phytochemicals Phytochemicals

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Theobroma cacao

What is cacao?

The cacao tree is a widely branching evergreen tree up to 12 m in height. In most plantations the cacao tree is pruned back to 6 m for practical reasons. The cacoa tree forms small clusters of pink or creamy flowers directly on the trunk or banches. These nice smelling flowers develop into 30 cm fruits. These cacao fruits, each containing about twenty-five beans, can have different colours: yellow, purple or brown. Inside the fruits are cacao beans surrounded by juicy pulp. When the cacao beans are ripe they rattle in the fruit when shaken.

Parts used

Mainly the the cacao beans are used but local people also drink the juice of the cacao fruit.


These are typical phytochemicals found in cacao: the cacao beans contain flavanols, flavonoids, quercetin, caffeine, theobromine.

Benefits of cacao

Central Americans have used the cocoa bean traditionally to treat the pains of pregnancy, fevers, and coughs. Theobromine relaxes the smooth muscle in the digestive tract. Cocoa beans contain xanthines which have a diuretic and vasodilatory (dilates the blood vessels) properties.


Because cacao beans are rich in the stimulants caffeine and theobromine, they combat fatigue and gives an energy boost. Theobromine has a similar action as caffeine but its effect on the central nervous system is less powerful.

Cardiovascular protection

Many in-vivo experiment, clinical studies and epidemiological studies indicate that the intake of cacao reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. A meta analysis by Ding EL and colleagues entitled 'Chocolate and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: a Systematic Review' and published in Nutrition and Metabolism (2005) showed that cocoa and chocolate may exert beneficial effects on cardiovascular protection via effects on lowering blood pressure, anti-inflammation, anti-platelet function, higher HDL and decreased LDL oxidation.

Antibacterial effect

A study conducted in Spain by the Institute of Agricultural Chemistry and Food Technology showed that a flavonoids rich extract from cacao had a significant bactericidal effect on Bacillus cereus.

Skin health

Korean scientists investigated the effect of cocoa supplementation on skin health and found that cacao flavanols significantly lowered skin rougness, improved skin elasticity but not change the skin hydration and barrier integrity.

Other facts

Theobroma means 'food of the gods' so called by the botanist Carolus Linnaeus because of the goodness of the cacao beans. The name 'chocolate' was given by the Mexicans. The cacao tree is native to Mexico and tropical countries in South America but is now cultivates in my other continents. Natural cacao beans are very bitter. After harvesting the cocoa fruits the beans and juice are left to ferment to reduce the bitterness. The cacao beans are then dried, roasted, shelled, and processed into cacao powder and cacao butter.

Other names

Chocolate tree, theobroma

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