Cacao beans are the seed of a fruit that grows on the cacao tree. Cacao trees originated in the Amazon basin, and they will only grow in a very warm, moist, shady environment. Cacao beans were so highly valued by ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations, they were used as money. Cacao beans are naturally sugar free and taste somewhat bitter in their raw form.
They are often labeled as a “powerfood” because the they contain many nutrients that are beneficial to our health. Although eating raw cacao beans would provide you with the direct benefits of pure cacao, we have already see how the cacao found in dark chocolate is also beneficial, provided that it contains at least 70% of cacao.
Cacao beans are packed with antioxidant flavonols. Actually, numerous researches indicated that cacao beans are one of the richest natural food sources of antioxidant flavonols available. They may contain as much as a 10% antioxidant concentration level. Studies at Cornell University found that cacao powder contained up to three times the level of antioxidants in green tea, and twice the level found in red wine.
Also, antioxidants should be consumed in their natural form for maximum benefit, rather than being taken in as supplements. This is one of the main reasons why nutritionists recommend consuming large amounts and wide varieties of fruits and vegetables. And this is one of the reasons why you should include cacao beans in the list of antioxidant-rich foods in your diet.
Studies have showed that cacao beans have positive effects on the cardiovascular system in the body.
They contain polyphenols (the same beneficial antioxidants contained in red wine). This means that it’s entirely possible to enjoy the health benefits of drinking the recommended "daily glass of wine" without consuming alcohol and eating cacao nibs (or dark chocolate) instead.
Also, cacao beans can help reduce or control the levels of "bad" cholesterol in our bloodstream while raising the "good" cholesterol (HDL) levels. Studies have also indicated the polyphenols in cacao beans may reduce blood pressure.
Due to its high concentration of magnesium, cacao supports heart and cardiovascular system health. It also improves the strength and condition of the heart and supports its ability to pump blood effectively. Why? Because magnesium decreases blood coagulation, which means it reduces the risk of blood clots. The ability to lower the risk of blood clots is an important health benefit associated with cocoa beans for anyone concerned about their risk of heart attack or stroke.
Cacao beans as an antidepressant
Cacao beans contain many substances that have earned them the reputation as being Nature's anti-depressant.
They contain three neurotransmitters that are associated with promoting a healthy mood and positive mental state: serotonin, dopamine and phenylethylamine.
In addition to containing mood enhancing neurotransmitters, cacao beans also contain the amino acid tryptophan and monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors. MAO inhibitors allow the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine to circulate in the bloodstream longer, which may help alleviate depression and support feelings of well being. MAO inhibitors have long been featured in antidepressant pharmaceutical medications, as has tryptophan. Tryptophan plays a vital role in the production of serotonin within the body, as well.
The good feeling is scientifically proven, there’s no doubt about that!
Cacao beans and weight loss
In addition to all of these incredible health benefits, cacao beans are recently gaining a reputation for supporting weight loss. Although scientific evidence to support this claim is lacking some studies indicate that the polyphenols contained in cacao beans may improve insulin sensitivity. Scientists are now exploring the link between obesity and a condition called Insulin Resistance Syndrome. Improved sensitivity to insulin as a result of consuming cacao beans or dark chocolate may actually support individuals' efforts to lose weight.
The feel-good, natural antidepressant properties associated with cacao bean consumption may also make it easier for people to stick with their diets, thus supporting weight loss.
Being able to plan to enjoy a treat such as dark chocolate can help dieters overcome cravings that may lead to "cheating" on diets with unhealthy, high-calorie and high-fat forbidden foods.
Where to find them
Cacao nibs are not super easy to find however Whole Foods carries a 16 ounces bag for
around $10. If you live in NYC take a trip to Williamsburg in Brooklyn and visit the Mast Brothers Chocolate Shop on 105A North 3rd Street, besides delicious chocolate they also sell bags of cacao beans that to me are the best I tasted so far.
Don’t expect anything too sweet as cacao nibs are pretty bitter, but they make a perfectly healthy crunchy snack for you to enjoy. You can also sprinkle them on frozen yogurt, grind them with coffee beans, add to oatmeal, cereal or trail mixes, mix in with smoothie or blend into herbal teas.
However you should be considered because they are a pretty energetic food, 1 ounce scores around 130 calories, most of which come from fat (which is the good one, of course). So make it an morning/afternoon snack instead of an evening one!
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