Chocolate, in its original name of Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods.” If you’ve ever had a bite of chocolate cake or hot cocoa on a winter night, then you know why. Chocolate has a deep, rich flavor that flows over the tongue and keeps you yearning for more. Though chocolate may be the food gods prefer, for humans, chocolate itself is a relatively new concept. For most of human history, chocolate has been consumed in its original form — cacao.
Cacao, Cocoa, or Chocolate?
The terms cacao, cocoa, and chocolate are often used interchangeably but are not the same thing. They do, however, all start from the same place, the cacao plant. Cacao plants are found in tropical rainforests, mainly in Central America. They have a small zone for optimal growth, only growing well near the north and south of the equator. Though the area cacao can grow in is limited, cacao can be harvested at any time of the year.
Cacao beans can be chopped up into little particles called cacao nibs. When cacao beans are pressed to remove the fat and then ground up, the fat removed is called cacao butter. Then what’s left behind is called cacao powder. Cacao retains many of its natural health benefits because it hasn’t been roasted or processed.
Once roasted, processed, ground, and sweetened, the bean and its products are called cocoa, like the powder used to make hot chocolate. Natural cocoa powder tastes more like chocolate, goes through roasting, but does not include any additives.
There’s a product called Dutch-processed cocoa butter, which is sometimes available in grocery stores. This type of cocoa butter undergoes processing using alkalized chemicals. Regular cocoa powder, commonly found in grocery stores, is typically used for baking or cooking.
Unlike cocoa, chocolate still includes the fat from the cocoa beans. Unsweetened chocolate comes from ground cacao beans that have not been pressed. Because the fat hasn’t been pressed out, unsweetened chocolate contains cocoa butter, which is what gives it a rich taste. When heavily sweetened and flavored, unsweetened chocolate becomes the chocolate we know traditionally — the ones in heart-shaped boxes, cookies, and candy bars.
Brief History of Cacao
For 4,000 years, humans have used chocolate in its original form of cacao. As early as 420 AD, humans cultivated the plants and used the cacao beans in spiritual ceremonies. The beans were so beloved by Mesoamericans that some civilizations used the beans as currency.
Ancient Mesoamericans grew cacao plants and roasted and ground the beans, and mixed the paste with ingredients like honey and vanilla, creating a drink much like present-day chocolate.
Mesoamericans also prized cacao as a medicinal treatment to stimulate the nervous system, improve digestion, and encourage weight gain in people who were emaciated or sick.
Cacao Powder Benefits and Side Effects
Although they come from the same plant, raw cacao powder trumps chocolate nutritionally for several reasons. Chocolate, though popular and delicious, has been processed and contains added fat and sugars. Cacao powder, on the other hand, has had very minimal processing and is low in fat. Its added health benefits also make it a “superfood.”
Cacao Powder Benefit: High in Magnesium
An essential macromineral, magnesium necessary for vital bodily functions. Magnesium keeps the heart healthy and strong by regulating blood pressure, preventing cardiovascular disease. Blood sugar regulation is also an essential function of magnesium, keeping energy at a constant level, and avoiding sugar crashes.
Magnesium levels influence adequate muscle strength and movement. Mood and behavior are also impacted by magnesium, with low magnesium levels resulting in mood swings and irritability. Magnesium helps with brain and muscle development, especially during pregnancy.
Interestingly, period-related complaints can be alleviated by magnesium. So, perhaps, that monthly chocolate craving has a biological basis after all!
Cacao Powder Benefit: Rich in Iron
Cacao contains non-heme iron, meaning iron that does not come from meat. Of all the plant-based sources of iron, cacao is at the top. Iron is a major player when it comes to blood.
Iron is part of hemoglobin, the protein that carries the vital oxygen to our lungs. For vegetarians, non-heme iron is an integral part of a balanced diet. The addition of cacao powder to a vegetarian diet could expand vegetarian food options.
Not enough iron can cause anemia, which can make you tired, weak, and fatigued as a result of a lack of oxygen to the body. Untreated, a severe lack of iron can cause heart issues, pregnancy complications, and growth concerns in children.
Cacao Powder Benefit: Antioxidants
The ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scale is a chart developed by the National Institute of Health that measures how well antioxidants, called flavonoids, absorb free radicals. Cacao tops the list as a “superfruit.”
Cacao has over 40 times the amount of antioxidants as blueberries. Interestingly, a 2011 BMC Chemistry article determined that cacao, even in the form of cocoa and dark chocolate, had significantly higher antioxidant values than other fruit powder and juices tested, such as blueberries, pomegranates, and cranberries!
Cacao Powder Benefit: Feel-good Neurotransmitters
That feeling of content after you eat chocolate doesn’t just come from the delicious flavors. That feeling comes from the rush of neurotransmitters unleashed by the cacao.
Cacao contains alkaloids which interact with the “feel good” neurotransmitters in the body; phenylethylamine, serotonin, and dopamine. These neurotransmitters contribute to a feeling of happiness and wellbeing.
Side Effect: Caffeine
Caffeine—one side-effect of cacao that may be a benefit. It depends on how your body interacts with caffeine. Consuming cacao before sleep, if you are sensitive to caffeine, can keep you awake at night.
Nervousness, increased urination, and anxiety can all be caused by caffeine within cacao powder. Cacao’s caffeine can also trigger migraines or heart palpitations in people who have a sensitivity to caffeine.
How Much Cacao Powder Per Day
One ounce of cacao powder contains about 64 calories. That mere ounce can provide 22 percent of your daily iron needs! It also includes 5 grams of protein and 9 grams of fiber.
The exact amount of beneficial cacao powder to consume each day is unclear. However, the European Food Safety Authority recommends 0.1 ounces of cacao or cocoa powder or 0.4 ounces of dark chocolate per day to achieve heart health benefits. A better gauge would be to seek cacao powder high in flavonols and with minimal if any, processing.
Which Cacao Powder is Best for Health
According to HealthTrends Navitas Organics Cacao Powder rates as number one on their list as the best cacao powder available. Navitas grows its cacao without the use of pesticides or chemicals. Their cacao powder is of the highest quality and is gluten-free, certified USDA Organic, non-GMO, vegan, Fair Trade, and kosher.
When looking for healthy cacao powder, make sure that cadmium is not an additive or part of the processing. Cadmium can be found in some cacao products and can be toxic if ingested.
Does Cacao Powder Have Caffeine?
As noted prior, cacao has surprisingly high caffeine content. A serving of one tablespoon of cacao powder contains 12 milligrams of caffeine. For people who are not sensitive to caffeine, cacao may be a great energy boost. Cacao can increase alertness and fend off fatigue. If you want a healthy, inexpensive pick-me-up, cacao can do the job. If you tend to have problems with caffeine, however, you may want to keep your cacao consumption to a minimum.
How to Make Cacao Drink from Powder
There are many ways to consume cacao powder. It can be sprinkled into fruit salads or nut butters, or baked into desserts. Cacao powder can also be mixed into granola recipes, oatmeal, or breakfast cereal.
Because many people are used to the sweet additives in many foods, cacao may taste bitter and tart at first. Use it sparingly when you begin, and increase the amount the more often you consume it. After a while, the bitterness will start to taste rich.
If the bitterness is challenging to get used to, you can always add natural sweeteners like honey or flavors like vanilla. Mixing cacao powder into a smoothie or with any type of milk can also make it much more delicious. The following is an easy raw cacao hot chocolate recipe that you can try. Below is a shortened version of the recipe.
Mix the following:
- Hot water
- Half tablespoon raw cacao powder
- One teaspoon raw honey
- A bit of almond milk (or to suit your taste)
It’s not very often that something so historically loved and delicious (chocolate) can also be perfect for you. Finding ways to incorporate cacao powder into your food might just be what takes your health and your diet to the next level.