We probably don’t have to tell you what happens to your taste buds when you eat a piece of really good chocolate — but you may not realize it isn’t just your taste buds reaping the benefits. In fact, eating the right kind of chocolate can result in all sorts of good responses within your body.
A little skepticism is understandable. You’ve probably heard chocolate isn’t the healthiest thing you can eat. But there’s a big difference between the milk chocolate candy bars you tend to reach for at the gas station cash register and organic, raw cacao.
Cocoa vs. cacao vs. chocolate
While these three terms are often used interchangeably, there are important distinctions to be made. The origins, as it were, are similar. In essence, they all come from cacao beans (which are actually seeds, FYI) from the Theobroma cacao tree. That scientific name roughly translates in Greek to “food of the gods,” which makes sense, right? Anyway, the tree bears cacao pods, inside of which are the beans.
The difference comes into play after the beans are harvested and dried.
Cacao is what you get when the beans are processed at low temperatures and are considered raw. A superfood, raw cacao is packed with vitamins, minerals, and other good-for-you stuff.
Cocoa is the byproduct of processing cacao beans by roasting them at high temps, then pressing them to remove the cacao fat. Due to the additional heating, some of the nutritional benefits of cacao are lost. The cacao butter is also a healthy, good-for-you fat that is often replaced with less nutritious options like canola oil.
The chocolate you probably buy at the store is what you get when the cacao fat is removed and replaced with dairy fat and sugar. It often contains a mere 3 percent cacao, according to ChocolaTree owner Kelly Johnson.
Accordingly, we felt compelled to compile some of the health benefits of the (copious amounts of) raw cacao we consumed. Here are five:
Your cells get an extra level of defense. Antioxidants may protect your cells against the effects of free radicals, which is kind of a big deal. Free radicals damage cells and can play a role in heart problems, cancer, and other diseases. Amazingly, cacao has more than 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries.
You may be able to sleep better. Cacao is one of the highest plant-based sources of magnesium, which plays a key role in many vital healthy bodily functions. And according to the National Sleep Foundation, some evidence even shows that magnesium may improve sleep quality.
You get the warm and fuzzies. Cacao is packed with four scientifically proven “bliss” chemicals: phenylethylamine (the “love drug”), serotonin, tryptophan, and tyrosine. These neurotransmitters help boost your mood and stave off depression by flooding you with feelings of wellbeing and relaxation. Basically, cacao’s a safe, healthy and natural high.
You feel energized. Since iron’s main purpose in the body is essentially to produce energy, getting enough in your diet is important. Feeling sluggish? Eat some raw, organic cacao — it’s the highest plant-based source of iron known to man. Plus, cacao has naturally occurring caffeine (although minimal, so it won’t wire you!).
Word to the wise
Of course, this isn’t carte blanche to consume wild amounts of cacao. While it is healthy for you, it is also high in fat and calories. Like anything else, it should be worked into a balanced diet in moderation.