The science behind the health benefits of cacao

Last week I talked about how to make a healthy hot chocolate. I’ll recap the recipe at the end but, first, I want to talk about the health benefits of cacao and bananas (the other main ingredient in my hot chocolate).
So let’s take a quick look at the health benefits of cacao or theobroma (‘food of the gods’) cacao, first. According to a 2014 article on cacao, researchers purported that the polyphenols in cacao are both highly anti-inflammatory and extremely cardio protective. In fact, cacao is one of the richest food in polyphenols. They key is however, not to process the cacao, for once it’s processed (into cocoa), the polyphenolic benefits drop dramatically. “On the whole, during cocoa processing the polyphenol content is reduced more than ten times [74,83], with the undesirable bitter and astringent taste diminishing sometimes in final cocoa products.” (1)
Also found in cacao is theobromine (hence the scientific name Theobroma), one of two methylxanthines (the other is caffeine more predominantly found in coffee). Methylxanthines act on adenosine receptors in the central nervous system with the effect of enhancing arousal, mood, and concentration levels, as well as having a diuretic, cardiovascular and metabolic effect. Methylxanthines can even help the bronchials relax and increase secretion of gastric acids (1). The flavonals in cacao have also been shown to inhibit lipid (fat) peroxidation. In fact, in one experiment, cacao had been shown to reduce obesity-related inflammation in high fat-fed mice (). Finally, the same article goes on to state that the polyphenols “seem to be key players in the increase of beneficial gut microbes (e.g., Lactobacilli) and the decrease of less beneficial ones (e.g., Clostridia)” (2) So there you have it, cacao is a superfood.
And now, let’s not forget about the bananas! Ultra sweet, they are high in potassium, an important electrolyte, and important in good bone health and blood pressure. Bananas are high in fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin, otherwise known as ‘prebiotics’ or food for your good gut bacteria. Bananas are also mucolytic, meaning that they produce mucous in the gut to help ward off any unnecessary acid; they can also aid in diarrhea because of the amount of fiber in them.
(1) Nutrients 2014, 6, 844-880, Review: “Cocoa Polyphenols and Inflammatory Markers of Cardiovascular Disease”
(2) Nutrients 2013, 5, 4159-4173; Review; “Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate”
My “cocoa loco” recipe
One banana3 tablespoons of organic cacao nibs16 ounces of water
I put all the ingredients in a pot and brought them to a gentle boil, mashing the banana until it was broken up. When the water started to boil, I turned down the heat and let the mixture simmer on the stove for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Voila! It’s that easy! I then poured the decoction into a large mug using a regular strainer to strain out the mark (a term used to denote the plant material left over when making a beverage).
Now, if you want something even faster and cold, just pull out your blender (I have a Vitamix) throw in a banana (frozen is best), 1 tablespoon of nips and as much water as you like to get it to your consistency. Blend and drink. Not traditional, but very quick and very tasty!

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