Natural Nootropics: Health Benefits of Raw Cacao

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When articles appear in your feed lauding the health benefits of dark chocolate and encouraging readers to eat it with reckless abandon, a dose of skepticism is justified - most chocolate is heavily processed and contains enough fat and sugar to negate any arguable benefits.  

While such mass-produced bars have no place in a whole food based, organic lifestyle, high-grade cacao is a different story altogether. 

“Superfood” hype aside, the Mayan’s knew a good thing when they saw it. Here’s our guide to how and why cacao deserves a permanent place on your nootropics shelf.

What exactly is cacao and how is different to chocolate?

It all starts with the Theobroma cacao tree. Inside the fruiting pods of this plant are seeds - usually called beans - which form the building blocks of chocolate production. At this stage, cacao beans don’t bear much resemblance to the products we’re familiar with. 

To develop their characteristic flavour profile and aroma, they must first be fermented and dried for several days, a process that gives us raw cacao with a rich but bitter taste.

The hulls are then removed from the raw beans and the contents ground into a fine powder or crushed into small pieces known as nibs. Some producers opt to roast the beans beforehand, giving rise to a product with some degree of natural sweetness.[1]

cacao beans health benefits nootropics

Cacao and healthy polyphenols

Experts attribute the bulk of cacao’s health benefits to polyphenols - natural compounds with antioxidant properties - and it tops the charts in one particular class of potent polyphenol: flavonoids. You’ll find higher doses in cacao than even green tea or red wine.[2

Cognitive performance

Additional research has shown links between these flavanols and a reduction in cognitive decline, when paired with aerobic exercise, which is where the ‘natural nootropic’ status justifiably comes from; i.e. a natural substance that boost cognitive or mental performance.

Cacao as a stimulant

Be warned too that cacao has a stimulant effect (it is known as “the cocaine of the Mayan’s” for a reason!) and has a half-life of 6hrs or so, suggesting it should only be consumed in modest amounts after dark by those people susceptible to such things.

Anti-inflammatory effects of cacao

Inflammation is a double-edged sword, in acute situations it helps us heal and fight infection.  However, long-term inflammation is linked to chronic illnesses. In theory, the antioxidant polyphenols in cacao should combat the free radicals which mediate chronic inflammation, creating a subject of considerable interest to the medical community.

A randomized, controlled, cross-over trial with 24 participants found that those who consumed two servings of a cocoa product per day for four weeks experienced a greater reduced inflammatory markers IL-1β and IL-10 compared to the placebo group.[4]

Cacao for blood sugar control

With diabetes levels on the rise due to the pervasive unbalanced Western diet, anything that can help keep blood sugar in check is likely to capture the health community’s attention - and scientists believe that cacao might help by interacting with insulin to do just that. 

In 2015, a randomized, placebo-controlled double-blind study (the gold standard!) tested the effects of polyphenol-rich chocolate on 60 participants. Researchers instructed subjects to eat 25 grams of the chocolate daily for eight weeks and found that fasting blood sugar and HbA1c (indicative of longer-term blood sugar levels) decreased above and beyond that of the placebo group.[3]

How to integrate cacao into your diet?

We buy 1kg bags of organic, sustainably sourced cacao powder and add a tablespoon to our morning smoothie with a nut mylk base and either a vegan or organic whey protein powder. 

After a light breakfast of seasonal berries and macadamias with kefir, followed by some organic boiled eggs and an avocado, this malty cacao-flavored mid-morning smoothie is all we need to get through to lunchtime. Try it for yourself!

References

[1] http://www.mjpath.org.my/2013.2/history-and-science-of-chocolate.pdf

[2] http://www.njmonline.nl/getpdf.php?id=1269

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4460349/ 

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23823716

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4460349/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3820048/

DietMatt Morley