Cacao: A healthy candy?

Cacao has numerous physiological benefits

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Cacao: A healthy candy?

Ghirardelli makes chocolate bars that are both high in cacao content and easily available.

Ghirardelli makes chocolate bars that are both high in cacao content and easily available.

Courtesy of Ghirardelli official Facebook page

Ghirardelli makes chocolate bars that are both high in cacao content and easily available.

Courtesy of Ghirardelli official Facebook page

Courtesy of Ghirardelli official Facebook page

Ghirardelli makes chocolate bars that are both high in cacao content and easily available.

By Ben Connolly, Collegian Staff

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We’re approaching the spooky season, which means that it’s the only time of the year when you are allowed to binge candy without fear of judgement. However, this does not change one of the most fundamental drawbacks of sweets: their unhealthiness. But what if there exists a candy that doesn’t make you feel terrible emotionally or intestinally? Better yet, what if there was a chocolate that was healthy? I promise that this treat is not a trick.

Cacao vs Cocoa

If you think that cacao is synonymous with cocoa, you are not alone. I accidentally bought a bunch of 90 percent cocoa bars instead of cacao bars at the beginning of my experiment and wasted $12 as a result of my dyslexia. Both cocoa and cacao come from the same plant. The important difference is in the way in which both are processed. What is usually referred to as “cocoa” is the powder that’s left over after cocoa butter is pressed out of cacao beans which are heated to extremely high temperatures. Cacao is closer to the unprocessed bean: it is minimally treated, which accounts for its stronger taste and nutritional benefits. Generally, the darker the chocolate, the higher the percentage of cacao in the bar. Many dark chocolate manufacturers, such as Lindt or Ghirardelli, will label their products with their cacao content, but other brands, like Hershey, don’t specify how much cacao is in their products. A quick Google search and a perusal of Hershey’s website were not at all helpful in my quest to find the cacao percentages of their chocolates.

30 Days of Cacao

While I was investigating the science on cacao consumption, I decided to eat a small amount every day for 30 days and record any effects I felt during that time. Note: my report is purely anecdotal and not intended to be scientifically conclusive.

I started by purchasing the chocolate with the highest percentage of cacao that my local convenience store had to offer. The bar was 90 percent cacao, and I ate a half ounce niblet each day. If you haven’t had high purity chocolate before, let me warn you – it tastes like mouthwash. It was only after about the fifth day I could eat it without flinching, which became quite the party trick as I would offer a friend chocolate and watch them grimace while I contentedly munched.

As for the physiological effects I experienced, I started to notice an increase forearm vascularity after about a week, meaning that the veins in my arms seemed to “pop” more than usual. This was particularly amplified after a workout, but also sometimes sitting in class I would notice an almost cartoonish bifurcation through my forearms.

The increased vascularity could be a result of another factor, but after the 30 days of cacao were over and I stopped eating it for a week, my veins started to revert back to how they normally looked despite working out more intensely than I usually do. It’s possible that this increased vascularity was a sign of improved cardiovascular conditions, a finding reflected in the studies I describe below. I plan to resume eating cacao daily due to both my personal experience and the scientific literature that espouses its benefits.

Scientific Effects and Nutrition

Cacao contains small amounts of caffeine, which has been shown to reduce chances of developing neurological diseases like Parkinsons. Another component of cacao, flavonoids, have been linked to reduced risk of heart disease. Theobromine, an alkaloid found in cacao, has been associated with improved sleep. Given this evidence, it’s fair to say that the physiological benefits of cacao are small, but mighty.

A key thing to keep in mind if you decide to try some chocolate: cacao is not the only thing in the bar. Bars that are lighter and contain less cacao are usually full of fat and sugar. As I previously mentioned, one of the benefits of cacao is a slightly reduced risk of heart disease, but one of the major detriments of sugar is a vastly increased risk of heart disease. Essentially, you won’t reap the benefits of cacao if you choose to eat a bar of chocolate that isn’t dark enough. So, if you plan on digging into a bag of milk chocolates that contains multiple times your daily recommended sugar intake, the trace amounts of cacao within the chocolate will probably not offset the negative side effects of the sugar. That being said, if you’re going to try to maximize the benefits of cacao this upcoming Halloween, go for a chocolate bar that contains at least 70 percent.

Ben Connolly can be reached at [email protected]