While cacao has gained much popularity as a superfood in recent times and is being widely enjoyed by billions of people, many are unaware of the rich history behind the powerful ingredient.
Cacao is commonly known as a ‘healthier’ version of today’s mass-produced chocolate. It is the purest and most raw form of the cacao plant, while chocolate is processed in various methods that eliminate the majority of its health benefits, adding high quantities of refined sugar and unhealthy fats.
You might want to consider implementing cacao powder into your diet after we inform you about the impressive facts you did not know about cacao!
Theobroma cacao in Mesoamerica
Researchers have found that Theobroma Cacao possibly dates back several thousand years and was discovered by Mesoamerica’s earliest civilisation, the Olmecs. Since its discovery, it has been developed as a crop in many ancient South American cultures, including the indigenous populations, the Aztecs and Mayans.
Cacao beans are grown in pods that are attached to the trunk of the cacao tree. The typical processing of cacao begins with fermenting and roasting the beans and then grinding them into a paste. Ancient civilisations mixed the paste with water, to which corn was often added, along with chilli peppers and other spices. Properly mixed with a grooved beating utensil, called a molinet, the plant was often transformed into a beverage.
This exclusive beverage was drunk by the more ‘privileged’ of society, which included priests, rulers and other individuals of ‘higher’ social classes. The cacao bean also held much significance and such high value to the ancient cultures that it was even used as a currency in trade and considered a ‘godly potion’ granting energy and power.
The plant was utilised in many religious and spiritual rituals, as well as sacrifices, to worship their deities. The spiritual link to cacao is revealed in the remains of the Mayan’s and Aztec’s codexes, which told stories of their Gods and mythology in association with the superfood. For example, in the Mayan creation mythology, humans are believed to be partially made of Cacao. In the Madrid codex, it is said that Gods bled onto Cacao pods, making the bean a ‘sacred offering’. Additionally, the Codex Fejervary-Meyer described the Cacao tree to be part of the universe and associated its red colour with blood.
Cacao in modern day
These are a few of many examples that show the importance of cacao beans in ancient times. Nonetheless, the phenomenon ultimately began to decrease in its value, after the Spanish arrived in the ‘New World’, colonising and destroying native cultures.
Chocolate quickly spread across Western Europe, when it started being produced quicker and in larger quantities, by adding lots of Cacao butter, an edible vegetable fat extracted from the cacao bean, to the Cacao powder. Hence, chocolate began to consist mainly of refined sugars and unhealthy fats, which is consumed widely today.
Cacao trees continue to grow in the tropical regions around the Equator, as the hot and humid climate is a necessity for cacao trees. The majority of the world’s cacao beans grow in some West African countries, such as Ghana and Nigeria, as well as in Mexico and Ecuador.
The impressive health benefits of cacao
Despite the delicious flavours in regular chocolate, cacao powder is the purest ingredient that offers plenty of nutritional benefits, while retaining the beloved chocolate flavour, without any refined sugars or chemicals. Cacao is therefore a perfect alternative to processed chocolate!
The superfood contains high sources of iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc and copper. Cacao is also considered to contain more antioxidants than most fruits!
Cacao also helps improve the immune system and the flexibility in the arteries, making it a mood and energy-boosting ingredient.
How to integrate Cacao into your diet
Along with the several delicious recipes, Cacao nibs will surely become your favourite snack if you are a chocolate-lover! They are simply chopped up cacao beans, and are the healthy equivalent to chocolate buttons or chips. However, Cacao nibs can taste rather bitter and not as sweet for some people - but perhaps you may not mind a little less sweetness knowing all of the amazing health benefits it has to offer!
Cacao powder is another fantastic addition to your diet. It is naturally sweet and you may add it to endless delicious recipes, including your cereals and smoothies, or simply mix and blend some Cacao powder into your warmed-up milk or soya substitute for a nice hot chocolate!