Cacao Powder Health Benefits

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on October 17, 2023
5 min read

Cacao is  the name of the small tree native to the Amazon basin that grows cacao, or cocoa, beans. Its scientific name, Theobroma cacao, translates to "food of the Gods." The ancient Mayans and Aztecs used cacao as medicine for centuries. Today the cacao tree grows in tropical regions all over the world.

Cacao beans develop flavor and texture through fermentation before they’re processed into either cacao or cocoa powder. Fermenting and roasting cacao is also the first step in making chocolate. 

Raw cacao tastes bitter, but it's very high in antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins, so it is often made into a powder that can be added to other foods.

Cacao vs. cocoa

Cacao is the fruit in its raw form before it's ever processed. Cocoa is usually a powder made from cacao that you bake with. It's flavor isn't as bitter as raw cacao, but it has more sugar.

Cacao powder is made from raw cacao beans and nibs that are fermented and then roasted. They're then milled into a powder. They’re processed at much lower temperatures than the beans used to create cocoa powder, which is why cacao powder is quite bitter but retains more of the cacao bean’s original nutritional value.

 

Cacao nibs are tiny pieces of crushed cacao seeds. They’re crunchy and bitter, since they’re unsweetened in their natural form. They're good sources of nutrients, and a small serving has a decent amount of fiber, magnesium, manganese, and protein.   

Cacao is full of flavonoids and antioxidants thought to have many health benefits, like reducing inflammation and improving blood flow.   

Here are some of the benefits you could get from cacao and cacao powder.

Lowers blood pressure 

Cacao powder is packed with flavonoids, which have been shown to help lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to your brain and heart, and help prevent blood clots. 

Reduces diabetes risk

The antioxidants in cacao and cocoa may affect how your body responds to insulin, which could lower your chances of diabetes. Research shows the flavonoids in cacao may also improve your insulin resistance or change the way your body metabolizes glucose if you already have diabetes or prediabetes.

Lowers chances of heart disease

Studies have linked the flavanols in cacao and cocoa to higher levels of nitric oxide in your blood. The nitric oxide helps relax your arteries and blood vessels, which helps your blood flow better. Cacao also has been shown to lower your LDL, or "bad," cholesterol and reduce inflammation, both of which may lower your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. 

Reduces inflammation

Some research suggests that flavanol-rich cacao powder may help reduce inflammation. But we need more research to know if that also means it lowers the risk of conditions that cause chronic inflammation, too.

Improves mood

Cacao has several chemical compounds that could give you a boost, including flavonoids, caffeine, serotonin, and tryptophan. A survey of more than 13,600 adults in the U.S. found that eating dark chocolate, which has many of the same compounds as cacao powder, may make you less likely to have symptoms of depression. But long-term research is needed to confirm the findings.

Improves brain function 

A specific flavonoid in cacao called epicatechin may help with some parts of your brain health, including cognition and blood flow, which could lower your risk of getting dementia. But we need more research before we can say for sure.

Enhances performance

Cacao's flavanols may boost your physical performance by influencing how your body uses nitric oxide. A small study showed that cyclists who ate dark chocolate used less oxygen and recovered easier than cyclists who didn't. But larger studies are needed.  

Cacao powder provides more nutrition than cocoa powder and can be a healthier substitute in recipes. Cacao powder provides:

  • Iron
  • Phosphorus
  • Manganese 
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Fiber

Nutrients per serving 

A quarter-cup of cacao powder contains:

  • Calories: 72
  • Protein: 5 grams
  • Fat: 3 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 16 grams
  • Fiber: 9 grams
  • Sugar: 1 gram

 

While there are benefits to eating cacao, there might also be risks to your health if you have too much.

Caffeine: There is caffeine in cacao and cocoa, but not as much as in the average cup of coffee. Just be careful adding too much to your diet. Caffeine has been linked to migraines, stress, and high blood pressure.

Sugar, calories, and fat: You can swap  cacao powder for cocoa powder in recipes, but that won't automatically make them healthy. Cacao still has sugar and unhealthy fats, so it's always best to eat in moderation.

If you're pregnant: Be careful about eating, cacao, cocoa, and chocolate during your pregnancy, especially in your third trimester. Several studies in animals and people have shown that it could cause problems for you and your baby, including constricting a major blood vessel essential for your baby's circulation.  

Risk for pets: Cacao contains a chemical compound called theobromine, which is very toxic to dogs and cats. It's much more dangerous than milk chocolate. If your pet eats cacao or cocoa powder, or they have symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, panting, and extreme thirst and urination, call your vet right away. 

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 it's less processed and has more nutrients.

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. 

Here are a few ways to start enjoying 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.
  • 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.
  • Add it to a pot of chili for a deeper flavor.

Cacao powder is made from raw cacao beans and nibs that are fermented, roasted, and milled into a powder. It's similar to cocoa powder, but it’s more nutritious because it's less processed. Eating it in moderation could help improve your brain function, lower your cholesterol, and reduce your risk of heart disease. 

Is it OK to have cacao powder every day?

Cacao powder is known to have health benefits when you eat it in moderation.

Can you substitute cacao for cocoa?

You can swap cacao powder for cocoa powder when you bake. But just remember, cacao powder is less processed, so its flavor is more bitter. It's also more absorbent, so you need to use more liquid to keep your baked goods from being too dry.