Have you heard of this great stuff called chocolate? Sure you have: Americans eat 2.8 Billion pounds of it per year!
You’re also probably aware that chocolate isn’t great for you. It’s a high-calorie food stuffed with sugar. But what if I told you that chocolate could actually be good for you?
Welcome to the wonderful world of cacao!
What is Cacao?
Cacao is the word ascribed to the minimally processed bean (seed) that is harvested from the Theobroma cacao tree.
It’s a tree (Theobroma cacao tree) and if you think that is surprising those cocoa “beans” your imagining are not beans…they are seeds.
The cacao tree bears fruit that is yellowish and oval like a football. This fruit is pod like in that it contains “seeds” (20-60) …these seeds (often called beans) are the main source of all chocolate whether it is cacao or cocoa chocolate.
What’s that you say? What’s the difference between cacao and cocoa? I’m glad you asked, the difference – in one word – is processing.
Cacao is minimally processed LOW HEAT – which preserves a host of beneficial properties.
Cocoa is from cacao processed with HIGH HEAT – which negatively effects its molecular properties.
The majority of chocolate that we see in candy is from the high heat processed cocoa.
You may have seen chocolate bars labeled 60% or 80% Cacao. This is the amount of minimally processed cacao in the bar. If it were straight cacao it would be bitter.
I recently toured a factory that makes quality organic cacao chocolate bars. I held the dried cacao fruit and saw the little cacao beans (seeds) inside.
Cacao fruit is taken from the tree > dried > fermented > then the beans (seeds) are heated/processed at varying degrees depending on the desired product.
Before chocolate becomes chocolate, it’s cacao.
In the strictest sense of the word, cacao is a kind of oily nut (seed) that grows in tropical areas like Central America and West Africa.
In fact, cacao was originally a Central American delicacy considered both sacred and appropriate for consumption by the ruling classes. Aztec chocolate, or xocoatl, was a bitter, fermented drink that nobles would spice up with some hot pepper.
The Olmecs, a lost civilization known for their enormous stone head carvings, might have been chocolate drinkers too.
Cacao fruit grows right out of the tree trunk and branches of the cacao tree, much like a jackfruit.
When the fruit is ripe, it has to be harvested by hand. Then, the hull is cut open, usually with a club or a machete, and the sticky (seeds) nuts inside are fermented, dried, and stomped on.
(Yes, stomped on! It’s an important part of the process! Don’t believe me? Here’s a demonstration from St. Lucia. I bet you didn’t know that your chocolate has been in contact with bare feet!)
As you might have noticed, cacao processing is labor-intensive. At the best of times, cacao farming is a very hard life.
Fair trade organizations help the farmers involved and try to stop cocoa slavery from happening. What’s good for you should also be good for the people who make it!
By the time it’s edible by humans, the cacao nut is small, brown, and dry. This is the point when it can be crushed or processed for its cocoa butter.
This brings us right to cacao nibs, because cacao nibs are as close to the cacao tree as you can get. The fermented, dried, stomped-on cacao bean is simply crushed into small pieces to make the legendary nibs. That’s it!
What makes these nibs special is that they don’t have any added sugar to dilute their health benefits.
This also makes them quite bitter, but in a way that a lot of people like. They’re crunchy, but they have a nice give and a nutty flavor.
You wouldn’t exactly eat them out of the bag, but they’re especially popular as a cooking ingredient.
Note; the recipes below may use cacao or cocoa nibs
The difference is cocoa (processed with high heat) is sweeter and may have less nutrients
Popular, healthy cooking uses for cacao nibs:
- Chicken mole. You read that right! Cacao and chicken is a surprisingly savory and wonderful combination.
- In a healthy and delicious smoothie
- As part of trail mix
- Black bean mole burgers. Enough said.
As you can imagine, cacao nibs most often pop up in desserts. You can sprinkle them on ice cream or sub them in for chocolate chips in any cookie recipe. There’s even a cacao nib quinoa cookie out there if you want your dessert to be good for you, too! (For more on quinoa, be sure to check out our quinoa post!)
Here’s the best part about cacao: it’s actually good for you. You’ve heard about dark chocolate, right?
Cacao has the most antioxidants of all the chocolates you have heard of.
We often hear of tests in the news. But these are not usually conducted on regular chocolate.
Antioxidants prevent cellular damage by molecules called free radicals, which are basically unstable little particles that can react with the chemicals that make your body work.
Health problems antioxidants help prevent:
- Arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries
- Macular degeneration
- Alzheimer’s Disease
The specific antioxidants in cacao are called flavonoids. They’re also present in wine, veggies, fruits, and tea, but I think cacao is the most delicious way to get them into your diet. A serving size is about one ounce, containing about 168 calories.
Remember, cacao is also a seed! It contains potassium, magnesium, calcium, and several vitamins.
Vitamins and minerals in cacao nibs:
- There’s a full 16% of your daily magnesium needs in a single serving of cocoa nibs!
- Iron, to the tune of 19% of your daily recommended value.
- A quarter of your daily copper needs
- 27% of your daily manganese requirement
- 12% of your daily fiber needs can come from a single serving of cocoa nibs.
Benefits of Cacao Powder
Cacao powder has been shown to lower your bad cholesterol levels and features all the health benefits of cacao nibs.
The difference between cacao powder and cacao nibs is that the powder has had the cacao butter removed.
It’s not quite as creamy and delicious if you eat it by the spoonful. Usually, cacao powder is used as a baking ingredient, and commercial versions often come pre-mixed with sugar. Look at the ingredients for raw cacao, or shop specifically for cacao powder.
So why eat cacao powder instead of cacao nibs? Well, for one thing, cacao powder is easy to mix into pretty much any food.
Smoothies, baked goods, sauce, and salad are all candidates for this bitter but healthy cooking ingredient.
Otherwise, it features all the health benefits of cacao nibs. The cherry on top of cacao powder’s ease of use is its low calorie count.
One tablespoon contains a whole twelve calories. Who said chocolate had to be unhealthy?
Cacao butter benefits
The truly amazing thing about cacao is that its benefits aren’t limited to what you can eat.
If you’ve ever been in a health food store, you’ve probably seen cacao butter advertised as a component of moisturizer or skin cream.
That’s not just marketing! Cacao butter is really a derivative of the cacao nut. It’s present in cacao nibs – and, yes, it’s edible! You can cook with cacao butter if you really want to. (Don’t go eating your skin cream, though. Spring for culinary cacao butter instead.)
To get cacao butter, cacao processors turn the dried, fermented nut into a liquor.
That’s just an industry name for a liquid form of cacao. Unlike the ancient Aztec drink, it’s not at all alcoholic!
Once liquor-ized, the cacao is placed under pressure to separate the solids from the oily butter. There’s a video and a description of the entire process at Gizmodo.
The processed cacao butter smells like cacao. It’s got a low melting point, too. If you hold it in your hands, it’ll soon turn into a liquid.
Unlike other vegetable fats, cacao butter is so full of antioxidants that it doesn’t get rancid, making it ideal for skin care. (Let’s face it: we all have that bathroom shelf full of essential products that we’ve somehow forgotten about for years!)
Cacao butter is a great way to moisturize chapped lips and dry skin. There’s also some evidence to suggest that it might help prevent some aging-related skin diseases. Many pregnant women like to use it to prevent stretch marks, too, but there’s not much evidence to suggest that cacao butter does that.
Dark Chocolate Benefits
Now for the part you really want to know about: dark chocolate! Am I going to tell you that dark chocolate is good for you? Well…yes! To an extent.
The benefits of dark chocolate include:
- It decreases your blood pressure, which adds up to you feeling a little more relaxed. And isn’t that why most of us eat chocolate in the first place?
- Like all cacao-derived products, it helps prevent cardiovascular disease by giving you a lot of those lovely flavonoid antioxidants
- Dark chocolate may improve your platelet function, meaning that your blood will clot more effectively
Exciting, right? You get all this health goodness from a single bar of delicious dark chocolate. Except, of course, when it comes to processed foods, there’s always a caveat.
You see, dark chocolate is still chocolate. No matter how much cacao is in the final product, it’s still been mixed with a fairly large amount of sugar – 6.8 grams of sugar to an ounce of 85% cacoa dark chocolate.
Remember, according to the American Heart Association, a grown woman needs to keep her sugar consumption under 25 grams per day to be healthy and men need to stay below 36 grams.
If you’re watching your sugar intake, but you still want all that good stuff you can get from cacao, you might want to try cacao nibs or cacao powder before stocking up on dark chocolate.
If you already like chocolate, you’re likely to enjoy cacao too. Sure, the taste is similar, and that’s certainly an important part of any food.
But shouldn’t delicious food work for our bodies as well as our palates? Cacao is ideal: a gourmet treat that does as much for your health as it does for the quality of your day.
Think of cacao as the next step on your journey of appreciation, not just of health food, but of the really good things in life.
This humble nut was the food of kings and gods in its homeland. Like so many of the healthy foods I profile on this blog, it meant the world to the people who first cared for and harvested it. No wonder it’s so good for the human heart.
What type of chocolate do you like to eat? Comment below.