Fit Food Obsession: Cacao

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The Mayans touted cacao as the “Food of the Gods.” And now research is piling up that gives you permission to only be half joking when you say it’s your favorite vegetable.

What You Should Know: Native to Central and South America, the Theobroma cacao tree produces football-sized pods from which the beans used to make chocolate are gleaned from. Other than a couple of rearranged letters, cacao and cocoa is in fact the same thing with the latter being what has historically been the spelling in the English-speaking word. Today, however, cacao is now often being used by companies when referring to the least processed forms of the bean, namely cacao nibs and raw cacao powder.

Crunchy cacao nibs are gleaned from cacao beans that have been pummelled to bits and considered chocolate as close to its natural form as possible. Cacao powder is made when the cacao butter (the fatty part) is pressed from cacao beans leaving behind a cakey substance that can be pulverized into a powder. Dutch-processed cacao, which is often spelled “cocoa,” is treated with alkali to mellow its flavor but unfortunately lays waste to much of the naturally occurring antioxidants.

Why You Should Try Them:

Raw cacao products have significantly more antioxidant power than their more processed counterparts such as Dutch cocoa powder and chocolate bars. In fact, studies have shown that antioxidant levels in cacao nibs and powder are in excess of those found in many fruits and vegetables.

A particularly potent flavonoid antioxidant in cacao called epicatechin is proving to be champion for heart health. By improving the dilation of blood vessels, regular consumption of this chemical works to reduce your blood pressure numbers. Antioxidants in cacao have also been linked to reductions in inflammation and oxidized LDL — a particularly harmful form of cholesterol for your ticker.

On the bright side, researchers in Australia found that cacao’s flavonoids can improve mood and help calm frazzled nerves. Who hasn’t self-medicated with chocolate at least once? And cacao appears to be vanity fare. A Journal of Nutrition study discovered that women who consumed a high antioxidant drink made by blending water with cacao powder daily for three months experienced less UV-induced skin damage and better skin hydration. Research also suggests that epicatechin can even bolster your workouts by helping working muscles use oxygen more efficiently to ramp up exercise endurance capacity.

More proof that cacao is no guilty pleasure: A report in the prestigious Archives of Internal Medicine found that people who regularly consume darker forms of chocolate are more likely to be svelte. The researchers surmise that compounds in cacao may influence metabolism in a manner that promotes weight and fat loss.

If you need any more excuses to embrace your inner Willy Wonka, cacao provides a source of dietary iron — a mineral of particular concern for premenopausal gals. A 2014 large review of studies in the Journal of Nutrition provided more proof that women with higher iron levels are able to push a harder pace when exercising. What’s more, cacao is a surprising source of fat-fighting dietary fiber. A mere ounce of cacao nibs provides a laudable 9 grams of must-have fiber.

What To Look For: You’re most likely to find raw forms of cacao such as nibs and powder at health food stores. Compared with processed cocoa powder, natural or raw cacao powder has a more intense flavor along with a lighter brownish-red color. If possible, select brands that are certified organic, which gives you assurance the cacao trees were grown sustainably without the use of dangerous chemicals, some of which are banned for use in North America. Further, Fair Trade certification means your dark delight hails from farmers who were paid above-market prices allowing for a better quality of life.

How To Use It: Cacao powder adds a chocolaty backdrop to anything it touches. An obvious place to start is with baked goods like brownies and cookies, but you can reap the benefits of its antioxidant might by adding the powder to oatmeal, smoothies, pancake batter, raw puddings, and even to savory dishes such as stews, chilis or spice rubs for chicken, pork and steak.

Pleasantly bitter cacao nibs are an inspiring addition to yogurt, cottage cheese, granola, trail mix, salads, and homemade fruit sauces or nut butters.