What Is Cacao?
Cacao is where chocolate gets its start. Chocolate comes from Theobroma cacao, the scientific name for the cacao tree. A small tree native to the Amazon Basin, the cacao tree is now grown in tropical regions all over the world.
The fleshy fruit, or pods, of the cacao tree contains brown seeds often called cacao or cocoa “beans,” though they’re not really legumes.
Cacao beans develop flavor and texture through a fermentation process before they’re processed into either cacao or cocoa powder. Fermenting and roasting cacao is also the first step in making chocolate. People mash the cacao beans 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.
While you may think of the finished product – chocolate – many cultures (including the ancient Mayans and Aztecs) used cacao for medicinal purposes for centuries. In cuisine today, it’s not only in sweet recipes – think of savory mole sauce made with unsweetened cocoa powder.
What Is Cacao Powder?
To create cocoa powder, processors apply very high temperatures to the cacao beans, which produces that smooth, sweet taste that people enjoy in baked goods or hot cocoa. Cocoa powder is less bitter than cacao, but it loses some of its nutritional value during processing.
Cacao beans destined to become cacao powder and cacao nibs aren’t roasted at these high temperatures. Instead, they’re processed at low temperatures and then milled into a powder. Cacao powder is quite bitter but retains more of the cacao bean’s original nutritional value.
What Are Cacao Nibs?
Cacao nibs are the cacao seed (or “bean”), minus its shell and broken up. They’re crunchy and bitter, since they’re unsweetened in their natural form.
Here are some possible health benefits of cacao powder that researchers are studying. Keep in mind that you still need to be aware of the sugar and fat that are often in chocolate and cacao products. Also, as delicious as chocolate is, what matters most with your nutrition is your overall eating pattern, not any single food, as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Research is underway to see if cacao powder has a positive effect on irritable bowel syndrome.
Lower Blood Pressure
Cacao powder is packed with flavonoids. These nutrients have been shown to help lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, and aid in preventing blood clots. The evidence for flavanol-rich cocoa products to lower blood pressure (compared to low-flavanol cocoa products) is of “moderate” quality, and the drop in blood pressure was small – but there were no side effects seen in short-term studies, according to a research review.
Reduced Diabetes Risk
The flavonoids in cacao powder may help increase insulin sensitivity, reducing your risk of diabetes, some small studies show. Larger studies are needed. Lowering your chances of developing diabetes also involves your overall diet and lifestyle – no single food is the answer.
Reduced Heart Disease Risk
In addition to antioxidants, cacao contains lots of potassium. Potassium has been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease by reducing lower body inflammation and stress on cells.
Some research suggests that flavanol-rich cacao powder may help to reduce inflammation. That’s in line with what antioxidants do. Whether that means that cocoa lowers the risk of conditions that are marked by chronic inflammation remains to be seen. Remember, all inflammation isn’t bad. Short-term inflammation is part of your body’s defense system.
If you’ve ever felt like having a little bit of chocolate improves your mood, you may be right. A preliminary study shows that eating dark chocolate (70% cacao) lowered chemical markers of stress. The mood benefits are more likely to be due to the good taste of cocoa products, rather than to specific nutrients, one report shows.
Improved Cognitive Function?
A specific flavanol in cacao called epicatechin may help with some parts of brain health, including cognition and blood flow. If so, that could lead to a lower risk of dementia. More research is needed before we can know if this holds true.
Cacao powder provides more nutrition than cocoa powder and can be a healthier substitute in recipes. Cacao powder provides:
Nutrients per Serving
Two tablespoons of cacao powder contain:
The biggest health risk is getting too much of a good thing.
Caffeine: A 2-tablespoon serving has about 50 milligrams of caffeine, roughly half as much caffeine as in the average cup of coffee. Bear this in mind if you are sensitive to caffeine.
Sugar, calories, and fat: Though cacao powder is often used as a substitute for cocoa powder in recipes, swapping the powders doesn’t automatically make a recipe healthy. Check on the amount of sugar and unhealthy fats in recipes or cocoa products, including chocolate.
Pregnant or new mom? Eating too much cacao during pregnancy or breastfeeding may be harmful.
Risk for pets: 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:
- Add cacao powder, natural peanut butter, and maple syrup to plain Greek yogurt for a tasty treat.
- Follow a recipe that combines 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.
- Blend raw cacao powder, water, almond butter, cinnamon, banana, 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.
- Look for a recipe for healthy chocolate bread using ingredients like raw cacao powder, spelt flour, eggs, coconut milk, raw honey, and pistachios.
- Add cacao nibs when you make a smoothie or granola, or sprinkle them on top of your oatmeal.
Cacao vs. Cocoa
Cacao powder is similar to cocoa powder in flavor and function, but it’s more nutritious overall. Many dessert recipes call for cacao powder because of its minimal processing and nutrition density. Making the switch is an easy way to get more nutrients when you’re baking.
Cacao powder looks almost identical to cocoa powder and can be used much the same way. You can substitute cocoa powder for an equal amount of cacao powder in recipes that call for it, though the flavor might not be as sweet. Cacao powder also absorbs more liquid than cocoa powder, so you may need to increase the measurement of liquid ingredients in a recipe.
Just like cocoa powder, you can use cacao powder to make brownies, cakes, cookies, and other chocolatey desserts. Here are a few other ways to use cacao powder:
- Sprinkle it on top of peanut butter on toast.
- Use it as an ingredient in homemade hot cocoa mix.
- Add it to a smoothie.
- Add it to plain or vanilla Greek yogurt.
- Add it to a pot of chili for a deeper flavor.
- Use it as an oatmeal mix-in.
- Dust it onto brownie and cake baking pans to prevent sticking.
But remember that even cacao powder has fat, so be mindful of the fat and calories when you are indulging.