If you’re a fan of chocolate, it’ll probably come as no surprise that cacao – the precursor to chocolate – has been found to have a number of health benefits. And quite fitting also that it was favoured by the Mayans over 3,000 years ago, when it was used as food, medicine and currency – its plant name ‘Theobroma’ even means ‘food of the Gods’. From pod to butter and everything in between, cacao can come in several forms but it all starts with a fruit tree - the Theobroma cacao tree. Its fruit, the cacao pod, contains cacao beans, which is cacao in its most natural and raw, unprocessed form. Cacao nibs are made by chopping the bean into little pieces. During processing cacao butter is extracted from the bean and the remainder of the bean is then used to make cacao powder. If you choose to roast your cacao bean you get cocoa, which is used in its powdered form to make the chocolate so many of us love. Whilst chocolate retains some of the beneficial properties of cacao – it is cacao in its purest form, a superfood in its own right, that’s the nutritional powerhouse. Here are four reasons why.
Cacao loves your heart
Cacao is one of the best sources of polyphenols, a natural plant compound with powerful antioxidant properties , and flavanols. Several studies show that flavanol-rich cocoa products can lower blood pressure and improve blood flow, especially in people with high blood pressure . The flavanols in cacao can also help to reduce inflammation, lower LDL cholesterol and reduce the overall risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke .
Cacao helps to reduce inflammation
The polyphenols and flavanols in cacao have also been found to lower markers of inflammation  in the body. Chronic inflammation underlies just about every chronic disease, from heart disease to diabetes. By reducing inflammation, the overall risk of chronic disease is reduced. Polyphenols also support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, which help to activate anti-inflammatory pathways in the body.
Cacao supports your brain and mood
Research shows that cacao can also support your brain and mood. Once again we’ve got those polyphenols and flavanols to thank for improved blood flow to the brain, and consequently improved cognitive function , but cacao also contains theobromine, a natural stimulant that’s like a less jittery cousin of caffeine.
As for your mood, there’s at least two good reasons why chocolate makes you happy: tryptophan and anandamide. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that the body uses to produce the feel-good hormone serotonin, and the lesser known anandamide, is thought to generate a calming, blissful effect .
Cacao may help with diabetes
Thanks to its high flavonoid content there’s also much to suggest that cacao can help to improve blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, with a clear link between eating a diet rich in flavonoids, specifically flavanols and flavonols, and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes . Do keep in mind however, that these benefits are only associated with eating cacao in its most raw, unprocessed form. Even dark chocolate with added sugars can cause unwanted sugar spikes in those with diabetes and insulin sensitivity.
Knew you were doing something right? Here are 3 of our favourite cacao treats:
Ombar 72% Raw Dark Chocolate Buttons , £1.49 for 25g
A little burst of deliciousness you can nibble at throughout the day, Ombar’s Raw Dark Vegan Chocolate Buttons are so delightfully creamy you’d forget that they don’t even contain any dairy! With 72% raw cacao, coconut sugar, cocoa butter and gut-boosting live cultures, they’re ideal for keeping your stomach happy and healthy, whilst also satisfying your chocolate craving.
Creative Nature Raw Cacao Nibs , £5.49 for 150g
100% guilt-free chocolate, these delicious Organic Peruvian Raw Cacao Nibs can be enjoyed on their own or added to cereal, porridge or nuts. Toss them into your favourite smoothie or blend with yoghurt for an energy-packed vegan snack.
Ombar Coco Mylk Raw Chocolate Bar , £1.99 for 35g
Like your cacao a little creamier? Ombar’s Coco Mylk Raw Chocolate Bar is prepared using a scrumptious blend of creamed coconut, cocoa butter, sweet vanilla pods and caramel-tasting coconut sugar. Infused with live cultures and chockfull of flavonoids, this vegan mylk chocolate is four-ingredient chocolate at its best.