Warning: This article is dangerous. You know you like to live a little dangerously from time to time, so settle in and be prepared for a possible life-altering discovery. How could this article change your life? Well, it changed mine.
I am a rare human who you most likely can not relate to. I have never liked chocolate and don’t have cravings for it, ever. I don’t think it tastes bad but one small square is more than enough and I always prefer super dark chocolate. With an unnatural resistance to chocolate’s charms, I never find myself wanting it or buying it. Strange, I know.
Today, I have officially joined the dark side, the chocolate dark side that is. After immersing myself in all things cacao even I, who always selects savory, herbal or citrus deserts, found myself giddily walking into a specialty chocolate shop on a Sunday stroll and coating myself in the dark and sinful treat by slathering my face in a weeknight post-dinner dessert mask.
Apparently, I have discovered what I was missing and now cacao is the life for me. If researching and discovering the benefits of cacao could change how I do dessert and skincare – you most certainly are in trouble.
Not all chocolate is created equal
Reading this is likely to increase your investment and love of chocolate by significant portions. READ ME: Not all chocolate is created equal and many options don’t have any of the benefits listed in this article. Sad and true.
Learn here how to save yourself from wasted calories and buying another skincare product that doesn’t live up to the hype. Since you’ve read this far I can safely assume you want to join me and live on the edge today so, let’s jump into the sweet world of cacao together.
Read on to discover the Top 5 Benefits of Cacao you can look forward to if you consume chocolate skincare as often as you do the edible treat.
What's the difference? cacao – cocoa – chocolate
Let’s start at the most important and confusing part, in my opinion. The terms Chocolate, Cacao and Cocoa are commonly used interchangeably until you get to the final stage of production. Then, the difference is distinct. When you understand what these chocolate terms actually mean you can read the label and know what you're buying (and consuming), regardless of fancy marketing. So, where does all the confusion come from?
When referring to the plant, the words are used interchangeably. Theobroma cacao, the scientific name for the cacao tree, is also referred to as the cocoa tree. The tree produces flowers that are known as cacao pods, also called cocoa pods.
The use of both terms continues when you read about this popular tree and adds to the public confusion on the difference between the words cacao and cocoa. The real difference is finally noted during the production process.
How chocolate is produced
Chocolate production begins at the cacao/cocoa tree, where cacao/cocoa pods containing cacao/cocoa seeds (usually called beans) live within a wool-like fruit pulp. The beans are placed between layers of banana leaves for about a week to dissolve the external pulp away.
Then the seeds are dried in the sun to create a natural fermentation process that transforms the extreme bitterness into the complex cacao/cocoa flavor we love. Once cleaned and dried the beans are ready for processing. The next processing step of the beans is what makes it either become distinctly cacao or cocoa.
How cacao is made
Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing un-roasted cacao beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cacao alive, separates the fat (aka cacao butter) and produces nibs. Nibs are the small, broken pieces of the bean after it has been fermented, dried and pressed. Edible as is, cacao nibs are typically made into cacao liquor. Cacao liquor is pure liquid chocolate and though it is referred to as liquor it does not contain alcohol.
How cocoa is processed
Cocoa, in contrast, is raw cacao that is roasted at high temperatures. The addition of heat and roasting changes the molecular structure of the cacao bean, officially making the products that we know as cocoa, cocoa butter, and chocolate/cocoa liquor. It is very important to note that the heating process reduces the enzyme content, lowers the overall nutritional value and is why raw cacao is seen as the health-conscious choice between cacao and cocoa.
Knowing this, I wondered why they would choose to heat the cacao bean to temperatures that are known to kill off the majority of the health and skin benefits? The answer is simple, sugar. Cocoa is a sweeter and much less bitter final product.
Though cocoa powder is sweeter if you want to get the following benefits you have to seek out and consume the cold-pressed variety known as cacao. If you love the sweet chocolate, can you ever enjoy the dark cacao variety? Science says yes.
Making the switch to dark cacao (from milk chocolate or cocoa)
We are more commonly attracted to sweet flavors and for many, the cacao form of chocolate is too bitter to enjoy. What can we do? According to the research group at Columbia University, because taste receptor cells located on our tongue are fast-growing, regenerating every 2 weeks, we can manipulate taste perception and associated behavioral actions. What does this actually mean?
Our tastebuds are programmable because they refresh every 2 weeks. Neat, right? This is the key to loving bitter foods and eventually dark cacao over sweet milk cocoa. How can we make the switch?
How to trick your tastebuds
With the awareness that our tastebuds are programmable, you can proactively adjust your diet over time to desire less sweet foods. Let's apply this specifically to chocolate.
To make the switch from milk chocolate made with high sugar, fat and cocoa beans to nutrient-rich, more bitter cacao chocolate you can slowly increase the percentage of cacao liquor over time and your taste buds will begin to prefer the more bitter flavor and darker chocolate. The cacao liquor correlates, most of the time, to the percentage listed on a chocolate package.
Chocolate percentages mean what?
You have probably seen percentages labeled on chocolate wrappers. Common percentages are 50%, 62%, 73%, 85% and now you can even find up to 100%. This number relates directly to the cacao percentage that the product contains. This percentage consists of three elements: chocolate liquor; cocoa/cacao butter (the natural fat present in the cacao bean); and cacao nibs (the bits of the cacao bean that are ground to a powder).
Remember, these can be cacao or cocoa depending if heat was used during production. If a package says 100% and the ingredient label says cocoa, you are purchasing sweeter chocolate that will have lower to no health benefits due to heating when being produced – even though it states 100%. It's a little tricky so always read your labels. What else could you find in your chocolate?
Beyond these ingredients, if you read the label you may find additional oils, sugars, fats, nuts, spices, flavors and milk (this addition is what makes milk chocolate). Note that all of these additional ingredients will decrease the percentage of cacao and therefore lower the health benefits incrementally.
This all explains why I haven’t liked most chocolate bars, yet I find pure dark cacao enjoyable. My tastebuds are programmed to like more bitter flavors (some of my favorite foods are arugula, citrus, kale and green tea – all bitter flavors) so it is not surprising that the darker more bitter chocolate is more palatable to me. I have programmed my palate without realizing it. Once you spend a few weeks adjusting to the darker chocolate you can enjoy your chocolate cacao without any guilt and reap amazing health and skin benefits this superfood offers.
Top 5 benefits of cacao for the skin
Chocolate is amazing IN and ON the body. We know that what we put in our body shows up on our skin so the following list shows benefits of eating as well as topically applying cacao for better overall skin health.
1. Cacao is a super food
The cacao bean has over 300 identifiable compounds including vitamins, minerals, amino acids and phytonutrients. High in magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium, beta-carotene and omega 6 fatty acids, cacao powder provides these and other nutrients so that your body and skin perform at peak levels. When applied topically, these elements can protect the skin against environmental stressors, feed the skin, and produce a healthy glow.
This one goes for consuming cacao internally. The higher the cacao percentage (with minimal sugar and other additives) the higher the proportion of flavanols can be found. Flavanols are plant-derived antioxidants in cacao which help maintain the elasticity of the blood vessels within our body. These support blood flow, maintaining elasticity of arteries and veins, protect the heart and keep the skin looking vibrant and youthful.
Externally, cacao delivers complex nutrients for healthy skin—visibly improving texture, tone and radiance, and has become an excellent ingredient in facial skin care products.
3. Skin protection
An amazing benefit of cacao, when used in a form rich in flavanols, is that it can provide protection against the elements and environmental stressors.
This applies internally too. A London University study demonstrated that daily consumption of a chocolate rich in flavanols confers significant photoprotection and can thus be effective at protecting human skin from harmful UV effects. (Note: conventional chocolate from the control group showed no such effect.)
4. Micro-circulation for vibrant skin
This one also applies to consuming cacao internally. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients throughout the body and helps carry away waste and free radicals. Poor blood circulation can lead to dry, sallow and an unhealthy appearance on the skin. A study from the Institute of Biochemistry and Microbiology in Germany has found that regular flavanol-rich cocoa consumption acutely increases dermal blood flow and oxygen saturation.
(Note: conventional chocolate from the control group showed no such effect.) This means that cacao high in flavanols showed to increase in overall oxygen content and blood flow in the body. By increasing blood flow and circulation you can keep your skin cells nourished and increase the overall vitality of the skin maintaining youthful skin longer.
5. Calms, internally and externally
Cacao is one of the edible and topical substances that are rich in polyphenols.
When consumed internally, these specific antioxidants reduce inflammation in the body effecting cardiovascular, neurological, intestinal, and metabolic pathologies. The University of Alabama at Birmingham found in a study, polyphenols may favorably supplement sunscreens protection, and may be useful for skin diseases associated with solar UV radiation-induced inflammation, oxidative stress, and DNA damage.
In addition, another research institute with clinical studies out of Italy, have even found that following cocoa and dark chocolate ingestion, cocoa polyphenols modulate intestinal microbiota, thus leading to the growth of bacteria that trigger a tolerogenic anti-inflammatory pathway in the host. This shows that when the study participants ingested cacao rich in polyphenols it stimulated the increase of gut bacteria.
An increase in these gut bacteria, whose job is to reduce inflammation in the body, helped decrease overall inflammation in the body of the participants. (Note: conventional chocolate from the control group showed no such effect.)
When applied externally, cacao is calming and restorative, resulting in relisiant and radiant skin.
With this very impressive list of benefits for the overall body health and vibrant skin you may desire to go get some chocolate right now. I know, much to my surprise, I have increased my consumption of cacao since learning of these tremendous benefits. May you also enjoy your next cacao treat knowing you may be giving your body a healthy boost!
It is important to remember:
- Not all chocolate will give you the above benefits. Multiple studies confirmed not all chocolate is created equal. Due to this, it is important to train your taste buds to appreciate and crave the most bitter chocolate from raw cacao to receive the most benefits.
- Read the ingredients. A package that says “raw cacao” simply means it has raw cacao somewhere in the product. Read the full ingredients to make sure you are consuming cacao with little to no extra sugars, fats, and ingredients that alter its health content.
- Fair Trade Matters. I didn’t get into this within the article but be aware that many cacao trees are located in places where working conditions are poor and the people are taken severely advantage of. Buying Fair Trade goes at least one step closer to making sure the manufacturers are being kept in check and the farmers are treated more fairly.
P.S—You’re Welcome 😉 [You now have 5 official and amazing excuses for eating chocolate.]
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Consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa acutely increases microcirculation in human skin.
Cocoa polyphenols inhibit phorbol ester-induced superoxide anion formation in cultured HL-60 cells and expression of cyclooxygenase-2 and activation of NF-kappaB and MAPKs in mouse skin in vivo.
Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease
Skin photoprotection by natural polyphenols: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and DNA repair mechanisms
Cocoa Bioactive Compounds: Significance and Potential for the Maintenance of Skin Health
Chocolate flavanols and skin photoprotection: a parallel, double-blind, randomized clinical trial
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Cocoa and Dark Chocolate Polyphenols: From Biology to Clinical Applications
Recently nominated for an Aestheticians' Choice Award by Dermascope magazine, with features on multi-media outlets of Channel 5 News, Daily Candy and Bella Sugar, Bokhara Lashi is humbled by the recognition and inspired to continue her mission to cultivate wellness, organic beauty and healthy habits…
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