Modern nutritional science has caught up with the effects of cacao and why it has been incredibly popular for so long as to what exactly the compounds and bio-mechanisms are that responsible for these effects.
Here is some laymen biochemical breakdown from a layman biochemist on how these compounds directly cause these effects!
Most people believe cacao and its derivatives contain caffeine, however, this isn’t quite true…or at least not a significant enough amount. However, it contains a very similar alkaloid called ‘Theobromine’, named after the cacao plants latin name, Theobroma (‘Theo’= gods, ‘broma’=food). Theobroma is found in other elating tea drinks such as yerba mate, guarana, and guayusa. Theobromine acts similar to caffeine in the sense that it is a diuretic, induces mild positive effects in pleasure, increases blood flow & heart rate, but differs in that it doesn’t actually stimulate your central nervous system.
Named after Ananda, the Sanskrit word for ‘bliss’, this appropriately named neurotransmitter was discovered in 1988 as the first endocannabinoid. Endocannabinoids are the homegrown chemicals that the body produces in-house that act on our cannabinoid system, the same system that cannabis compounds like CBD,THC, etc. connect to. Anandamide is associated with regulation of appetite, “runners high” or the elating feeling after exercising, Alzheimer’s intervention, embryo development, and last but least, is contained in chocolate.
You know when you meet someone cute and there are feelings of attraction, giddiness, a little apprehension, and a lot of excitement? Well, that’s the result of Phenylethlylamine (pronounded Fen-Eth-La-Meen). Dubbed PEA for short, this amphetamine-esque neurotransmitter is most associated as the bodies ‘love’ drug an also happens to be found in chocolate. PEA is effective by itself, but it also plays a role in releasing other feel-good neurotransmitters; dopamine & norepinephrine.
An essential amino acid only available from food, Tryptophan is converted from the body to create melatonin, an important sleep hormone, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter commonly associated with well-being and happiness, but also responsible for a larger complex set of important bio-mechanisms. Tryptophan relies heavily on iron to be built, of which you’ll see later Cacao is also chocked full of.
Flavanols: Catechin & Epicatechin
Okay, quick bio-chemistry. Flavanols are a specific type of polyphenol called flavanoids, these are a diverse group of plant nutrients (phytonutrients) found in almost all fruits and vegetables. Besides scientist understanding them to explain some of the health benefits of fruits/vegetables, they also give them their pigment (along with carotenoids). Flavanoids are the largest group of phytonutrients weighing in at a quantity of more than 6,000 types. Recently, scientist have begun understanding flavnoids to explain some of the health benefits associated with fruits and vegetables.
Cacao/Cocoa contains a rich source of flavanols (a group of Flavanoids), specifically catechins (pronounced Cat-uh-Kins) & epicatechins that are partly responsible for the bitter taste, but more importantly, have been shown to help with reducing blood pressure, cholesterol, AND inflammation. It is also highly suspected to improve blood sugar control, as well as improve our cells sensitivity to insulin and their ability to take glucose up from the blood. If that wan’t enough, it also may improve cognitive abilities. This was exemplified in a study on 90 elderly people consuming a a high-flavanol cocoa drink for eight weeks showed greater improvements in tests of attention and verbal skills compared to those not. Catechins & Flavanols…heck yea!
Tryptolines: Potential MAOI
Tryptolines, more formally known as tetrahydroβ-carboline is a group of neuroactive alkaloid chemicals related to tryptamines. There is still much to learn about these chemicals but we know they are also found in beer & wine. Interestingly, they may have monamine oxidase inhibiting (MAOI) actions. MAO is a fancy way to address when your bodies natural defences prevent certain chemical reactions from occurring. So, when this is inhibited, or stopped, that certain chemical reaction can occur.
This is best exemplified by the sacred Amazonian medicine brew, Ayahuasca, which combines a vine extract with MAO inhibiting compounds) with a psychoactive leaf that normally the bodies natural defences prevent from. The vine allows the leafs chemical compounds to have a psychoactive reaction, thus ensuing the intended visionary quest. Still with me? Long story short, this is pretty interesting that chocolate may have MAOI properties. This is especially interesting considering it has been known that cacao hasbeen be paired with mushrooms since the Maya & Aztecs, perhaps deepening the natural effects.
We are constantly bombarded with marketing claims of “High In Anti-Oxidants!”, everybody and their sister has heard this time and time again, but what does it really mean? Long story short, oxidative stress occurs as a natural by-product of metabolism but can be increased by free-radicals from poor diet, alcohol, cigarette, pollution, industrial chemicals, etc. Oxidative stress causes cells to age and damage quicker as a result of these free-radicals. Have you ever left a cut apple out and watched it turn brown? This is the result of oxidation. Another analogy: If you ever have built a fire and know the importance of oxygen for it to grow, oxidative free-radicals do the same to our cells is a destructive manner.
Besides being one of the highest anti-oxidant containing food sources as well as magnesium, an essential mineral that has many beneficial health benefits, Cacao contains several more interesting compounds that are responsible for its elating effects.
Cacao has many important minerals, however, Magnesium stands out amongst them as potentially the most important as estimates say up to 50% of the U.S. population is deficient in it yet it is responsible for 300 different chemical reactions, some of which are incredibly crucial. Some of these functions include building bones absorbing Vitamin D, converting food into energy, & relaxing muscles.
Pure roasted cacao can contain as much as 499 mg, or 130% of a recommended daily intake of Magnesium per 100 g. So, a 35 g chocolate bar containing 70% cacao can provide up to 30% of ones recommended daily intake!
Zinc, another vital mineral for our bone health in addition to our immune system, cellular recovery, & hormone balance. That 35 g bar can provide up to 15% of daily recommended dose.
The vital mineral for aiding haemoglobin in carrying oxygen through the body, it also plays a key role on immunity, cognition, and converting food into energy thus preventing fatigue. Cacao is one of the best plant sources or iron being able to contain up to 30% of daily iron in one 35 g chocolate bar.
Woo! YOU'RE STILL HERE??? You oughtta consider a degree in biochemical if that was enjoyable for you...or maybe just indulging in some chocolate :)