Health Benefits of Cacao

Chocolate comes from Theobroma cacao, the scientific name for the cacao tree. A small tree native to the Amazon Basin, the cacao tree grows throughout the tropics, mostly in Africa.

The fleshy fruit of the cacao tree contains brown seeds called cacao. Fermenting and roasting cacao is the first step in making chocolate. People mash the seeds into a paste called chocolate liqueur which they then treat with heat to create cocoa. Cocoa is the key ingredient in most chocolate products.

Cold-pressing unroasted cacao makes raw cacao, which has gained a reputation as a “superfood” due to its high amount of antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins. Raw cacao on its own tastes very bitter, so it is often made into a powder that can be added to other foods.

Health Benefits

Raw cacao is full of antioxidants called flavanols. Eating foods rich in flavanols has a variety of health benefits for your body, including the following:

Heart Protection

Many scientific studies show that flavanol-rich foods might help lower your blood pressure and improve the way your blood vessels’ walls function, lowering your risk of heart disease.

Improved Digestive Health

Cacao contains fiber that bacteria eat to create fatty acid chains. These fatty acids benefit your digestive system. Drinks made with cacao might also increase the number of good bacteria in your gut.

Less Stress

Research shows that eating dark chocolate can reduce stress, which boosts your overall mental and physical health.

Improved Cognitive Function

A specific flavanol in cacao called epicatechin may help with some parts of brain health, including cognition, blood flow, and risk of dementia.

Lower Risk of Diabetes 

Studies show that eating cacao may lower your risk of type 2 diabetes.

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Nutrients

The chocolate-making process removes a lot of the antioxidants in raw cacao (almost 60%). However, if you’d still prefer to eat raw cacao in the form of chocolate, you can still get many of the nutrients by eating very dark chocolate (60% to 70% cacao).

Raw cacao is a good source of:

Nutrients per Serving

One serving of raw cacao powder (2.5  tablespoons) contains

Things to Watch Out For

Eating too much cacao during pregnancy or breastfeeding may be harmful. For dogs and cats, a compound found in cacao called theobromine is very toxic.

How to Prepare Cacao

Using raw cacao powder is probably the easiest way to add raw cacao to your diet. Here are a few ways to start enjoying the health benefits of cacao:

  • Combine avocado, raw cacao powder, coconut oil, and honey in a blender to create a creamy avocado chocolate mousse.
  • Add cacao powder, natural peanut butter, and maple syrup to plain Greek yogurt for a tasty treat.
  • Combine raw cacao powder, eggs, brown sugar, almond meal, and butter to make a flourless cacao fudge cake.
  • Crumble walnuts in a food processor then add dates and raw cacao to create three-ingredient energy balls.
  • Add raw cacao powder, maca powder, turmeric, cinnamon, honey, and coconut oil to boiled milk for a healthier hot chocolate drink.
  • Blend raw cocoa powder, water, almond butter, cinnamon, and ice for a delightful banana cacao smoothie.
  • Sprinkle cacao powder over a bowl of fresh fruit — pineapples, raspberries, and bananas all make great pairings with cacao.
  • Bake a healthy chocolate bread with raw cacao powder, spelt flour, eggs, coconut milk, raw honey, and pistachios.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on August 19, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology: “The Neuroprotective Effects of Cocoa Flavanol and Its Influence on Cognitive Performance."

ESHA Research, Inc., Salem, Oregon.

Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medical Perspective: “Use of Dark Chocolate for Diabetic Patients: a Review of the Literature and Current Evidence.”

Loma Linda University Health: “New Studies Show Dark Chocolate Consumption Reduces Stress and Inflammation While Improving Memory, Immunity, and Mood.”

Michigan State University Extension: “Chocolate Science, History, and Fun Facts Part II.”

National History Museum of Utah: "Cacao Grinding Curriculum"

North Dakota State University: Prairie Fare: "Does Chocolate Have Health Benefits?”

Pennington Biological Research Center: “Cocoa Polyphenols.”

Scientific American: “The Race to Save Chocolate.”

UMass Medical School: “Chocolate — It’s okay to indulge!”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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