What is cacao? Well, any chocolate lover can probably tell you that cacao is the main ingredient of this sweet, melting food of love. And in fact, it also holds the key to the benefits of dark chocolate. But do you know the origins of cacao and what makes cacao aphrodisiac?
What is cacao? (where do cocoa beans come from?)
Cacao is a tree native to tropical climates. (You may have noticed an origin stamped out the outside of a chocolate bar with the name of an exotic location like Ghana, Ecuador or the Ivory Coast.) It’s the seed of this tree, sometimes called a cacao pod or even a cocoa bean, from which chocolate is made.
Is cacao an aphrodisiac?
This seed is considered one of the most powerfully nutritious (and mysterious) superfoods on the planet. Once you start to examine the nutritional makeup of cacao, it’s easy to see why dark chocolate is touted for many health benefits, including a reputation as an aphrodisiac.
History’s biggest proponents of cacao were probably the Aztecs. They revered cacao as a substance worthy of the gods. They indulged in these dark, exotic seeds to prepare physically and spiritually for battles as well as for love. It is well known that Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, drank many goblets – some historians say as many as 50 cups daily – of a cacao-infused beverage to be at his most virile when walking into his harem.
Theobromine – a key to the benefits of dark chocolate
To understand the benefits of dark chocolate as a supposed health food and aphrodisiac, we need to first get to know Theobromine. Theobroma cacao is the name given to the seed of cacao trees. And the main active alkaloid found within these seeds is theobromine, which is thought to be pretty powerful, nutritionally. In fact, the compound’s characteristics include the ability to energize and heal our bodies.
Is theobromine a stimulant like caffeine?
Theobromine itself is considered a stimulant. Its effect is caffeine-like. Although it does not have caffeine, it causes stimulation in the heart and nervous system that’s similar to caffeine. (This is actually the reason dogs shouldn’t have chocolate. The stimulating effects can cause a serious health risk to their systems.)
Chocolate is believed to contain caffeine. However, there is recent speculation that the caffeine-like effects of chocolate may come strictly from its theobromine and phenylethylamine, also called PEA, a natural amphetamine linked with romance.
In fact, it is the combination of these two ingredients that many experts say produces an aphrodisiac effect. Theobromine stimulates the nervous and cardiac systems and phenylethylamine acts as an antidepressant.
Cacao benefits to male sexual health
We know that the combination of theobromine and PEA has the potential to support the sex lives of both men and women. But there are some evidence-based reasons cacao might be particularly beneficial to men.
The flavonoids in cacao are thought to improve nitric oxide levels in the blood. This is key to men because we know that nitric oxide is needed for male sexual arousal.
In addition, cacao and the dark chocolate made from this nutritious pod is also a source of zinc, which is known for improving sperm quality. (A 3.5-ounce bar of dark chocolate contains about 30% of the DV. That’s a lot of zinc for a sweet treat!)
Additional benefits of cacao
Theobroma cacao may have given the Aztecs the strength to raise an empire. And we now understand some of the health-benefitting properties of chocolate that helped support the Aztec empire.
In addition to the sexual benefits above, cacao is linked with reducing cholesterol. The flavanols in cacao are also proven to be anti-inflammatory.
There is also research to support the notion that cacao can increase brain function.
The benefits of choosing dark chocolate over milk chocolate
Processing cacao to make chocolate requires the addition of ingredients like sugar. Unfortunately, diluting the cacao with things like sugar and dairy dilute its potency.
That being said, darker chocolate contains a higher amount of theobromine and polyphenols than milk chocolate. And, of course, cocoa benefits might be the best of all. So when choosing chocolate, the rule is the darker the better and cocoa powder or even cacao nibs trump the benefits of chocolate every time.
Cacao nib benefits
Of course, the dark chocolate we eat today doesn’t have the strength of Montezuma’s virility drink. Like I said, for the greatest potency, you might want to look to cacao nibs benefits. If you’ve never tried cacao nibs, these crumbled bits of dried cacao pods make a delicious snack or topping for baked goods or even savory foods.
But the benefits of dark chocolate like what’s available now includes an impressive list nutrients. Studies show that, although it may not give you the prowess of an Aztec ruler, dark chocolate promotes relaxation, better circulation and strengthens the nervous system. Health food never tasted so delicious!
Great dark chocolate recipes
If, at this point, your mouth is watering for chocolate, we have just the thing! Best of all, this recipe, because it uses both dark chocolate and cocoa powder, takes full advantage of the benefits of dark chocolate. Try making these Hand-Rolled Dark Chocolate Truffles for a truly indulgent dark chocolate fix. It’s a four-ingredient recipe and it’s packed with all the nutrients your body is craving.
More dark chocolate recipes:
This article was written in 2015 and most recently updated in 2022.
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