What is cacao

Last Updated: September 24, 2019

What is cacao?  Have you heard of it before?  If you have ever eaten cocoa or chocolate then you have tasted the processed form of this food.

Cacao grows on trees found in South America as well as parts of Central America, Africa, and the West Indies.

It is a pod-shaped fruit that contains a sweet-tasting pulp and seeds.  The seeds of the fruit are the cacao beans and we use them to make cocoa and other chocolate products.

People began consuming cacao as early as 1600 BC, with the Incas and Aztecs praising it for its health benefits and ability to “build resistance and fight fatigue.”

Of course, it would be millennia before the rest of the world discovered cacao, as well.  In fact, the tree and the fruit were first given their official botanical and culinary names just 300 years ago, in 1753.

This naming was done by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who settled on Theobroma cacao.

The word “Theobroma” comes from the Greek words theos meaning “god” and broma meaning “food” together the words translate to “the fruit of the gods.” 

The word “cacao” comes from the Aztec words xococ (bitter) and alt (water).

Cacao vs Cocoa

cacao

After the turn of the 16th century, Europeans changed the way cacao was consumed leading, ultimately, to what we know it to be today; a sugar and trans-fat-laden candy that can lead to a host of diseases like high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes: chocolate.

Previously, cacao was prepared using simple fermentation with natural bacteria and yeast.  This is what we, today, still call cacoa and it retains essentially all the healthy nutrients found in the whole cacao beans.

Forms of Cacao

Fermented cacao beans can be:

  • milled into a paste to create chocolate liquor
  • ground into a fine powder to create cacao powder
  • chopped into small pieces (very similar in size and shape to chocolate chips) to create cacao nibs

Health Benefits of Cacao

What nutrients does cocao contain that may offer health benefits?

Fiber

The bran of the bean is a good source of fiber.  Fiber is a potent prebiotic, meaning it supports the growth of healthy gut bacteria.  This, in turn, leads to a wide variety of health benefits, from a reduced risk of autoimmune disease to improvements in mood.

Antioxidants

Cacao is rich in a group of antioxidants called “flavanols”.  Flavanols are responsible for cacao’s slight bitter taste and a ton of this superfood’s health benefits

Flavanols can:

  • ease inflammation
  • stimulate blood flow through your body
  • reduce your blood pressure
  • reduce the risk of heart disease
  • decrease the risk of cancer
  • slow aging

Essential Vitamins and Minerals

In addition to fiber and antioxidants, cacao provides an abundance of essential vitamins and minerals.  It provides healthy doses of magnesium, copper, potassium, and calcium all of which happen to be extremely helpful in keeping your blood vessels relaxed.  This, again, can help regulate your blood pressure.

Loss of Nutrient Content from Cacao to Chocolate

As I briefly touched on above, many nutrients are lost when cacao is processed into chocolate.  Check out how seriously the nutrient density drops off as you move from the whole food to the candy!

Cacao Powder

1 ounce of dry, unsweetened cocoa powder provides:

  • 35.8 mg calcium (4% of the daily value)
  • 140 mg magnesium (35% of the daily value)
  • 427 mg potassium (12% of the daily value)
  • 1.1 mg copper (54% of the daily value)
  • 3.9 mg iron (22% of the daily value)
  • 9.3 grams fiber (37% of the daily value)

Dark Chocolate

1 ounce of dark chocolate that is made up of 70-85% percent cacao provides:

  • 20.4 mg calcium (2% of the daily value)
  • 63.8 mg magnesium (16% of the daily value)
  • 200 mg potassium (6% of the daily value)
  • 0.5 mg copper (25% of the daily value)
  • 3.3 mg iron (19% of the daily value)
  • 3.1 grams fiber (12% of the daily value)

Chocolate

1 ounce of chocolate with 45-59% cacao solids provides:

  • 15.7 mg  calcium (2% of the daily value)
  • 40.9 mg  magnesium (10% of the daily value)
  • 157 mg potassium (4% of the daily value)
  • 0.3 mg copper (14% of the daily value)
  • 2.2 mg iron (12% of the daily value)
  • 2.0 grams fiber (8% of the daily value)

Milk Chocolate

And 1 oz of milk chocolate provides a measly:

  • 52.9 mg calcium (5% of the daily value)
  • 17.6 mg magnesium (4% of the daily value)
  • 104 mg potassium (3% of the daily value)
  • 0.1 mg copper (7% of the daily value)
  • 0.7 mg iron (4% of the daily value)
  • 1.0 grams fiber (4% of the daily value)

As you can see the more processed the cacao, the fewer nutrients it contains.  If you want to enjoy the health benefits of cacao, you should definitely opt for the least processed cacao product you can find!

Risks Of Cacao

The scientific evidence doesn’t support any real risk to your health from consuming cacao.

That being said, some people still make claims about negative health effects from eating cacao — either from theoretical risks or personal anecdotes.

Some say that like chocolate cacao can be highly addictive since it acts as a stimulant.  Some think that long term consumption can lead to depression, mood swings, nightmares, and paranoia.  Others feel that over-consumption can lead to toxic build-up in the liver and blood.

If you have questions or are worried you’re having a reaction to cacao, you should contact a medical professional about whether or not consuming raw cocoa is good for you.

Tips for Easy Ways to Add Cacao to your Diet

Some easy ways to add it to your diet include creating a cacao nib trail mix, adding it as a topping to your yogurt, or adding it to your cereal or oatmeal.  You can also buy cacao powder form and add it to your salad dressing, or make a fun mole rub for your chicken or other lean meats.  Alternatively, you could add it to your favorite nut butter for a yummy, healthy dessert.

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