In this post, we cover everything cacao related: what it is, cocoa vs cacao, raw cacao powder recipes and how to use the raw cacao butter.
What Is Cacao?
Cacao is known as the food (or drink) of the Gods! It has been traced back to the Maya people who were thought to be the first to cultivate the cacao plant around 400AD. The plant that is recognised today is actually a result of cross selection that started over 35,000 years ago and the scientific name is Theobroma cacao.
The 100% cacao has a rich, chocolate flavour but is also very bitter. The taste of cacao can actually vary depending on the variety of plant, soil, temperate, sunlight and rain that is received during the growing process.
Once the cacao bean has been processed (cold pressed, unroasted beans) – you can end up with raw cacao powder, cacao nibs and cacao butter (the oils of the beans).
Cocoa vs Cacao Powder
Cocoa is the term used for cacao that has been roasted at high temperatures, which changes the chemical nature of the bean. This exposure to high temperature lowers the antioxidant capacity and reduces the nutrient density that is found in raw, cold-pressed cacao. Otherwise, cocoa powder and cacao powder are interchangeable.
Cocoa Butter vs Cacao Butter
Cacao butter is the pure, cold-pressed oil of the cacao bean. Raw cacao butter production doesn’t exceed 46 degrees Celcius, whilst cocoa butter might undergo some heating during the pressing process.
Raw cacao butter is more nutrient dense but otherwise, they are totally interchangeable. Both are edible, stable vegetable fats that can be used in cooking and in preparations of skin and beauty products.
You might also come across refined and unrefined cocoa and coconut butter, wherein the refined version the colour and aroma are stripped. Unrefined is more supreme in our opinion.
Cacao nibs are small pieces of crushed cacao beans. They derive from cocoa beans that have been dried, fermented and cracked into small dark bits. The nibs have a chocolatey, bitter flavour and offer the same benefits as the raw cacao powder, especially if they haven’t been roasted. You might find roasted and raw cacao nibs on sale.
Raw Cacao Health Benefits
Be sure to note here that the benefits I am going to talk about all relate to raw cacao and cacao dark chocolate. I am not talking about sugar and dairy-laden milk chocolate!!!
One of the greatest health benefits of cacao comes from the flavonols (a class of flavonoids – antioxidants) that are found in cacao. Schardt notes that “Flavonols are bitter tasting, so to make cocoa more palatable, chocolate manufacturers roast, ferment, pulverise and sometimes alkalinize the beans or cocoa…unfortunately, this processing can destroy a lot of the flavanols”.(2013)
Antioxidant – Heart and Renal Health
- Cacao is a powerhouse FULL of antioxidants! The flavanols found in cacao can increase nitric oxide bioavailability, activate nitric oxide synthase and exert anti-inflammatory and antiplatelet activity – all of which may improve vascular function and reduce blood pressure.
- Cacao has been studied for its ability to reduce blood pressure and has been shown to produce “a small but statistically significant effect in lowering blood pressure by 2-3mm Hg in the short term” (Schardt, 2013)
- It has also been shown that the consumption of dark chocolate can increase renal medullary oxygenation and therefore may be a renal (kidney) protective agent.
Happy, Happy, Happy + Energy
- Eating cacao makes you happy! It contains phenylethylamine which is responsible for our state of mood and pleasure and the same feelings you get when you are in love. It also acts as a stimulant and can improve mental alertness.
- Cacao also contains serotonin and dopamine – which also stimulate good mood and ‘pleasure’ feelings.
- Anandamide is also in cacao which is present in the brain as an endogenous substance and interacts with cannabinoid receptors.
Nutrients In Cacao
- As we mentioned above, cacao is a powerhouse antioxidant and rates in the top 20 on the Oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) scale. The ORAC scale is used to rate the antioxidant capacity of foods.
- Cacao also contains great levels of magnesium, which is an essential mineral during times of stress and helps you to feel more relaxed. It also contains manganese, zinc, calcium and potassium.
- Raw cacao even contains good levels of vitamin C!
Cacao/Cocoa Butter Skin Benefits
- Cocoa butter has been widely used to reduce or prevent stretch marks. There is no substantial clinical evidence that it really works but the butter provides deep hydration and antioxidants to fight free radicals so we’d definitely use it to keep our skin supple and moist, which in turn can prevent or reduce the appearance of stretch marks.
- It has been noted to help with sensitive skin problems such as irritations, eczema and dermatitis.
- Raw cacao is a stimulant so it is advised not to consume it after about 2-3pm so as to not interfere with a good night’s sleep!
- Researchers at the Agricultural Research Service found that the higher the cacao content of chocolate the higher the benefits of the antioxidant properties found. So the darker – the better.
- It has been reported that dairy in chocolate reduces the bioavailability of the flavonoids found in cacao. It should be noted that the jury is out on this one! There are studies for and against – so I’ve not convinced either way just yet. I acknowledge that there are many people who benefit from following a dairy-free diet, as it can cause an inflammatory response in a lot of people and so, for now, would hedge my bets that you would be receiving more benefits from consuming chocolate and cacao that is dairy-free.
- There is such a thing as ‘chocolate poisoning’ or ‘theobromine poisoning’, which is an overdose reaction to the alkaloid found in cacao. Theobromine has an effect primarily on the central nervous system and cardiovascular system, as well as on the respiratory system and acts as a diuretic.
- Although the risk is very small and it would be very hard to consume enough theobromine to make yourself sick – it is just a reminder that anything eaten in extreme quantities is not good for you! This is why pets such as dogs can’t eat chocolate; it is the theobromine that makes them so sick.
Where To Get Raw Cacao
You can find raw cacao powder and cacao butter in most health food stores these days and even at some major supermarkets.
You can find raw chocolate at good health food stores, variety stores or online. Just be aware of the sugar content and still look out for the highest percentage of cacao.
Dark chocolate can be hard to get used to if you try to switch straight from milk chocolate to 90% cacao. The best tip is to gradually start buying chocolate that has a higher percentage of cacao, say by about 10-20% every month. Dark chocolate is very palatable once you get used to it. It takes 21 days to change your tastebuds, so before you know it, you will be eating 95% dark chocolate.
How To Use Cacao
- Cacao powder can be added to smoothies, make chocolate desserts or yummy hot chocolate.
- Cacao butter can be used in conjunction with cacao powder and natural sweetener to make your own chocolate (see some recipes below). It is also great to add to bliss balls or nut bases to hold them together and can be used in the place of coconut oil. It will add a lovely velvety, chocolate flavour. Cacao butter is edible but it is also used in skincare products.
- Cacao nibs add a lovely crunch to muffins, ice cream or as a topping on your favourite dessert. They are also great to add to your favourite granola mix for breakfast or on top of a smoothie.
Will cooked raw cacao retain its benefits?
There is no scientific verdict on whether raw cacao’s nutrients diminish during heating. I recommend using it in its raw form as much as possible but even if you cook with it, it will still be more beneficial than the already processed and heated cocoa powder.
Favourite Raw Cacao Powder Recipes
This no-bake chocolate caramel slice is dairy, gluten and processed sugar-free as is this chocolate hazelnut tart.
I like this easy Raw Chocolate Bark from Detoxinista.com or you can try recipes for raw cacao butter chocolate bark.
Or how about my rich sweet potato chocolate brownies?
For some DIY skin care, try this homemade cacao-coconut body butter from All The Little Extras or the cacao butter lotion bars from the Wellness Mama
- Verna, R, The History and Science of Chocolate, 2013, Malaysian Journal Pathology, 35(2) : 111-121
- Roura, E, Andres-Lecueva, C, Estruch, R, Mata-Bilbao, M, Lzquierdo-Pulido, M, Waterhouse, A, Lamuela-Raventos, R, 2007, Milk Does Not Affect the Bioavailability of Cococa Powder Flavonoid in Healthy Human, Annuals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 51: 493-498
- Sudano, I, Flammer, A, Roas, S, Ensleit, F, Ruschitzka, F, Corti, R, Noll, G, 2012, Cocoa, Blood Pressure and Vascular Function, Curr Hypertens Rep, 14:279-184
- Schardt, D, How Bittersweet It is, 2013, Nutrition Action Healthletter, Dec
- Pruijm, M, Hofmann, L, Charollais-Thoenig, J, Forni, V, Maillard, M, Coristine, A, Stuber, M, Burnier, M, Vogt, B, Effect of Dark Chocolate on Renal Tissue Oxygenation as Measured by BOLD-MRI in Healthy Volunteers, 2013, Clinical Nephrology, Vol 80- No3 (211-217)
This guest post is by Claire Yates. She is a nutritional medicine practitioner, holding a Bachelor of Health Science, who is passionate about whole foods nutrition, health and having fun! She is the author of Optimal Health The Paleo Way.
Do you have a favourite way to use either raw cacao powder, raw cacao butter or cacao nibs? Do you have any questions about cacao? Let us know in the comments.
i don,t think be so chocolate are under paleo diet by da way now i am cleared about paleo diet and its will help me a lot because i am and blind fan of chocolate lol
Love cacao and love the idea of a home made body butter! Definitely need to try that one! X
I have cocoa beans for use like coffee but i wondered if i could grind them up and use them as cocoa
I don’t think that’s quite the same.
I love coconut butter,coconut mixture chocolate and these all recipe which you have provided us in this blog.Day before tomorrow i made a recipe give name: COCONUT SPUNCHY SUGAR CHOCOLATE.Will you believe it is really very tasty and crunchy.Thanks for sharing.
All of these articles have saved me a lot of heeaachds.
Question! How long is cacao butter good for? I have some in the fridge that was “best before” 6 months ago. Is it okay to use or should I just throw it out? Thanks 🙂
I don’t actually know. It’s mostly fat so it should have a very long shelf-life, especially if it was in the fridge. It’s best to contact the manufacturer.
I’LL REALY BE PLEASED IF U ENRICH ME WITHMORE ABOUT CACAO BUTTER
HOW COULD I KNOW THE GOOD ONE FROM MARKET.
AND HOME MADE SKIN CARE
I am very interested is cocoa nibs better for you than cocoa powder, I find the powder is to sweet, kt is much sweeter tban the nibs, but the nibs are hard to bite so i grind them a little more is this ok,.
Any opinion about Cacao Bliss powder? It makes many health claims.
I haven’t come across before so I don’t know much about it. Sorry!
Hi… My weight is 115 pounds. I was planning to get my hands on raw cacao beans . Just wanted to ask if that would be okay if I consume a bean like on a daily basis- a bean, a day or alternate days ? Also can I eat raw cacao bean directly? Is it better to have raw cacao bean or raw cacao powder?
Hi , I was wondering if you knew why Cacao nibs seem to be double the calories of cacao powder per 100g. I was expecting them to be the same.
Hi, my question is. Once the cacao butter is removed which is virtually half the content of the nib and also being mono and saturated fats, can the raw cacao powder left still maintain the important nutrients and benefits of serotonin and dopamine, vitamins etc or do the butter fats give these benifits. I am wanting to use the raw cacao powder without the fats but im scared of losing nutritional benefits. Basically, will I be taking a substandard cacao without its butter(fats ) content? I have researched so much but cannot get a definitive answer. Hope you can help. Oh and where is the theobromine? In butter or powder left once seperated? Your article was the most informative that I have read. Wonderful.