The Amazing Health Benefits of Cacao

By The Team @ Healthy Being   |   16 March 2022 

If you love treating yourself with chocolate, you're certainly not alone. Not only is it delicious, but it's also incredibly versatile and has a rich nutritional profile. Commercial chocolate products are packed with sugar and full of additives, however, and even cocoa powder has been processed to some degree. If you really want to benefit from the wonders of chocolate, you need to go back to the source. Cacao is the seed from which chocolate is made. It is essentially chocolate in its purest form, with all the raw benefits and none of the unwanted nasties.

Let's take a look at cacao, review the history of the world's favourite plant, and see how you can enjoy the benefits of nutritious cacao powder.

What is Cacao?

Cacao seed is the source of cocoa and chocolate. The word "cacao" is simply Spanish for "the cocoa bean," which itself is an adaptation of the Aztec "cacahuatl", or "bean of the cocoa-tree." Cacao is typically sold as a powder, which comes from the bean after it's been removed from the cacao pod. There are three types of cacao beans used to make chocolate: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. Each of these beans has a unique flavour profile, with Criollo believed to be the best, followed by Trinitario and Forastero.

Cacao beans develop their flavour and texture through a fermentation process, but the beans themselves are not fermented. Instead, yeasts, bacteria, and enzymes ferment the white pulp that surrounds the cacao beans. Cacao powder is sold unroasted and relatively unprocessed. It is created through cold-pressing and does not need to be exposed to high temperatures. Unlike chocolate and cocoa products, this keeps most of the nutritional value intact. Dried and roasted cacao nibs are also available, with these products often associated with a more desirable chocolate flavour.

Cacao vs Cocoa

While cacao and cocoa products are often confused due to their identical origin and similar spelling, they are distinct. Both products have been fermented, but raw cacao typically comes unroasted. Raw cacao has more calories than cacao or chocolate, along with less fat, way more fibre, and zero sugar content. Cacao nibs confuse the issue even more, but they also feature less processing and a richer nutritional profile than chocolate. While cocoa and chocolate products can still be very nutritious, they often include lots of sugar, unwanted additives, and lots of preservatives. If you want to enjoy chocolate with some health benefits, generally, darker varieties have more cacao content.

A Short History of Cacao

Cacao, or Theobroma cacao, was named in English by botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753. Theobroma is Greek for “food of the gods,” and cacao is the Spanish adaptation of the Aztec "cacah" or Mayan "kakaw". The origins of this plant go back much further, however, with cacao originally domesticated in South America around 5,000 years ago. The cacao tree evolved in the Upper Amazon region that now includes the modern nations of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. It then spread north, across the Andes, and into Central America. 

When Cortez landed in Mexico in the early 1500s, he re-discovered a beloved plant that was central to the local culture. Ceremonial cacao played an important role in seasonal rituals, and cacao stories were intertwined with local mythology. The cacao plant was integral to local customs, foods, and commerce. Cacao beans were regularly consumed with maize and spices, and seeds or beans from the cacao plant were even used as currency.

As the delicious taste and nutritional benefits of this plant became known, cacao became a desired agricultural resource all over the world. Production has always been limited, however, with cacao very sensitive to growing conditions and not suited to many large farms due to a lack of shade. Cacao trees and processing facilities can now be found in equatorial regions all over the world.

The Nutritional Makeup of Cacao Powder

Cacao is often promoted as a "superfood", and for very good reason. While it won't give you special powers, this ancient "food of the gods" is packed with many of the nutrients intrinsic to human survival. Cacao is a rich source of antioxidants, minerals, and macronutrients. With protein, fat, carbohydrates, and fibre content, cacao is a well-balanced and healthy addition to almost any diet.

Cacao has the following nutritional profile, based on daily value (DV) percentages and a portion size of 28 grams:

  • Calories - 72
  • Protein - 10%
  • Total fat - 4%
  • Saturated fat - 10%
  • Carbohydrates - 6%
  • Dietary fibre - 32%
  • Sodium - 10%
  • Calcium - 5%
  • Iron - 22%
  • Potassium - 24%

The Many Health Benefits of Cacao

The rich nutritional profile of cacao offers a wide array of health advantages. It is full of beneficial nutrients, packed with antioxidants and capable of uplifting your mood. Let's take a look at the most important cacao benefits:

Full of Antioxidants

Cacao has an incredible number of antioxidants. According to one study, cocoa powder has four times more antioxidants than black tea, three times more than green tea, and twice as much as red wine. The primary antioxidants found in cacao and chocolate products are polyphenols, including flavonoids such as catechin, epicatechin, and proanthocyanidins. These antioxidants help to scavenge free radicals throughout your body, with their tricyclic structures helping to protect your cells from damage. According to another study, a diet high in cocoa antioxidants could reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and neurodegenerative disorders.

High in Minerals

Raw cacao is a fantastic plant-based food source that includes many minerals, including magnesium. Magnesium is essential for many biochemical reactions in the body, including protein synthesis and muscle function. It also supports brain and nervous system function, controls blood glucose, and regulates blood pressure. Cacao is also a great source of sulphur, which supports liver and pancreas health and promotes healthy nails and hair. This amazing superfood also has lots of iron, at almost one-quarter of the recommended daily value. While plant-based iron is non-heme in nature, you can improve its efficacy by combining it with vitamin C.

Mood-Enhancing Effects

Along with helping to fight disease, the polyphenols in cacao help to promote a healthy mental state. According to one study from 2013, cacao was found to enhance positive mood. This randomised and double-blind study measured cognitive performance and mood states after 30 days of cacao consumption. When people left the experiment, they were found to have a better mood but no change in brain performance. The healthy middle-aged participants involved in the study noted significantly increased calmness and contentedness relative to a placebo group, which looks promising for people with clinical anxiety or depression.

Cacao features phenylethylamine, which helps to increase serotonin and dopamine within the brain and is known to enhance motivation and lift the spirit. Cacao also includes theobromine, which is a natural stimulant that's been associated with improved mental well-being. This compound stimulates the central nervous system and dilates blood vessels, which can help to increase energy levels and relax tense muscles. Raw cacao also includes caffeine and N-acylethanolamine, with the former acting as a stimulant and the latter offering a mild euphoric effect.

How to Consume Raw Cacao

Raw cacao is affordable to purchase and easy to consume. This superfood is available in two distinct forms, with cacao powder often added to smoothies and drinks, and cacao nibs great with cakes, slices, and snacks. Cacao is also included in many commercial health products, including cacao butter, protein snack bars, and tasty bite-sized nibbles. With so much nutrition packed into each and every serving, raw cacao is one of the most efficient ways to give your body what it needs.

Raw cacao powder is the purest form of chocolate in the world, and it's easy to love. You can add cacao to a smoothie or enjoy it as a delicious chocolate milk drink. Cacao powder is also great with yogurt, and it's the perfect topping for peanut butter on toast. This superfood is fantastic with sweet or savoury recipes, from homemade biscuits and cakes to curries, chilis, and stews. Perfect in banana muffins and delicious on brownies, cacao powder is a versatile ingredient rich with life-affirming goodness.

Remember, cacao powder looks and feels almost identical to cocoa powder, so you can use it in pretty much the same way. If a recipe calls for cocoa powder, you can substitute an equal amount of cacao powder for maximum nutrition. While the flavour may not be as sweet, you can always add extra sugar if you think your recipe needs it. Cacao powder also absorbs more liquid than cocoa powder, so you may need to increase the water or liquid stock content of your recipe.

If you're looking for delicious and nutritious cacao products at a great price, Healthy Being has a great selection. From raw cacao powder to cacao nibs and snacks, we cater to all your natural health food needs. Please review our product range or contact our friendly team to learn more. 

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