I’ll never forget the first time I had actual cacao. I was about 12 years old and making hot chocolate with my aunt.
We were all out of the processed hot chocolate that came in envelopes with sugar and dehydrated marshmallows, but we did have some raw cacao powder that she insisted would work.
For some reason I thought this powder was identical to the sugary delicious cocoa I drank during the winter. On that cold November afternoon, I took a spoonful of the cacao and popped it into my mouth. Imagine my shock when the bitterness of this powder hit me!
Raw cacao powder is not the same as chocolate or even cocoa powder. It’s a purer form that’s loaded with essential vitamins and minerals and combats oxidative stress in the body to have an anti-aging effect on cells.
But what exactly does this mean, and is raw cacao really the superfood everyone says it is?
“Cacao” Vs. “Cocoa“
You probably thought I made a typo up there when I started talking about raw cacao. Indeed, this word is eerily similar to cocoa and in truth, these types of chocolate maintain other similarities as well.
These two forms of chocolate powder are from the same tree (Theobroma cacao), yet processed differently.
Although Dutch-processed cocoa powder still retains a high level of antioxidants, it’s still processed using a heating method that destroys many of the essential nutrients in it.
Many people consume cacao beans in the form of chocolate, which is highly processed and commonly combined with dairy, sugar, and even artificial flavors in order to create the sweets many know and love today.
Although people can gain some benefits from eating this type of chocolate, there is a downside: consuming excess sugar, fat, and calories. If you’re going to consume this type of chocolate, try to stick to dark chocolate!
On the other hand, raw cacao powder is minimally processed via cold pressing and maintains the nutrients that make it a powerhouse food with high levels of antioxidants and magnesium.
In fact, raw cacao powder is thought to have the highest antioxidant content of any food–it even has seven times more antioxidants than regular cocoa powder!
These two types of powder are easy to mix up at the store, but just remember that it’s cacao powder that you want, not cocoa powder. The benefits of cacao powder outweigh those of cocoa. The cacao tree has been used throughout history to support a healthy body.
This fun rainforest tree was highly honored by the Aztecs and typically only drank by royalty–but you and I can pick up some cacao powder at the store and make use of this fabulous drink for the following health benefits!
Protect your brain from aging.
Research on the different types of flavonoids in cacao beans–which effectively function as antioxidants–shows that cacao has a positive effect on the brain. Cacao has several different effects on the human brain, including:
- Increases blood flow to the brain
- Inhibits the damage and death of neurons from free radicals
- Encourage synaptic plasticity in the brain, which promotes new learning and memories (meaning your neurons are able to make new connections in the brain!)
- Decrease risk for cognitive decline from diseases such as Alzheimer’s
- Lower risk for stroke
This powder can actually help boost brain function, especially in elderly people. Again, the flavonol content in cacao is responsible for this.
You can prevent cognitive decline and enhance brain function with cacao! Even for those who already experience cognitive impairment, cocoa has been shown to have a positive effect on your brain’s ability to protect itself, think, learn, and remember.
Essential for metabolism and post-workout healing.
Did you know that cacao can actually help keep you at a healthy weight?
Cacao contains a compound called xanthine, which also happens to be naturally present in just about all of the tissues in our body through our blood. Xanthine can actually help induce the burning of fat, a process also known as lipolysis.
Further research shows that cacao can actually prevent obesity and decrease fatty acid synthesis–which means it can help stop the creation of fat due to a diet high in unhealthy fats.
In addition to helping promote a healthy weight and preventing obesity, cacao can also help your body repair muscular tissue after a workout.
Making a smoothie or drink with cacao powder is also a great source of protein and carbohydrates–a balance which can effectively nourish your body after you’ve exercised!
Need another reason to incorporate cacao into your fat-burning workout routine? Cacao flavonoids such as quercetin and anthocyanidins can actually have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, therefore combating the inflammation that comes with post-workout muscles, chronic disease, and chronic pain!
Fight chronic fatigue.
Cacao powder has been shown to improve chronic fatigue syndrome as well anxiety in patients, and yet this powder only contains a fraction of the amount of caffeine contained in coffee!
Cacao doesn’t just help patients with fatigue–it’s also been known to improve mood in patients suffering from clinical depression. Research shows that patients experienced “significantly increased self-rated calmness and contentedness” after just 30 days of treatment!
This is because of the polyphenol content in cacao, which acts as an antioxidant in the body and can even help improve anxiety, has been found to decrease anxiousness in patients who experience heightened levels of anxiety.
So cacao can help improve mood, fight fatigue, and help depression and anxiety!
Promote heart and skin health.
Chocolate is heart-healthy? Yes! A number of studies point to the fact that cacao consumption can produce protective effects on the vascular system. How does this happen?
The high content of flavonoids–which, you may remember, act as antioxidants in the body–in cacao powder can protect against aging, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and decrease your risk for stroke, according to research.
Cacao has also been proven to improve insulin resistance in the body, therefore leading to a protective effect against diabetes and dangerous blood sugar problems.
What’s more attractive than a healthy heart? Healthy, glowing skin, of course!
The polyphenols in cacao protect against skin aging and skin damage, therefore resulting in younger looking skin.
Are you noticing a pattern here?
Anti-aging effects on the brain, younger-looking skin, a healthier heart, improved cognition–all of these benefits have to do with the immense amount of antioxidants in cacao powder, therefore resulting in a younger body that’s more capable of dealing with stress.
Now that we know the benefits of cacao, let’s learn how we can eat this fabulous powder!
How to eat cacao? (Healthy recipes to reap all its essential benefits)
As I noted earlier, cacao powder tends to be pretty bitter. It’s not quite as bitter as the cocoa you buy at the store, which tends to have a very acidic taste, but it’s still bitter if you’re used to eating sweet chocolate as opposed to the darker varieties!
You can buy cacao powder at your local health food store and many supermarkets are now carrying this delicious powder! I always buy raw and organic cacao powder, which looks very similar to regular cocoa powder but is a tad more fluffy.
So how can you eat cacao powder and start benefitting from it? Here are some killer recipes that you’ll love!
Recipe #1: Hot Cacao Drink with Maple Syrup – This easy yet delicious drink will warm you right up and provide a cup full of antioxidants!
- Your favorite plant-based milk (I love coconut milk, but you may also choose soy or almond milk)
- 2 tablespoons cacao powder
- Pinch of cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Pure maple syrup
- Vegan marshmallows (optional)
Simply fill your desired mug up with the milk, pour into a saucepan and warm over medium heat. Whisk in about two tablespoons of cacao powder. Add a pinch of cinnamon, vanilla extract, and some maple syrup.
Use all ingredients to taste. Top with your favorite vegan marshmallows and a pinch of some more cinnamon–yum!
Recipe #2: Antioxidant-Rich Berry Smoothie with Cacao – This smoothie is full of antioxidants and tastes like a dark chocolate berry smoothie with some added vegetable benefits!
- 2 cups of organic spinach
- 1 cup frozen organic berries of your choice (I love a mix of blackberries, cherries, raspberries, and strawberries)
- 1 ½ cups plant-based milk of choice (again, I always go with coconut milk here)
- 1 organic banana
- Pinch of cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon of coconut oil
- 1 tablespoon raw cacao powder
Blend all ingredients together and enjoy this mix of veggies, fruits, healthy fats, and antioxidants. The cacao powder brings out the best in this smoothie. Perfect for lunch or post-workout!
Recipe #3: Iced Cacao Coffee with Cinnamon – Do you love iced coffee? You’ll love mixing this blend with some cacao and coconut milk!
- Cold leftover coffee of choice
- Plant-based milk of choice (optional)
- ½ tablespoon cacao powder
- Pinch of cinnamon
Put all ingredients in a jar to taste and shake until mixed. Perfect for an on-the-go beverage!
What else can you do to love some cacao powder?
- Drink it mixed in a glass of water
- Sprinkle on toast or peanut butter and jelly
- Add to hot coffee
- Use in desserts when baking
Cacao is great and has some major health benefits from your entire body–but it’s not the same thing as the stuff you find in frosting and sweets.
Know the difference and reap the benefits of cacao powder for a healthy heart, a youthful brain, great skin, and improved mood!
While some cocoa powders do retain their antioxidants, most processed forms of cocoa that you find at the store simply can’t match the health benefits that cacao provides.
What’s your favorite way to take cacao powder? Have you ever tried it, or do you only stick with cocoa? I want to know if you can tell the difference!