Salud! A Healthy Cheers Cacao

As blisters form on the pads of my thumbs and a serrated edge of a knife digs into my index fingers, I tell myself it’s all worth it — for my health.

A few days before, I bought a fair share of cacao beans from a vender in San José, Costa Rica. I was in the midst of the shelling process when I had to encourage myself to work through the pain.

Although the early civilizations from Mexico to Chile understood the power of the bean, our common-day perceptions, based on industrial chocolate, are rife with negativity. True cacao though, with its rich and powerful taste and nutritional benefits, is well worth temporary physical discomfort. A healthy heart, a stronger brain and a general feeling of bliss awaited.

It may seem to go against everything that we’re told, but the Central and South American native bean can keep us happy and healthy. I’ve always loved chocolate, I will do nearly anything for the chance of just a bite, but I first got into pure cacao when I was on exchange to Ecuador in 2005. The exchange program took us deep into the Amazon jungle and let us loose on the river village one day. Once Mesoamerica’s common currency, cacao beans were traded to me in exchange for (what I considered) silly green paper that is our modern money. While my sole intention was to inundate those little beans with loads of milk and sugar; I was lucky enough to have a tour guide who really knew a thing or two about cacao.

The tour guide told me that people who drink cacao live longer. He also gave me a stern look and told me to lay off the milk because it would ruin it. As an insolent teen I nodded and said I would with no real intention of heeding that warning, but as I began to research cacao and chocolate, the truth of his words sank deeper and deeper into my mind.

Cacao beans are the building blocks of chocolate, but the processing and addition of milk, sugar and other more unsavory chemical ingredients that are often used, not only negate the healthy properties and cause problems like cavities, but they also steal the rich taste from the beans as well. Cacao powder comes from roasted and ground beans that have had the cacao butter removed and when enjoyed in this form, cacao is low in fat and has bold and slightly bitter flavor. The beans themselves are rich in antioxidants, popularized in the natural health industry due to their anti-aging properties; and while a cup of Aztec emperor Moctezuma II’s favorite cacao drink might not be the literal fountain of youth, it does have positive benefits.

Studies have shown that raw cacao helps reduce the rates of heart disease and cardiovascular mortality. Adding milk to the mix slightly negates glory though as it increases saturated fat levels and reduces the cacao content. We can thank the flavanols for the increased blood flow, which helps the heart and organs function properly. Rejoice just a little bit more; regular consumption helps reduce high blood pressure and that added blood flow helps brain function as well according to a study by Norman K. Hollenberg, MD, PhD, of Harvard Medical School. Cacao is also rich in magnesium, which is important for energy production and the structural development of bone.

As the “Food of the Gods” cacao not only contains multiple healthful compounds like iron, zinc and calcium, but there’s truth to the feelings of bliss that accompany eating chocolate. Cacao releases endorphins and contains the lipid anandamide, which increases mood and elation and decreases depression. Broken down, cacao is good for body, mind and spirits!

I keep these facts rotating in my head as I peel and grind my multiple kilos of cacao beans. Taking advantage of my geographical location in the bosom of cacao lands, I’ve begun to make my own version of fresh cacao; I roast, peel and grind and cook it all. The pastes and drinks might be gritty, but I enjoy the feeling of using the wisdom of ancient civilizations to help my health in the most delicious way possible.