Nutritionist Alessandra Felice follows the journey of the cacao bean, from tree to chocolate treat…
Cacao, or Theobroma cacao, is the source of one of the most adored foods in the world, chocolate. It comes from seeds of the fruit of the cacao tree, which is native to the tropical regions of Mexico, Central and South America. The fruit, called a cacao pod, contains seeds known as cacao beans and a white flesh that is eaten or made into juice, while the beans are what is utilised to make chocolate and all its products.
The seeds, along with the pulp, are scooped out and fermented. This is an essential preliminary step for the development of the characteristic chocolate flavour, which fully develops during the roasting or sun drying stage.
After fermenting, the seeds are spread out in the sun to dry. Next they are blended and roasted at high temperatures. Roasting takes between 30 minutes and 2 hours. For raw chocolate of course the temperature is kept much lower (below 42°C) to preserve every single nutrient and enzyme contained in cacao.
The seeds are then cracked and passed through a series of sieves to remove the shells, which leaves only the heavier pieces of the seed known as ‘nibs’. Finally the nibs are crushed between large steel discs, a process that produces enough frictional heat to liquefy the fat content of the seeds. The resulting fluid, known as chocolate liquor or paste, is poured into moulds and allowed to solidify. To make commercial chocolate this is then blended with sugar and flavourings.
Choc full of benefits
Cacao has been used for thousands of years and regarded by Aztecs and Mayans as sacred, magical and to be of divine origin. The scientific name later given to this plant, Theobroma Cacao, literally translates as ‘food of the gods’ (from Greek, theos = god and broma = food).
The cacao tree produces a food that is packed with so many healing and nutritious properties that these populations placed incredibly high value on it and actually used the bean for currency. A favourite Mayan way to enjoy cacao was to make a traditional drink, called xocolatl where roasted cacao seeds were mixed with atole (coarse roasted cornflour) and whisked into a foam-rich beverage adding then chillies, vanilla, cinnamon and salt to taste. The Aztecs regarded xocolatl as a powerful aphrodisiac and stimulating tonic.
Even today chocolate has not lost its aphrodisiac reputation and cacao has some interesting medicinal properties as well.
The notion that chocolate is bad for you comes from the fact that in modern times chocolate products and bars consist mostly of sugar with just a few cacao solids mixed in for flavour, thus losing their positive effect on your health and well-being.
How to get sweet dreams
Be aware that as beneficial as raw cacao can be, it’s still a stimulant because it contains some caffeine, so try not to consume it after about 2-3pm if you tend to be sensitive to it. This way it won’t interfere with a good night’s sleep.
A healthy alternative
One of the greatest health benefits of cacao is that it has one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants of any food out there. Yes, more than the very popular acai and goji berries. These antioxidants include polyphenols, flavonols, catechins and epicatechins. There are actually more than 25,200 antioxidants in a single spoonful of raw cacao powder. The process of roasting at high temperature and alkalinising the beans or cocoa can unfortunately destroy a lot of them, so sticking to raw or high quality dark chocolate would be best. And another great reason why ditching dairy is the way to go is that the dairy in chocolate reduces the bioavailability of the flavonoids found in cacao and their absorption by the body.
How about fighting inflammation and getting glowing skin while savouring chocolate? Yes, it’s possible! The antioxidants protect our cells from premature oxidation or damage and can keep us looking younger for longer, improving skin texture, microcirculation, elasticity and tone. They equally protect our neurones as one of them is resveratrol, a potent antioxidant also found in red wine, known for its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier to help protect your nervous system.
Cacao may also be the highest source of magnesium, the relaxer mineral. Magnesium calms sensitivity to pain, quiets nerves, relaxes both mind and muscles and helps in the building of bones and teeth. Besides, it’s a great aid to protect against osteoporosis, reducing risk of Type 2 diabetes, and lowering blood pressure. Along with magnesium, cacao contains other essential minerals like chromium, zinc, manganese and iron.
Regular consumption of cacao can also be beneficial in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease as its antioxidants help to maintain healthy levels of nitric oxide (NO) in the body, which acts as a vasodilator, relaxing blood vessels and reducing blood pressure.
But one of the reasons why we love chocolate so much is that it makes us happy. Literally.
Cacao actually increases levels of certain neurotransmitters that promote a sense of well-being. The same brain chemical that is released when we experience deep feelings of love, phenylethylamine, is found in chocolate and this amazing pod also boosts brain levels of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical. Both these compounds are linked to feelings of relaxation and satisfaction and a reduction in feelings of depression.
Plus, cacao releases the ‘bliss’ chemical anandamide, possibly explaining why we can’t live without our regular dose of this super-tasty treasure of nature.
Now that we’re heading into winter, why not whip up a hot chocolate Mayan style? Choose your favourite milk, gently warm up about a cup on the stove, add 1 tsp cinnamon, a pinch of salt and cayenne and ½ tsp vanilla. Next, depending on how dark you like it, mix in 1-2 tbsp cacao powder, plus your choice of sweetener. Maple syrup or coconut sugar work great. Stir until smooth and combined, pour into a mug, sit down, let the smell surround you and enjoy!
For a Christmas version add ½ tsp ginger and a pinch of nutmeg and cloves, omitting the cayenne. For a superfood one, scoop in a bit of turmeric and why not add a touch of spirulina. If you want your hot chocolate completely fluffy and creamy, blend it up to incorporate some more air and reduce slightly the quantity of liquid or add 1 tbsp grated cacao paste to make it thicker and slightly bitter. Cacao butter will give it an added richness too.
A beginners’ guide to cacao and chocolate with a look at the terminology that follows this delicious treat from bean to bar.
Cacao beans are the actual beans, extracted from the pod. They are in their whole, original, unprocessed form. Cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been broken into smaller pieces, making them easier to chew and enjoy. Eat them on their own or mix them with dried mulberries, coconut chips, hemp seeds and almonds for a tasty trail mix. Top your morning porridge or smoothie bowl with them to give it an extra crunch. Or add to homemade energy bars and superfood truffles.
Cacao paste, cacao mass and cacao liquor refer to the same thing made by taking the cacao beans, in their whole form, and grinding them into a liquid, commonly called cacao liquor. This liquid is then dried, resulting in cacao paste. It is usually brown, not shiny and very easy to break. You can literally melt the liquor, add some sweeteners and flavours and you’ll have chocolate! Or add some liquid such as rice or almond milk and some of your favourite sugar and make ganache that you can use as a pie filling or eat with a spoon.
Cacao butter is the fat extracted from the bean paste. It is creamy, buttery, pale yellow and has a silky texture in the mouth. The butter is what gives the shine to chocolate and the crispness when you break it. Mixed with cacao powder and a dried sweetener in the right ratio will give you a chocolate bar with the perfect snap. Or melt some and apply to your skin as a luxurious and nourishing moisturiser. Mix 60ml with 60ml of melted shea butter and 120ml of coconut oil plus your favourite essential oils and you’ll have your own homemade body butter.
Finally, cacao powder is what remains of the cacao liquor after extracting the fat. Raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cocoa and removes the fat (cacao butter).
Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures. Unfortunately, roasting changes the molecular structure of the cocoa bean, reducing the enzyme content and lowering the overall nutritional value.
Dutch-processed cocoa powder (dark cocoa) is cocoa powder that has been processed with an alkalised solution, making it less acidic and much richer in taste. You’ll usually find it in drinking chocolate mixes.
Use roasted cacao powder in baking recipes for cakes, muffins and cookies while the raw one is the perfect addition for a morning or post-workout smoothie. It also works amazingly in raw sweet treats like energy bars and truffles, mousse desserts with a creamy avocado base or added to banana ice cream.
And don’t forget that you can use cacao powder for your skin as well. Mix it with coconut oil, ground coffee and sugar for a perfect body scrub or blend it with some avocado for a super yummy and glow-promoting face mask.