What would you do if we told you that chocolate was healthy? Would you nod and agree, knowing the truth behind the deception of Big Nutrition? Would you screw up your face in your best skeptic impression and write us off? Would you settle in to hear us out?
As it turns out, chocolate isn’t necessarily healthy, because the chocolate we get everywhere is milk chocolate. It’s chocolate that is packed with sugar and cocoa butter and cream and more sugar, and any health benefits of the chocolate at the core are by far overwritten by the bad stuff on the side.
On the other hand, dark chocolate – 70% dark or higher, or even all the way to pure bittersweet chocolate – is much healthier.
What it all comes back to is the origin of chocolate: cacao.
What is Cacao?
In the tropical areas of the Americas, particularly South America, grow a particular kind of evergreen tree. This tree, the Theobroma cacao, grows pods from their trunks, which grow to be as large as a fist or larger, often times the size of a mango.
These pods, when harvested, can be cracked open. Inside is a rind full of seeds, or beans. These beans are harvested from the pods, and the rest is discarded. The seeds are then dried and the pulp around them ferments, drawing out bitter compounds and letting them flow away.
Fun fact: raw cocoa beans have a bitter taste similar to a potato more than anything.
Once the beans have been dried, they can be processed. It is in how they are processed that the difference between cacao and cocoa arises.
When the cacao beans are left to dry and ferment, what happens to those beans varies. Sometimes, they are processed at a low temperature to assist with drying, before milling them into a powder. This is cacao powder, which is quite bitter and has a high nutritional value compared to its roasted counterpart. If, on the other hand, those beans are fermented and then roasted at a higher temperature, they turn dark and some of the nutritional value is burned away. They become less bitter, but also less healthy, and become cocoa.
So, while you can read all about the health benefits of dark chocolate, that’s a cocoa product, not a cacao product. So what are the specific health benefits of cacao?
The Health Benefits of Cacao Powder
Cacao powder is bitter and more difficult to use, but it can be used in much the same way as cocoa powder, just with more sweetener added to balance out the flavor. We’ll discuss more ways to use it below, but first, let’s talk about the health benefits.
Cacao powder is high in antioxidants. Antioxidants have a widespread effect on your entire body, helping to reduce free radicals and lower inflammation caused by oxidative stress on your bodily systems. Antioxidants can be found in a huge array of different foods, so this benefit is hardly unique, but it’s still worth mentioning.
Cacao powder can help lower blood pressure. The antioxidants in cacao may improve the nitric oxide levels in the blood, which help your blood vessels function and can help reduce blood pressure. It’s worth mentioning here that this isn’t a defined benefit, it’s still theoretical. A few studies have been performed and have found small decreases in blood pressure, and some studies into south American people who frequently consume cacao-based beverages had overall lower blood pressure than other people, but these are more correlation than causation. It’s also worth noting that it seemed to be a more pronounced effect in people with high blood pressure than in people with normal blood pressure.
Cacao powder can reduce bad cholesterol. This, among a few other effects like a minor blood-thinning effect similar to aspirin, means that cacao powder can have a small effect of lowering the risk of a heart attack or a stroke. Since both of those conditions are caused by blood vessel issues, the association is obvious. Again, this hasn’t been conclusively proven, but a review of studies with a total overall subject pool of over 150,000 people found that higher cacao consumption was correlated with a lower risk of heart problems.
Cacao powder may help improve brain health and function. Again, blood is very important to every system in your body, including your brain. Improving blood and blood vessel health can improve the function of organs that rely on it, including the brain.
Cacao powder might improve the symptoms of depression. “Eat some chocolate to improve your mood” isn’t just because it’s a pleasurable food to eat, there’s some evidence that cacao helps facilitate the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin, which helps stabilize moods and reduce stress.
Cacao powder might help improve diabetes. Type 2 diabetes, specifically, might benefit from some cacao powder. Note that this is specifically the powder (not chocolate) since chocolate includes sugar that outweighs the benefits of the cacao powder. It’s certainly not going to solve diabetes entirely, but it can have a minor effect that helps overall as part of a treatment plan.
Cacao powder might help with controlling and losing weight. Even eating chocolate, as unhealthy as it can be, might be beneficial for weight loss in some situations. For one thing, it can help reduce inflammation, which makes it less painful and more pleasurable to work out, and lets you work out for longer. Additionally, cacao powder can help regulate energy use throughout the body, which stimulates minor levels of weight loss similar to caffeine.
Cacao powder could help with asthma. One of the more interesting side effects of consuming cacao powder is that it contains some compounds, like theobromine and theophylline, which have anti-asthmatic effects. Essentially, they help your lungs dilate and take in oxygen while reducing inflammation that makes it harder to breathe. Again, eating chocolate isn’t going to cure your asthma, but taking a small cacao powder supplement daily might help with some of the symptoms.
Cacao powder might also have benefits for teeth. Pure cacao powder is somewhat antibacterial, and that means it can help protect against the bacteria that cause cavities and gum disease. This is another benefit that only applies to the powder, though, and not to chocolate, which is filled with enough sugar to tip the scales.
Cacao powder has less of a stigma against it. Finally, where you might associate cocoa powder with sugar and chocolate, and thus believe it’s unhealthy, cacao powder reads like a different product and can be viewed as healthier. Savvy readers will already understand that cocoa powder is also pretty healthy and beneficial and that it’s the sugars and other ingredients that make chocolate less healthy, but if you’re marketing a product with cacao in it, it can be worth mentioning this benefit.
All of this together can be taken to mean that cacao powder is a broadly beneficial supplement, even if it’s processed into dark chocolate. Just stay away from milk or white chocolate, which has a much higher proportion of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients and is thus much less beneficial to your body.
So, how can you actually use cacao powder in your daily life as a supplement?
Using Cacao Powder
As mentioned a couple of times, cacao powder in its pure form is pretty bitter. If you’ve ever had raw cocoa powder, you know it’s already quite bitter, so something even more bitter than that seems like it might be harder to use. That said, it’s still chocolate, so it still has that delicious flavor hiding behind the bitterness. All you need to do is mix it with the right ingredients to hide that bitterness.
Mix with milk for hot cacao. One of the simplest things you can do with cacao to tone it down and make something tasty and healthy is to mix it with milk.
- Mix it with cold milk for a chocolate milk beverage that’s a little less sweet than normal, but still perfectly tasty.
- Mix it with hot milk to make a basic hot cacao beverage that might make you re-think the ol’ Swiss Miss.
- Mix it with almond milk for a nutty twist to either of the above.
- Add in additional spices for flavor and health benefits (like some vanilla), an orange or mint extract (but not both), some cinnamon, or even some turmeric to make some golden cacao milk.
- Mix it with coffee for a mocha beverage that kicks up the natural bitterness of coffee to a whole new level. This one is an acquired taste unless you put creamer in your coffee, but it’s very good for those who like it.
There are a near-infinite number of variations to this same basic recipe, but all you really need at the core of it is some cacao powder and some of your favorite kind of milk.
Mix into a smoothie for a chocolate twist. Smoothies made with fruit work best for this, though we’ve seen it used in green smoothies without much issue. It might seem weird at first, but the less sweet more bitter version of cacao helps it blend nicely with the vegetable tastes. The fruit is, of course, better, because you get a lot of sweetness from the natural sugars in the fruit, so you’re basically ending up with full-fledged chocolate by the time you’re done, just without all the artificial sugar or cocoa butter on top of it all. Blueberry and strawberry work especially well, as does banana.
Use as an ingredient in a protein bar. There are a ton of different protein bar recipes out there that call for cocoa powder, and you can substitute cacao powder 1:1 in those recipes. You can also remove a little bit of flour, if any is in the recipe, and replace it with cacao powder. We wouldn’t recommend fully removing flour, but enough of it to bring in the flavor is fine.
Add nibs to a tea blend for cacao tea. Cocoa nibs and cacao nibs are basically the same two things, so you can get some and add them to your favorite tea blend to add the cacao flavor to your favorite tea. This works especially well with spiced black teas, and a little less well with herbal teas, but it can work with any blend of flavors where a hint of bitter chocolate would go nicely. Try it in your favorite chai blend as well!
Use as a replacement for cocoa powder in baked goods. Pretty much any kind of baked good that calls for unsweetened or dutch processed cocoa powder can have it replaced 1:1 with cacao powder. After all, they’re basically the same thing, just with a different flavor profile and nutrient list. Chemically, they work the same for baking. Of course, baked goods are rarely healthy, so you’ll want to find actual healthy variations of those recipes in the first place.
Essentially, pretty much anywhere you could normally use cocoa powder, you can use cacao powder. Anywhere you want a bit of a chocolatey flavor without using chocolate, you can use some cacao powder. It might take a little getting used to it without some additional sweetener, but it’s easy enough to come by and the health benefits are good enough that it’s worth spending that time to do it.
Have you made use of cacao powder in your own recipes? We’d be interested to hear what your favorite versions of chocolatey recipes are, so feel free to leave your mixes in the comments below!