Cacao and cocoa are terms sometimes used interchangeably. In most instances, cacao is used when referring to cacao beans, and cocoa is used to describe the powder made from ground cacao beans. Cacao beans are actually seeds taken from pod-like fruits. They are used to make chocolate products like cocoa. Cocoa powder is produced by grinding the cacao seeds after most of their fat content is removed. This fat is used to make cocoa butter. Cacao seeds also have to be dried, roasted, and fermented before they can be ground into cocoa powder. The word cacao is typically used by chocolatiers and makers of cacao bean products when the seeds are raw or if they have little or no processing. Cocoa powder is much sweeter than cacao, and it's better for baking. Cacao contains more antioxidants and nutrients because it doesn't require processing like cocoa powder does.
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Protection Against Free Radical Damage
The antioxidant effects of cacao beans provide protection against free radical damage because they're loaded with phenolic phytochemicals and flavonoids. Free radicals can cause oxidative damage when they are produced at a faster rate than the body's detoxification system can manage. Oxidative stress can also be caused by smoking, pollution, or excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays. Damage caused by oxidative stress can result in premature aging and chronic health conditions. The antioxidants contained in cacao and cocoa powder protect the cells from free radical damage. Cacao contains higher levels of antioxidants in comparison to cocoa powder because it's less processed.
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Lowers Blood Pressure
According to recent studies, the consumption of cacao and cacao products like cocoa powder lowers blood pressure and increases blood vessel flexibility. A compound in cacao called flavanol works to enhance the production of a blood pressure-lowering substance called nitric oxide. Flavanol also helps the body absorb nitric oxide. This process lowers blood pressure and helps prevent cardiovascular disease. The reduction in hypertension is due to nitric oxide's ability to make the blood vessel walls more flexible. The resulting increase in flexibility allows for easier expansion and contraction of the blood vessels. Increased pliability reduces the amount of pressure exerted within the walls of blood vessels and decreases overall blood pressure. Cacao also contains substantial amounts of the mineral magnesium, which is associated with healthy blood pressure. That said, like previous boosts to health, the processing cocoa powder has gone through often reduces the healthy effect.
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Insulin regulation is the body's way of controlling and breaking down glucose. Insulin is a hormone that converts glucose, a simple sugar, into energy for the body. Insulin resistance occurs when there's a problem with insulin regulation and sugar builds up in the blood. The cells don't respond in a normal manner to insulin and excess sugar circulates within the body. Individuals with type 2 diabetes have this problem. According to research, insulin resistance can be treated by changes in diet, and the inclusion of cacao can help lower the cells' resistance. Cacao, and to a lesser extent some versions of cocoa powder, contains a flavanol called epicatechin that helps regulate insulin levels. This compound triggers crucial proteins and contributes to the regulation of glucose production. Epicatechin even helps regulate insulin in diabetes patients. Additionally, raw cacao contains magnesium, which is a mineral linked to a variety of health benefits, including lowering the risk of diabetes.
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Many chocolate lovers worldwide are well aware of the mood-boosting effect of the sweet treat. The taste of chocolate and even cocoa powder alone may boost an individual's mood, though it's crucial to note cacao contains many compounds that work to improve an individual's mood in various ways. One of the main flavonoids in cacao is epicatechin, and this compound works to improve cognitive functioning. It can also boost mood in the process. Another flavonoid called phenylethylamine (PEA) is linked to elevated mood and higher energy. PEA is believed to interact with a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which releases endorphins that make you feel happy, thus improving mood. PEA produces a sense of overall well-being. Serotonin is another of cacao's mood-boosting components. This chemical activates the pleasure center and contributes to lifting an individual's spirits. Another neurotransmitter in cacao and chocolate products made from cacao is known as anandamide. It produces feelings of happiness and stimulates a sense of well-being.
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Heart Health Benefits
Cacao's heart health benefits are derived from its antioxidant and magnesium content, which can also be found in cocoa powder. The mineral called magnesium benefits heart health because it helps lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Antioxidants found in cacao include flavonoids that contribute to a healthy heart by increasing antioxidant capacity in the blood plasma. Flavonoids have an anti-inflammatory effect and have been linked to higher levels of healthy cholesterol. Flavonoids known as flavanols have many heart health benefits. They increase heart health and efficiency by promoting healthy blood vessel function and reducing systolic blood pressure. They may even help prevent heart disease.