In this post, we cover everything cacao related: what it is, cocoa vs cacao, raw cacao powder recipes and how to use the raw cacao butter.
What is cacao?
Cacao is known as the food (or drink) of the Gods! It has been traced back to the Maya people who were thought to be the first to cultivate the cacao plant around 400AD. The plant that is recognised today is actually a result of cross selection that started over 35,000 years ago and the scientific name is Theobroma cacao.
The 100% cacao has a rich, chocolate flavour but is also very bitter. The taste of cacao can actually vary depending on the variety of plant, soil, temperate, sunlight and rain that is received during the growing process.
Once the cacao bean has been processed (cold pressed, unroasted beans) – you can end up with raw cacao powder, cacao nibs and cacao butter (the oils of the beans).
Cocoa vs cacao powder
Cocoa is the term used for cacao that has been roasted at high temperature, which changes the chemical nature of the bean. This exposure to high temperature lowers the antioxidant capacity and reduces the nutrient density that is found in the raw, cold pressed cacao. Otherwise, cocoa powder and cacao powder are interchangeable.
Cocoa butter vs cacao butter
Cacao butter is the pure, cold-pressed oil of the cacao bean. Raw cacao butter production doesn’t exceed 46 degrees Celcius, whilst cocoa butter might undergo some heating during the pressing process.
Raw cacao butter is more nutrient dense but otherwise, they are totally interchangeable. Both are edible, stable vegetable fats that can be used in cooking and in preparations of skin and beauty products.
You might also come across refined and unrefined cocoa and coconut butter, wherein the refined version the colour and aroma are stripped. Unrefined is more supreme in our opinion.
Cacao nibs are small pieces of crushed cacao beans. They derive from cocoa beans that have been dried, fermented and cracked into small dark bits. The nibs have a chocolatey, bitter flavour and offer the same benefits as the raw cacao powder, especially if they haven’t been roasted. You might find roasted and raw cacao nibs on sale.
Raw cacao health benefits
Be sure to note here: the benefits I am going to talk about all relate to raw cacao and cacao dark chocolate. I am not talking about sugar and dairy-laden milk chocolate!!!
One of the greatest health benefits of cacao comes from the flavonols (a class of flavonoids – antioxidants) that are found in cacao. Schardt notes that “Flavonols are bitter tasting, so to make cocoa more palatable, chocolate manufacturers roast, ferment, pulverise and sometimes alkalinize the beans or cocoa…unfortunately, this processing can destroy a lot of the flavanols”.(2013)
Antioxidant – Heart and Renal Health
- Cacao is a powerhouse FULL of antioxidants! The flavanols found in cacao can increase nitric oxide bioavailability, activate nitric oxide synthase and exert anti-inflammatory and antiplatelet activity – all of which may improve vascular function and reduce blood pressure.
- Cacao has been studied for its ability to reduce blood pressure and has been shown to produce “a small but statistically significant effect in lowering blood pressure by 2-3mm Hg in the short term” (Schardt, 2013)
- It has also been shown that the consumption of dark chocolate can increase renal medullary oxygenation and therefore may be a renal (kidney) protective agent.
Happy, Happy, Happy + Energy
- Eating cacao makes you happy! It contains phenylethylamine which is responsible for our state of mood and pleasure and the same feelings you get when you are in love. It also acts as a stimulant and can improve mental alertness.
- Cacao also contains serotonin and dopamine – which also stimulate good mood and ‘pleasure’ feelings.
- Anandamide is also in cacao which is present in the brain as an endogenous substance and interacts with cannabinoid receptors.
Nutrients in cacao
- As we mentioned above, cacao is a powerhouse antioxidant and rates in the top 20 on the Oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) scale. The ORAC scale is used to rate the antioxidant capacity of foods.
- Cacao also contains great levels of magnesium, which is an essential mineral during times of stress and helps you to feel more relaxed. It also contains manganese, zinc, calcium and potassium.
- Raw cacao even contains good levels of vitamin C!
Cacao/cocoa butter skin benefits
- Cocoa butter has been widely used to reduce or prevent stretch marks. There is no substantial clinical evidence that it really works but the butter provides deep hydration and antioxidants to fight free radicals so we’d definitely use it to keep our skin supple and moist, which in turn can prevent or reduce the appearance of stretch marks.
- It has been noted to help with sensitive skin problems such as irritations, eczema and dermatitis.
- Raw cacao is a stimulant so it is advised not to consume it after about 2-3pm as to not interfere with a good night’s sleep!
- Researchers at the Agricultural Research Service found that the higher the cacao content of chocolate the higher the benefits of the antioxidant properties found. So the darker – the better.
- It has been reported that dairy in chocolate reduces the bioavailability of the flavonoids found in cacao. It should be noted that the jury is out on this one! There are studies for and against – so I’m not convinced either way just yet. I acknowledge that there are many people who benefit from following a dairy-free diet, as it can cause an inflammatory response in a lot of people and so, for now, would hedge my bets that you would be receiving more benefit from consuming chocolate and cacao that is dairy-free.
- There is such a thing as ‘chocolate poisoning’ or ‘theobromine poisoning’, which is an overdose reaction to the alkaloid found in cacao. Theobromine has an effect primarily on the central nervous system and cardiovascular system, as well as on the respiratory system and acting as a diuretic.
- Although the risk is very small and it would be very hard to consume enough theobromine to make yourself sick – it is just a reminder that anything eaten in extreme quantities is not good for you! This is why pets such as dogs can’t eat chocolate; it is the theobromine that makes them so sick.
Where to get raw cacao
You can find raw cacao powder and cacao butter in most health food stores these days and even at some major supermarkets.
You can find raw chocolate at good health food stores, variety stores or online. Just be aware of the sugar content and still look out for the highest percentage of cacao.
Dark chocolate can be hard to get used to if you try to switch straight from milk chocolate to 90% cacao. The best tip is to gradually start buying chocolate that has a higher percentage of cacao, say by about 10-20% every month. Dark chocolate is very palatable once you get used to it. It takes 21 days to change your tastebuds, so before you know it, you will be eating 95% dark chocolate.
How to use it
- Cacao powder can be added to smoothies, to make chocolate desserts or to make a yummy hot chocolate.
- Cacao butter can be used in conjunction with cacao powder and natural sweetener to make your own chocolate (see some recipes below). It is also great to add to bliss balls or nut bases to hold them together and can be used in the place of coconut oil. It will add a lovely velvety, chocolate flavour. Cacao butter is edible but it is also used in skin care products.
- Cacao nibs add a lovely crunch to muffins, ice-cream or as a topping on your favourite dessert. They are also great to add to your favourite granola mix for breakfast or on top of a smoothie.
Will cooked raw cacao retain its benefits?
There is no scientific verdict on whether raw cacao’s nutrients diminish during heating. I recommend using it in its raw form as much as possible but even if you cook with it, it will still be more beneficial than the already processed and heated cocoa powder.
Favourite raw cacao powder recipes
Or how about my rich sweet potato chocolate brownies?
- Verna, R, The History and Science of Chocolate, 2013, Malaysian Journal Pathology, 35(2) : 111-121
- Roura, E, Andres-Lecueva, C, Estruch, R, Mata-Bilbao, M, Lzquierdo-Pulido, M, Waterhouse, A, Lamuela-Raventos, R, 2007, Milk Does Not Affect the Bioavailability of Cococa Powder Flavonoid in Healthy Human, Annuals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 51: 493-498
- Sudano, I, Flammer, A, Roas, S, Ensleit, F, Ruschitzka, F, Corti, R, Noll, G, 2012, Cocoa, Blood Pressure and Vascular Function, Curr Hypertens Rep, 14:279-184
- Schardt, D, How Bittersweet It is, 2013, Nutrition Action Healthletter, Dec
- Pruijm, M, Hofmann, L, Charollais-Thoenig, J, Forni, V, Maillard, M, Coristine, A, Stuber, M, Burnier, M, Vogt, B, Effect of Dark Chocolate on Renal Tissue Oxygenation as Measured by BOLD-MRI in Healthy Volunteers, 2013, Clinical Nephrology, Vol 80- No3 (211-217)
This guest post is by Claire Yates. She is a nutritional medicine practitioner, holding a Bachelor of Health Science, who is passionate about whole foods nutrition, health and having fun! She is the author of Optimal Health The Paleo Way.
Do you have a favourite way to use either raw cacao powder, raw cacao butter or cacao nibs? Do you have any questions about cacao? Let us know in the comments.