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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Raw Cacao Powder: History, Neuropharmacology, and Nutrient Profile

Chocolate is made mostly from the bean of the Theobroma cacao plant. The Swedish scientist who in 1753 created the genus 'Theobroma' for this indigenous jungle tree did so to call it "divine food" - while gold was valued only for aesthetic purposes by the Aztec civilization, Cortez found Montezuma's coffers overflowing with cacao beans. Eventually the Dutch chemist Van Houten invented a hydraulic press to remove the fat from cacao beans. The resulting product came to be known as cocoa powder; Van Houten found that processing this powder with alkaline salts increased its miscibility, making it tidier to mix in water but also reducing its flavor and health benefits. When Swiss chemist Henri Nestle discovered a process for evaporating milk, cocoa was soon cooked into bar chocolate diluted with milk - the sale of milk chocolate gave Nestle's business the success it needed to become the modern corporation that makes lead-contaminated chocolate by means of habitat destruction and slave labor.1

Cacao contains little caffeine but much theobromine, a vasodilator which increases blood flow in the brain. Cacao is also high in focus&mood-boosting phenylethylamine, an endogenous chemical which also reaches the brain from exogenous sources such as protein2 but is particularly concentrated in cacao and blue-green algae. Cacao is similarly an exogenous source of the endogenous endorphinergic cannabinoid anandamide, but much more potent than its tiny dose of anandamide (the rate of endogenous production of anandamide is much higher than the rate at which anandamide is absorbed from eaten cacao) are chemicals in it that make anandamide stick around longer.3 While there is little research on the effects of these individual chemicals, studies show that eating chocolate increases performance on standardized cognitive tests.4

For a not particularly proteinaceous food, cacao is very high in tryptophan, the amino acid our bodies make serotonin from. It is a great source of many minerals including calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, chromium5, and iron6. Raw cacao powder is an excellent source of vitamin C and according to the Brunswick Laboratories has the highest ORAC score, measurable concentration of anti-oxidants, of any food7. The fats in cacao beans are mostly saturated fats.8


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