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.
Regarded for its delicious taste it has been praised as a godsend and led to the name of the tree on which it grows. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus gave the Theobroma cacao its name given in 1753. 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.” (2) The name cacao comes from the Aztec words xococ (bitter) and alt (water). They called it xocolatl, which translates to bitter water.
Cacao 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 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.”
Throughout history, people have used raw cacao seeds and the seed coat to treat all kinds of ailments, from diabetes, to digestive and chest pains.
Cacao vs Cocoa
After the 16th century the modern chocolate industry set in and changed the way cacao was consumed leading 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.
Fermenting cacao seeds with natural bacteria and yeast create cacao. If you then remove the shells of the fermented beans, roast them and mill them into a paste, you have chocolate liquor. Cocoa powder results when we extract the fat (cocoa butter) from the chocolate liquor.
While cocoa powder has the fat removed, chocolate is cocoa that retains the cocoa butter with sugar, milk, and preservatives added to it, making it a highly processed food item.
The Forms It May Take
Unlike cocoa and chocolate, cacao does not have any added sugar or preservatives. Cacao is fermented and roasted and comes in the form of a powder or small pieces known as nibs. Nibs are the seeds of the plant. Fermented, roasted and chopped into small pieces, nibs look similar to the chocolate chips you can buy in the baking aisle of you grocery store.
Health Benefits of Cacao
Cacao provides a good source of fat, carbohydrates, and protein along with other nutrients like fiber and minerals iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and copper.
Over the past few years research surfaced praising the health benefits of chocolate. It was a cure for everything from high blood pressure to aging and atherosclerosis. Keep in mind that these health benefits coming from the natural cacao and not the processed chocolate.
What nutrients does cocao contain that may offer health benefits?
Its health benefits can be attributed to the high amount of antioxidants naturally occurring in cacao. These compounds known polyphenols are antioxidants and prevent cells from being damaged. Polyphenols are abundant in cacao. They are what make this a super food. It gives it the ability to prevent cell damage and inflammation in the body. One type of polyphenol, flavonols, can stimulate blood flow and dilate blood vessels. This vasodilation helps to regulate blood pressure.
Cacao is rich in flavanols giving it a somewhat bitter taste. This compound helps with aging, heart disease, and cancer prevention.
Polyphenols are sensitive to heat and other forms of food manufacturing. They are sensitive to alterations during the roasting and alkalizing processes. Chemical reactions can also occur between chocolate and milk proteins affecting the ability for individuals to absorb the flavonols in processed cacao and chocolate products. That is why consuming cacao in the unprocessed form will provide most of the health benefits.
Essential Vitamins and Minerals
Aside from antioxidants, cacao provides an abundance of essential nutrients. It provides fiber, magnesium, copper, potassium, and calcium all of which help relax blood vessels and regulate blood pressure. When blood pressure is regulated there is a reduced risk of getting hypertension and atherosclerosis is reduced.
The bran of the bean is a good source of fiber but a lot of it is lost during processing. Like the other nutrients the least processed food product will have the most fiber per serving. This is shown in the raw cacao and unsweetened cocoa powder with 9 grams fiber in 1 ounce.
Nutrient Content of Cocao Products
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)
5.6 mg mg Sodium (0% 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)
A one ounce of chocolate with 45-59% cacao solids provides the following nutrients:
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)
6.7 mg Sodium (0% 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)
1 oz of Milk Chocolate provides the following nutrients:
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)
22.1 mg Sodium (1% 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)
1 ounce of dry, unsweetened cocoa powder provides the following nutrients:
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)
5.9 mg Sodium (0% 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)
As you can see the more processed the cacao the less nutrients it will contain.
Risks Of Cacao
There is no scientific evidence to prove or debunk these theories but it is important to know about the risks involved. Some say that like chocolate cacao can be highly addictive since it acts like a stimulant, and agitate the kidneys. Some think that long term consumption can lead to depression, mood swings, nightmares, and paranoia. Others feel that over consumption can cause a toxic build up in the liver and blood.
If you have questions you can 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 a cacao nib trail mix, top your yogurt, add it to your cereal or oatmeal. You can get cacao powder form and add it to your salad dressing, make a fun mole rub for your chicken or other lean meats. Add it to your favorite nut butter for a yummy healthy dessert.