The Science of Cacao

by Anna Davis-Agostini

Our culture is so familiar with the delights of Cacao, Theobroma cacao, and yet we know so little. The average American is more knowledgeable of their coffee bean varieties than they are the little bean that creates their favorite dessert. Similar to coffee, cacao is very sensitive to terroir—climate, temperature, altitude and hydration—and the three varieties are sourced from very specific cacao growing terroirs.

Embedded in this little powerhouse bean are constituents such as polyphenols and theophylline, which are shown in research to support the reduction of both inflammation and oxidation of the cardiovascular system. Theophylline may even assist in reducing peroxidation of LDL. Contributing to cacao’s repertoire of beneficial effects is nicotinic acid (niacin/Vitamin B3). Niacin can increase levels of heart-healthy cholesterol HDL.

So, what about love? Why does chocolate become a source of comfort for so many during hard times and heartbreak?

Constituents of love possessed by both cacao beans and fruit are anandamide and phenylethylamine. Anandamide is a chemical which acts as a neurotransmitter by binding to cannabinoid receptors and inducing the feeling of bliss in the brain and the body. This blissful feeling coupled with the reward trigger induced by dopamine—also found in chocolate—leads to our craving for chocolate. However, it is the blissful sensation that we seek when sad or heartbroken. In this depressed state our own bodies’ production of these chemicals and neurotransmitters are suppressed; chocolate consumption in these situations is a form of “self-medicating.”

Phenylethylamine, or PEA, is an amine—organic compound—that occurs naturally in the brain. While it is difficult to determine its direct actions in the body because of a remarkably quick metabolic rate, it does seem to show anti-depressive effects and in therapeutic doses has shown abilities close to those of amphetamines by elevating moods, but without the side effects and long-term tolerance.

If lack of love this Valentine’s Day has caused the blues, go ahead and have a little bit of happy. Just remember that the closer the chocolate is to cacao, the more health benefits it will provide. Grab some dark chocolate such as those made by Vosges or Rogue, found at the Chocolate Box in Lambertville, NJ, or try more accessible brands such as Chocolove.

Anna Davis-Agostini is an M.S. of Herbal Medicine and the general manager of Hearth in New Hope. Connect with her at Anna@HearthNewHope.com. February 2014.


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