Cacao, the foremost ingredient in high-end chocolate, is a decadent essential oil that is classified as a superfood thanks to the range of health benefits this yummy elixir offers.
Cacao essential oil is made from the seeds of the cacao plant, which is native to Central and South America, where it thrives in the tropical climate and has earned the nickname “food of the gods” for its mind-body benefits, as well as its role in human sacrifice.
There are three different types of cacao: Criollo, the most valuable of the strains; Forastero, a bitter, more common strain; and Trinitario, a hybrid of the two, which has a fruity scent without the bitterness of most readily-available cacao.
Cacao differs from cocoa butter and cocoa powder because it is extracted from the raw, unroasted bean, which means that the oil contains all the nutrients the bean has to offer, unadulterated by heat or other treatment methods.
Cacao is especially beneficial because it works in synergy with other essential oils, enhancing and amplifying the benefits they have to offer. 1
The cocoa-scented aroma of cacao pairs well with other complementary essential oils, including spicy cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and ginger; florals including lavender, rose, and tuberose; warm oils such as patchouli, sandalwood, and vanilla; and citrus scents such as orange or bergamot. It also works well with mint varieties including wintergreen, peppermint, and spearmint.
The History of Cacao
It didn’t take long for those who lived in the tropical regions where cacao beans grow to discover the prized pod, which the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures used as currency because of its universal value.
Cacao Fun Facts
Initially cultivated by the Olmec tribe, the first major civilization in Mexico and part of Central America, cacao was used in rituals surrounding important events including birth, marriage, and death, and evidence of cacao has turned up in archaeological sites long before Spanish conquistadors introduced cacao to the rest of Europe. 2
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Historians are not sure whether cacao was brought from the north or the south along the Amazon River Basin, but after the Olmecs began cultivating the crop, the Maya took it with them when they migrated north.
According to evidence, individuals who were to be sacrificed to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of intelligence and self-reflection, who the Olmecs believed discovered cacao, were first given a drink made from crushed cacao beans before the ritual sacrifice, which earned cacao its otherworldly nickname.
Columbus was the first European to discover cacao, and although he sent samples to King Ferdinand, Ferdinand failed to recognize the nutritional benefits of the beans because Columbus thought they were only used as currency. It would be decades before cacao’s secrets were revealed when Dominican friars brought Maya nobility to visit Prince Phillip of Spain, bearing gifts of cocoa. Still, it would be another century before the medicinal properties of cocoa were fully realized.
Cacao trees are evergreens that grow in shady, humid climates, producing pods that hold between 40 and 50 seeds, which have the white flesh that is used as the base for both chocolate, cocoa powder, and cocoa butter.
There are many beneficial nutrients in cacao that absolutely earns it its place as a superfood.
It is packed with vitamins, especially those in the B family including riboflavin and niacin, as well as vitamins A, C, E, and K, and is a good source of minerals including magnesium, iron, calcium, phosphorus, copper, manganese, selenium, potassium, and zinc.
Some of the most important nutrients in cacao include:
If you’ve ever wondered why eating a piece of chocolate made you feel positively blissful, it is because cacao is the only food containing the neurotransmitter anandamide, which is responsible for feelings of joy.
Cacao’s antioxidants, especially resveratrol, catechin, and epicatechin, are free radical warriors and protect the heart, the skin, and our muscles while helping make us more resistant to disease. A 2011 study appearing in the journal Antioxidants and Redox Signaling from Yale University researchers found that cacao offers protection from unhealthy inflammation, nerve injury, bad moods, and cognitive decline.
Sulfur contains the amino acids responsible for creating proteins, not only for cells but also for hormones and antibodies. It is also an especially important mineral because it plays a role in insulin production.
It also helps flush out toxins, relieves pain, and helps veins and arteries remain strong and supple, in part because adequate insulin levels keep glucose from lingering in the blood. Excess blood glucose can negatively impact artery function. Sulfur also fights free radicals that can damage the proteins in the skin. 3
Magnesium is vital for heart health, strong bones, a healthy immune system, and normal blood sugar levels, and cacao contains more magnesium than any other plant food. It also is vital for normal muscle and nerve function.
The magnesium and phytochemicals in raw cacao and cacao essential oil offer plenty of heart-healthy benefits including balanced blood pressure, lower levels of bad cholesterol and a lower risk of developing heart disease.4
Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a neurotransmitter that impacts the central nervous system, playing a role in mood, metabolism, and energy levels. It also is the neurotransmitter that is kicked into gear when we fall in love.
Protein is used by every cell in our bodies and not only helps us build and repair muscles through exercise but also plays a role in the production of enzymes and hormones. Because the body can’t store protein, it’s important to get enough through the foods we eat.
Phosphorus is present in every one of the body’s cells and plays a role in the formation of bones and teeth. It is essential in helping the body use carbohydrates and fats, and also helps the body make protein to repair cells and tissues.
In conjunction with B vitamins, phosphorus is vital to kidney function, muscle contractions including heartbeats, and the ability of the nerves to signal pain, heat, or other factors.
Cacao is a good source of the phytochemical theobromine, which has a wealth of benefits, including improving the absorption of nutrients during digestion and helps kill the bacteria Streptococci mutans, which causes tooth decay.
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that is especially skin-friendly. Primarily, it helps protect collagen and elastin proteins from free radical damage, so skin can more-easily retain a youthful radiance.
One of the biggest benefits of fiber is reduced blood sugar levels since a high-fiber diet slows the release of blood glucose into the bloodstream.
Copper is an essential nutrient and plays a role both in the respiratory system and in blood health. It is also essential for metabolism and bone and tissue health. Without copper, our bodies can’t produce collagen, which keeps skin smooth and pliable.
Calcium not only helps strengthen bones and teeth, it also plays a role in boosting metabolism, controlling the symptoms of PMS, and reducing the risk of both high blood pressure and heart disease.6
Cacao also contains serotonin and dopamine to boost mood, MAO inhibitors to keep serotonin and dopamine levels regulated, and caffeine to elevate energy, ergosterol, which converts to vitamin D and sitosterol, which lowers cholesterol.7
There’s a reason why health experts recommend a square of dark chocolate a day for good health. The flavonoids in chocolate have a range of health benefits and are packed with antioxidants that protect against oxidative stress by preventing free radicals damage.
Since it is derived from the same seed, cacao essential oil offers similar benefits, making the oil as valuable to our health as the seeds once were to prosperity when ancient cultures used them as currency.
“Cacao beans are probably the best-kept secret in the entire history of food,” says David Wolfe, a natural food expert, author of the book Naked Chocolate, and an educator at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and the Body-Mind Institute.
Uses for Cocoa Essential Oil
Acts as an Antioxidant
According to natural health expert David Wolfe, cacao has more antioxidants than any other food on earth. “Cacao is 30 times higher in antioxidants than red wine, 20 times more potent in antioxidants than blueberries, three times higher than acai, and twice as much as Chaga mushrooms. These antioxidants protect our cells from free radical damage and therefore contribute to our longevity and state of well-being,” he said.8
While inflammation is critical to the healing of wounds, when inflammation is out of control, it can lead to a wide range of health problems. The polyphenols in cacao, however, can help prevent unhealthy inflammation from occurring.
Maintains Heart Health
The polyphenols in cacao have been shown to have positive cardiovascular benefits, especially preventing arteriosclerosis by helping keep blood vessels pliable and supple, so blood flows more smoothly to and from the heart.
Cacao has also been shown to help dissolve plaque that builds up along cell walls.
Maintains Healthy Blood Pressure
In addition to keeping blood vessels pliable and relaxed, cacao contains compounds including flavonoids that help lower blood pressure, according to a 2007 study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 10
The compounds anandamide and phenylethylamine cause the release of dopamine in the brain, which boosts libido.11
Improves Appearance of Skin
The flavonoids in cacao can take on free radicals that target delicate skin cells, resulting in sagging skin with fine lines and wrinkles. Free radicals can also rob skin of its youthful glow, but the antioxidants in cacao can help repair the damaged cells, protecting the proteins collagen and elastin that make up the skin’s structural layer.
When mixed with cocoa butter, cacao essential oil can make a magnificent massage oil that softens skin, improves elasticity, and reduces stress, which also improves skin.
Stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which sends a rush of glucose into the blood. Excess glucose is attracted to the protein cells, especially collagen and elastin, and when it attaches to the cells, it results in advance glycation end products (AGEs), which not only lead to signs of aging but can also be a precursor to diseases.12
Improves Cognitive Function
Italian researchers found that the consumption of the flavanols in cacao helped improve attention span, memory, and brain function in a 2015 study appearing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Cacao also helps improve blood flow, so more blood and oxygen are pumped to brain tissue.
Cacao essential oil can be used in aromatherapy, in perfume when mixed with complementary essential oils, in a lip balm or body butter, or in a warm bath.
To experience the health benefits of cacao essential oil, it is best to pair the oil with cacao nibs to make a cacao beverage or health bar. However, keep in mind that heating the oil will eliminate the best of the benefits.
One recipe to try, adapted from the website Heavenly Treasure:
Ultra-chocolatey Raw Cacao Bar
1 1/2 cups raw crushed cacao nibs
4–6 drops cacao essential oil
1/2 cup carob powder
1 cup soaked cashew nuts (soaking cashews overnight makes them soft and creamy)
1 cup raw honey
1/2 cup coconut oil
Place all ingredients except the cacao essential oil into a food processor and blend until smooth. Add the essential oil, and spoon the mixture into silicone molds and freeze until the bars harden and can be removed from the mold.
With its wide-ranging health benefits, it’s no wonder that cocoa was considered a divine substance used primarily by royalty. Luckily, today, it is readily available to use by everyone, and anyone can experience the wide-ranging health benefits it provides.
Whether you’re using cocoa essential oil topically after diluting it with a carrier oil, internally, or aromatically in a room diffuser or personal aromatherapy diffuser like Love MONQ, this essential oil is a great addition to your daily routine.