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Eating Well With Whole Foods: Cacao

by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski

The scientific name for cacao, "Theobroma," literally means "food of the gods." The Maya believed that cacao was discovered by the gods in a mountain. "Theobroma cacao", or the cocoa plant, is a small (15-26 feet tall) evergreen tree in the family Sterculiaceae, native to the tropical region of the Americas. It appears that the cacao plant originated in the Amazon. It continues to grow wild there today as well as in the Andes and the Orinoco River. The fruit of the tree is called the cacao pod, which contains about 20-60 seeds, usually called "beans." The seeds are used to make cocoa and chocolate. Each seed contains about 40-50% of fat – theobroma oil, or more commonly referred to as cocoa butter.

Cacao beans constituted both a ritual beverage and a major currency system in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations. In some areas, such as Yucatán, cacao beans were still used in place of small coins as late as the mid 1800s. There are several mixtures of cacao described in ancient texts that included maize, chili, vanilla, peanut butter, and honey. They were used for ceremonial, medicinal uses as well as culinary purposes. The first real European knowledge about chocolate came in the form of a beverage, which was first introduced to the Spanish at their meeting with Moctezuma in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519. Within a century, the culinary and medical uses of chocolate had spread to throughout Western Europe.

Most people consider chocolate a "guilty pleasure," a food that is unhealthy, and fattening. Contrary to belief, when unprocessed and unadulterated, chocolate is beneficial to ones’ physical and psychological health. All chocolate is made from the cacao bean, which in its natural state is rich in nutrients such as magnesium, calcium, copper, iron, phosphorus, sulphur, zinc, phenylethylamine, and potassium. The fats found in cocoa butter are healthy fats. Cacao contains oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, also found in olive oil, which may in fact raise good cholesterol. The bad rap chocolate has received stems from the harmful processing, refining and unhealthy ingredients, such as white sugar, that are commonly added to produce various commercial products. Cacao promotes cardiovascular health and protects from environmental toxins due to its high levels of antioxidants – it has more than any other food tested, including blueberries, red wine, and green tea!

In addition to the physical benefits of chocolate, the food’s rich complex compounds help boost psychological health as well. Chocolate is the natural "feel good" drug due to its ability to increase the levels of specific neurotransmitters in our brains. Phenylethylamine, found in chocolate, is the same chemical we secrete when we’re in love. So, perhaps that’s why we devour that bowl of chocolate ice cream when we’re feeling a bit lonely and looking for love. Instead of reaching for processed junk food, how about indulging in a bite or two of dark chocolate (65% or more) to elevate your mood and satisfy your sweet tooth without sabotaging your diet? Cacao appears to be the number one source of magnesium, especially good news for the 80% of Americans who are magnesium deficient, which is associated with premenstrual tension, hypertension, heart disease, joint problems, and diabetes. Magnesium rich chocolate may help balance brain chemistry, build strong bones, and regulate heartbeat and blood pressure. Cacao also contains high levels of the beauty mineral sulphur, which is responsible for detoxifying the liver, and promoting strong nails, hair and a beautiful complexion.

Cacao beans can be found in your local health food store or natural supermarket year round. Be sure to look for 100% raw, organic, unprocessed, whole cacao beans or nibs. As with any raw product, cacao beans may contain surface bacteria, which can be eliminated by roasting or peeling. Try eating whole cacao beans or nibs as a snack. Mix them into your granola, sprinkle them on your yogurt, cereal or organic ice cream. Blend with bananas and strawberries to make decadent chocolate breakfast smoothies and shakes. Grind into a powder and add to coffee, tea, and beverages. Experiment with cacao to find your favorite way to enjoy this delectable "food of the goods." What better time than Valentine’s Day to savor this "feel good" food with your loved one! Concoct some special cups of hot cocoa, snuggle up together, and sip to experience true bliss!

Hot "Cacao Bliss" Nectar

2.5 teaspoons ground cacao (use whole beans or nibs)

1 cup soy or rice milk

1-2 teaspoons agave nectar, or your favorite natural sweetener

Pinch of cinnamon, and nutmeg

1 cinnamon stick (optional)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grind Cacao beans, agave nectar, and spices in a blender until very fine. Heat milk until almost a boil. Add to blender mixture. Mix everything together briefly to produce a foamy broth. Pour into your favorite hot chocolate mug. Add additional spices, a cinnamon stick, and agave nectar, if desired. Sit back, sip, and savor!


Suzann Pileggi is a certified holistic health counselor. She works with clients on nourishing their body and soul by helping them make better food and lifestyle choices. She uses food to naturally increase energy, control cravings and create a balanced lifestyle. She conducts special sugar seminars at Radu’s Physical Culture gym in NYC. Visit her website at www.suzannpileggi.com, or you can email her at suzannpileggi@aol.com,  or call her at (212) 799-4169 for a FREE initial holistic health consultation. Phone consultations and group seminars available.


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