao butter by extracting the fats from the bean.
The cacao beans which are roasted and processed to create a cocoa powder possess a much milder taste due to most of all the bitter and astringent compounds like (polyphenols and alkaloids) being burnt off. Whilst this may be desirable to create a (subjectively) more favourable flavour, the bulk of the therapeutic properties of Cacao are lost. As herbalists, the presence of alkaloids and polyphenols in the food we consume is very important, as so many incredible therapeutic phytochemicals exist as alkaloids and polyphenols.
Theobromine is an example of one of the most valuable alkaloids present in raw cacao and polyphenols include antioxidants, one of cacao’s most famous and abundant offerings. We will dive into this further shortly.
So now we can see the difference between cocoa and cacao and we can begin to delve deeper into Cacao Theobromine, and what makes it so revered.
The Phytochemistry Behind Cacao:
The abundance of molecules in cacao could be spoken about for pages, the significant list of molecules includes Theobromine, Phenethylamine, Tryptophans, Procyanidin, Epicatechin, Anandamide (a cannabinoid), Terahydro-beta-carboline (to name a few).
Alas, I shall just focus on a few for now which have, in my opinion, the most noticeable therapeutic actions on the body.
Theobromine: Caffeine’s more conservative cousin, theobromine is an alkaloid which acts as a bronchodilator. It improves circulation, blood flow and also dilates blood vessels helping to lower blood pressure. It also helps to lower LDL and thus improves cholesterol. It has little to no action on the central nervous system which is where it differs from caffeine as a stimulant.
Phenethylamine: (Also known as PEA) An endogenous alkaloid in our brains which is proliferated by cacao. PEA has a very short lifespan once it is released, however during this time it aids in releasing Serotonin, Dopamine and Norepinephrine. These are some of our main happy chemicals and can make us feel joy, love and pleasure. This is why cacao is often associated with mood boosting.
Tryptophans: These are amino acids which aid in bolstering the production of serotonin in our bodies. Serotonin is our most important mood stabilising chemical and its release can leave us feeling a great sense of happiness. Tryptophans can therefore be seen as the building blocks to our happy factory. Need I say more.
Many of these other molecules act as powerful Antioxidants.
The antioxidant properties of cacao are some of its most renowned.
Antioxidants are important features in our overall health as they protect our organs from free radical damage – an ongoing occurrence by virtue of simply breathing.
Furthermore Cacao is densely packed with a plethora of valuable vitamins and minerals. Most noteworthy is its high magnesium content – in fact it is the richest source of magnesium (per gram) of any food in the world.
Cacao is medicine, food, and culture. It is one of the most revered plants in history and has rightfully earned its status as the Food of the Gods. Although most cacao production occurs in the tropics, with significant production coming out of Latin America, Central Africa and Indonesia, it is accessible sustainably worldwide.
Be sure to find a trusted, Fair Trade and Organic supplier to ensure your quality, and begin cultivating your relationship with this magical sacrament.