When most of us see the word “cacao” our automatic tendency is to think we’re looking at a spelling mistake. Cocoa, the much revered ingredient in most modern chocolate foods and beverages, is refined from raw cacao, and, the two couldn’t be more different as far as how they can benefit your health.
Both are sourced from the Theobroma cacao tree. In Greek, Theobrama translates literally to “Food of the Gods”. The tree grows berries similar to a coffee tree does, and once the berries dry, several individual cacao beans are left over. To be called cacao, the beans must be dried slowly and fermented to maximize flavor using a low heat method to preserve the nutritional goodness inside.
Raw cacao is simply a less-refined version of the cocoa that makes for the second ingredient in chocolate bars, hot chocolate, chocolate milk, cakes, etc. I say the “second” ingredient because the sugar content is always higher in most of the chocolate treats you eat (ie., a Hershey’s Dark Chocolate bar weighs 43 grams with 23 grams of that being sugar!)
How Raw Cacao Differs From “Cocoa”
Raw cacao is nothing more than dried, fermented cacao beans, with nothing else done to them. You can eat them raw, or grind them up into a powder to be used in your favorite dishes and beverages. Cocoa often goes on to be further refined by adding varying amounts of sugar. Cacao, if you read the nutritional breakdown has almost zero net calories or carbohydrates at all.
It’s only raw cacao that has the true benefits that are often attributed to chocolate, primarily dark chocolate. A Hershey’s bar isn’t going to do much more than raise your blood sugar and make you fat, no matter if the wrapper says it’s “dark” or not!
Basically, that cocoa you see on the shelf varies so much in antioxidant value, mineral content, and how much sugar is added to it, it’s not really worth buying unless you’re doing so to make dessert treats, and don’t care about the nutritional benefits.
Some experts agree that cocoa can be good if it comes from a responsible manufacturer, it’s just not as potent. It’s much cheaper to buy regular cocoa as opposed to cacao too. The biggest issue with cocoa is that its always roasted to improve flavor. Roasted cocoa is rated at a 26,000 OREC value, whereas raw unadulterated cacao comes in at 95,500 – more than triple the antioxidant capabilities.
Raw cacao is the real deal and is the true king when it comes to delivering all the benefits you’ve likely heard about including boosting mental and physical energy, lowering blood pressure, regulating insulin levels, and protecting the body against oxidation and aging.
Benefits of Consuming Raw Cacao
1. Most Powerful Antioxidant Berry
We’ve all heard about the power of blueberries, goji, and acai berries by now. But none can hold a candle to raw cacao. Antioxidants help the body get rid of free radicals that enter through our food, the air we breathe, and through excess sun exposure. They scavenge the blood relentlessly to reduce biological aging including heart disease, macular degeneration, dementia, Alzheimer’s, skin wrinkles, and various forms of cancer.
Cacao, derived from berries on the Theobroma tree, is considered the top fruit-based antioxidant on the planet. Here’s how it stacks up against other popular berries and refined cocoa products on the ORAC value chart (source):
• Raw cocoa powder 95,500
• Raw cacao nibs 62,100
• Roasted cocoa powder 26,000
• Organic Goji Berries 25,300
• Acai Berries 18,500
• Dark Chocolate 13,120
• Milk Chocolate 6,740
• Prunes 5,770
• Raisins 2,830
• Blueberries 2,400
Cacao is a source of several minerals needed to maintain heart, bone, skin, and other health functions:
• Copper: 10% DV
• Manganese: 10% DV
• Magnesium: 7% DV
• Iron: 4% DV
• Phosphorus: 4% DV
• Potassium: 2% DV
• Zinc: 2% DV
• Selenium: 1% DV
2. Elevates Mood
Cacao contains anandamine, used by the body as a transmitter to improve feelings of bliss, delight, and all over happiness. Eating pure raw cacao ensures you’re getting a great dose of mood elevating anandamine. This is why chocolate is so often referred to as a pure indulgence happiness food, and also why it can become very addictive when consumed regularly.
3. Promotes Cardiovascular Health
The antioxidant polyphenols and flavonoids found in raw cacao prevent inflammation in the cardiovascular system, stopping heart attacks and strokes with surprising effectiveness. Science has known for years that the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory components in cacao work in the same way low-dose aspirin does to thin the blood. Theobromine, contained in cacao, helps dilate blood vessels and regulate water levels in the blood, helping to keep blood pressure low. High amounts of fiber per serving also help to keep cholesterol levels in balance.
4. Slows the Aging Process
Cacao has the same catechins and anthocyanins (antioxidants) found in red wine and green tea that make them so effective at curbing premature oxidation in the body and on the surface of the skin. One or two tablespoons per day of raw cacao powder is all that’s required to keep you looking and feeling younger!
5. Keeps You Calm
Just taking two tablespoons of cacao can help reduce the severity of depression and anxiety symptoms. Each two tablespoon serving offers 52mg of magnesium. Magnesium is also good for regulating insulin levels to reduce stress hormones, lowering blood pressure naturally, and helps in regulating the rhythm of the heart.
6. Cacao is an Aphrodisiac
Cacao also contains other chemicals known to elevate mood like phenelthylamine which triggers the release of the same neurotransmitters and endorphins that are released when we feel love for someone and/or during sex. Anandamine and phenelthylamine have legendary effects on both the male and female sex drive. This is why chocolate is so often selected as a dessert during romantic meals and also so often used during foreplay activities.
7. Possible Sunburn Prevention
There have been a few studies posted throughout the years touting the ingredients in cacao to allow those who consume it to stay out in the sun twice as long as those who do not. More studies need to be performed to confirm, and sunblock should still be considered essential for beach days.
Raw Cacao Dangers
Cacao is a wonderful superfood that rarely causes problems for people who consume it responsibly. Still, moderation should be exercised to ensure none of the following side effects befall you while taking it to improve your health:
• Caffeine Jitters: A tablespoon serving of cacao only has 12mg of caffeine. However, this can be a problem if you don’t metabolize caffeine well or over-indulge. For your reference, a cup of coffee has around 100 – 150mg of caffeine. Theobromine is also a mild nervous system stimulant and can contribute to the jitter-effect if cacao is abused.
• Potential Hallucinogen: Approximately 30 to 50 cacao beans have the potential to cause this problem. When consuming by the tablespoon it’s easy to judge as each tablespoon is approximately 4 beans. It takes around 30 cacao beans to make a dark chocolate bar, so be careful.
• Calcium Absorption Issues: Again, when massive quantities of raw cacao or any dark chocolate is consumed every day or several times a week, it can cause problems with calcium absorption due to the oxalic acid content it contains. You have to really overdue it regularly to cause this issue.
• Dehydration: Theobromine makes up about 2% of cacao and when consumed in massive quantities, it causes the body to excrete more urine than it should. Theobromine is prescribed to people with mild blood pressure issues to help draw water out of the blood stream.
• Sickness: Unfortunately, when consuming anything raw, there’s the potential for things like insects and rodent droppings being contained in the things we eat. The roasting process that cocoa goes through eliminates this risk, whereas there is always the chance something will remain in your raw cacao that will make you ill.
Cacao does contain high amounts of omega 6 fatty acids, small amounts of caffeine, and can be hallucinogenic in high doses. You’d have to consume several tablespoons of it to experience the hallucinogenic side effects, but most experts generally agree that 4 beans (approx 1 tablespoon) per 100 pounds of body weight is generally safe for healthy individuals.
Caution About Mixing Cacao With Dairy
Dairy products block the absorption and effectiveness of antioxidants. This doesn’t only apply to the antioxidants in cacao, but all foods containing antioxidants. In fact, antioxidant values of food drop by 24% when you wash them down with a little milk.
Those values continue to drop when, for instance, you mix up a batch of natural cacao “chocolate” milk, or when cacao or any kind of delicious antioxidant berries or fruit are mixed in with yogurt. The values plummet to almost zero after these foods have been mixed together with dairy for 24 hours or more.
If you want to get the full free-radical-scavenging benefits from cacao and other foods, ditch the dairy altogether, or at least make sure you wait 3 hours between consuming either, and never mix them together in the same meal or snack.
How to Choose the Healthiest Cacao
As you’ve probably gathered from the information shared so far, the less cacao has been handled and messed around with, the more potent it’s health benefits will be. As you’ve learned, cocoa has been refined at the very least by roasting it, which guarantees less antioxidant value in the end.
If you choose to go the dark chocolate route, or prefer to spend a lot less and purchase cocoa powder instead of raw cacao, look for 70% or higher cacao or cocoa content. The two spellings are used indiscriminately, though if the label says cacao, you can definitely expect to pay more.
Buy organic cacao whenever possible, to avoid the possibility of ingesting pesticides and other chemical agents used in the commercial growing process.
Avoid cacao products “processed with alkali”
This process is known as Dutching, and well alkali isn’t necessarily harmful to your health, it does destroy much of the antioxidant value of the finished product. Decadent Dutch chocolate is definitely delicious because the process tones down the natural bitter flavor of cacao, it just isn’t as good for you.
Recommended Cacao Brands
1. Healthworks Raw Organic Cacao Powder (View on Amazon)
You can’t go wrong with Healthworks USDA certified organic cacao. This company recognizes the true difference between cacao and refined cocoa. Each of their Theobroma Cacao trees have been strictly organic for the last 15 years. The berries are picked at a prime time, fermented to perfection, then the cacao beans are cold pressed to perfection before being bagged and sent to the consumer. At $9.33/lb when you purchase a 3 pound bag, this is one of the best deals you’ll find on raw cacao powder.
2. Viva Naturals Certified Organic Cacao (View on Amazon)
Another USDA certified organic cacao, Viva Naturals uses their prized Criollo cacao beans in this 100% pure raw product. Criollo beans are revered for their distinctive chocolaty taste and aroma that’s believed to be a result of being grown in the most perfect climates of Peru. Some claim Criollo beans to be less bitter, with hints of vanilla and caramel occurring naturally within. The price is right and the taste is superb with Viva Naturals!
3. TruVibe 100% Organic Raw Cacao Powder (View on Amazon)
TruVibe is not just USDA organic certified, it’s also a fair trade certified product. They claim the flavanol content alone is 685mg per ounce. They also use Criollo cacao beans, fermented to perfection, and cold pressed to preserve all the nutritional goodness inside each bag. This TruVibe product is an Amazon best-seller and they offer a 30-day money back guarantee if you’re not happy after using it.
Raw cacao has been revered by humans for at least 5,000 years for its taste and pleasure-inducing effects after consumption. Now, in modern times, we’ve learned that cacao not only tastes great and makes us feel deliriously happy, it also makes every cell in the body fulfilled by ridding the body of harmful free radicals and other toxins.
If you’re looking for a way to feel and look better, while getting a nice boost of natural brain and body-boosting energy, raw cacao powder may be just what the doctor ordered. Make sure to select only the finest quality powders, and also tell your friends and family to switch out their Hershey’s bar addiction for a regular daily dose of real chocolate in its purest form.
Raw organic cacao rules!