Also, if you’re partial to a chocolate cookie, that happens to be very healthy for you, definitely keep reading!
What is Cacao?
Cacao is a seed (not a bean) from cacao trees that are native to the Mesoamerican region. Early evidence of the use of cacao exists in Mexico, Guatemala and modern day Columbia. As far back as 7000 BCE, cacao featured in Aztec religious rituals and is a major component of their local culture.
The word cacao is said to be a Spanish adaptation of the Nahuatl (Aztecan) word ‘cacaua’. The botanical name for cacao (Theobroma cacao) literally translates to ‘food of the gods’. And of course this is where chocolate comes from.
So that’s cacao, a seed from a tree. Now how do we get cacao powder? Let’s break it down even further.
What is Cacao Powder?
Cacao powder is also known as raw cacao or natural cacao powder. As it suggests, it’s the untreated, natural powder ground from cacao nibs. The entire process begins using an extraction method known as the ‘Broma process’. This method of extracting cocoa butter from cocoa beans to make other products is achieved by hanging bags of roasted cacao beans in a warm room. The room needs to be warmer than the melting point of cocoa butter. This allows the cocoa butter to melt and to be collected below. The remaining solids are left to dry and become ‘cacao nibs’. These nibs are ground into cacao powder.
Cacao powder is incredibly high in minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals that impart a range of health benefits. Cacao powder is also naturally vegan and gluten-free. It can be used in a range of recipes from sweet desserts, muffins, energy balls, smoothies and homemade hot chocolate.
Cacao Powder vs. Cocoa Powder
The two are very similar, with some key differences. In general, cacao powder is the healthiest as it has retained the most amount of nutrients due to minimal processing. Here’s the three powders summarised:
Cacao powder is made from fermented, unroasted (raw) cacao beans. They are processed at a low temperature and then ground into a powder. The result is what is commercially known as raw cacao powder, or natural cacao. It’s quite bitter due to the polyphenol content, light brown in colour and very high in nutrients.
Cocoa powder is made from beans that are both fermented and roasted. They are processed at higher temperatures then ground into a powder. Cocoa powder is slightly less bitter, and richer brown in colour. Due to the extra roasting step, cocoa powder has a slightly lower nutrient content.
What is Dutch Process Cocoa Powder?
Dutch process cocoa is cocoa powder that has undergone another processing step of alkalisation. This helps to neutralise the acidic flavour of the cocoa powder. Dutch process cocoa powder is popular in cakes and desserts because it has a smooth, mellow flavour and rich dark brown colour.
The result of alkalising cocoa powder is a softer powder to use in baking that’s more soluble in liquids and fats for cooking. Commercial chocolatiérs will often use Dutch process cocoa powder in their desserts and chocolates. Due to this extra alkalising step, Dutch process cocoa has the least amount of plant compounds and nutrients. One study comparing fermented, roasted and Dutch processed cocoa beans revealed that Dutch processing caused losses in two important polyphenols found in cocoa. Up to 98% of epicatechin and up to 80% of catechin losses were reported in the study.
What's Best For Baking?
For traditional baking, Dutch process or cocoa powder gives a more predictable, velvety chocolate flavour and finish. However, you can substitute for cacao powder if you like. You’ll get more health benefits, but the flavour might be slightly different. Some nutrient losses of cacao will always occur in the presence of heat, so for this reason cacao powder is often better suited to smoothies, granola and cold desserts.
Cacao Powder Nutrient Profile
In 100g of cocoa powder, there is:
- 58% Carbohydrates
- 14% fat
- 20% protein
Cacao Powder is very high in many plant polyphenols. Several of these compounds are also found in green and black tea. Here’s the major polyphenols found in cacao powder:
Cacao Powder Health Benefits
Cacao powder is rich in healthy plant compounds, which possess antioxidant, cardioprotective and anti-cancer properties. In fact, cacao powder has more than 100% of your daily value of iron and manganese. Eating raw cacao powder will ensure you gain all the nutritional benefits this plant food has to offer. Here’s just some of the research on the many health benefits of cacao powder.
- Supports brain health
- Reduces cancer risk
- Improves insulin function
Cacao Supports Cognitive Health
An exciting discovery in health science has been the benefits of certain foods with regard to brain health. A systematic review summarising the effects of acute and chronic cacao consumption on brain health was published in the journal Nutrients. This review showcased studies involving children and young adults. The results found that cacao intake was positively associated with several areas of cognitive health. Increased cerebral blood flow was detected acutely. Interestly, following chronic cacao consumption, cognitive performance was higher in the study participants as well as increased neuroplasticity.
Cacao Prevents Cancer
There’s an abundance of foods that have anti-cancer properties, including nuts, seeds and dried fruit. Cacao products are of course no different. The high polyphenols found in cacao powder have broad chemopreventive properties. Cacao flavonoids have free radical scavenging activities which actively interrupt cancer cell replication. Cacao also reduces inflammation associated with cancer production. As a food substance, cacao also slows down new blood vessel formation which supplies cancer cells. Cacao powder is a valuable functional food in the prevention of cancer, as shown in several research papers.
Cacao Supports Cardiovascular Health
The catechins and flavonoids present in cacao powder have been extensively proven to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and improve cardiovascular function. Other research published in the American journal of clinical nutrition indicates that flavonoids are anti-inflammatory in blood vessels and contribute to reduced blood clotting. These findings showed that the proanthocyanidins in cacao powder inhibited platelet function (clotting) over a 6 hour window following consumption. This means that cacao powder can improve cardiovascular function in real time, following consumption. Cacao powder is a beneficial food to improve cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of blood clotting.
Does Cacao Powder Contain Caffeine?
Yes it does. Cacao powder is mild to moderately stimulating due to the caffeine content and to a lesser extent, from the presence of theobromine. In 100g of cacao powder, there’s 230 mg of caffeine. When cacao products are consumed with other foods, such as in baked goods, desserts or smoothies, the impact of caffeine on the body will vary.
Cacao Safety & Health Risks
Cacao products also contain another unique polyphenol, theobromine. Theobromine is a polyphenol from the alkaloid family of plant chemicals. It gives cacao powder it’s bitter taste and it acts as a caffeine analogue. This means it has a similar, yet weaker effect in the body as caffeine. Theobromine binds to the same receptors that caffeine does and mildly promotes a similar wakeful feeling. This could be relevant if you’re monitoring your caffeine intake due to pregnancy, breastfeeding or for other health-related reasons.
Proceed with caution: overdoing it on dark chocolate or pure cacao powder can be quite stimulatory for certain people.
Another potential health risk is the presence of cadmium in cacao powder. Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal that can cause cancer. Cadmium is found in the soil of certain countries that grow cacao trees and may pose a risk in cacao products if consumed. Canada, the United States and the European Union have all set their own standardised limits for what constitutes a safe amount of cadmium in cacao products. The EU for example, has imposed that a maximum cadmium amount of 0.6 micrograms per gram of cocoa powder is safe for consumers. In truth, the risk of cadmium toxicity from consuming cacao products is very low, and thankfully food safety practices around the world are fairly stringent on these issues.
Chocolate Buckwheat Cookies
With the goodness of cacao powder, olive oil and buckwheat, these cookies will surely become an instant and delicious family favourite. They’re gluten and wheat free, dairy free and can be made vegan (see below for variation). And, well, they’re chocolate cookies. Everyone wins.
Chocolate Buckwheat Cookies
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- ⅓ cup cacao powder
- ⅓ cup brown sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ¾ cup buckwheat flour
- 1 egg *
- Preheat the oven to 180C.
- Combine olive oil and cacao powder first. Then add salt, soda and brown sugar.
- Mix in the egg until combined, then add the buckwheat flour.
- Scoop or form into cookies by hand. Drop dough onto a baking sheet. Flatten slightly with a spatula or your fingers to form into a round cookie.
- Bake in the oven and bake for 10 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and let cool on a baking sheet for 5 minutes.
- Store cookies in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
* For a vegan alternative, replace the egg with 1 tablespoon of chia seeds soaked in 2 tablespoons of water.
Baharum, Z., Akim, A. M., Hin, T. Y., Hamid, R. A., & Kasran, R. (2016). Theobroma cacao: Review of the Extraction, Isolation, and Bioassay of Its Potential Anti-cancer Compounds. Tropical life sciences research, 27(1), 21–42.
Crozier, S. J., Preston, A. G., Hurst, J. W., Payne, M. J., Mann, J., Hainly, L., & Miller, D. L. (2011). Cacao seeds are a "Super Fruit": A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products. Chemistry Central journal, 5, 5. https://doi.org/10.1186/1752-153X-5-5
De Araujo, Q. R., Gattward, J. N., Almoosawi, S., Silva, M. d., Dantas, P. A., & De Araujo Júnior, Q. R. (2016). Cocoa and Human Health: From Head to Foot--A Review. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 56(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2012.657921
Ellam, S., & Williamson, G. (2013). Cocoa and human health. Annual review of nutrition, 33, 105–128. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-nutr-071811-150642
Jean-Marie, E., Bereau, D., & Robinson, J. C. (2021). Benefits of Polyphenols and Methylxanthines from Cocoa Beans on Dietary Metabolic Disorders. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 10(9), 2049. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10092049
Jaramillo Flores M. E. (2019). Cocoa Flavanols: Natural Agents with Attenuating Effects on Metabolic Syndrome Risk Factors. Nutrients, 11(4), 751. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11040751
Martin, M. A., Goya, L., & Ramos, S. (2013). Potential for preventive effects of cocoa and cocoa polyphenols in cancer. Food and chemical toxicology : an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 56, 336–351. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2013.02.020
Martín, M. A., Goya, L., & de Pascual-Teresa, S. (2020). Effect of Cocoa and Cocoa Products on Cognitive Performance in Young Adults. Nutrients, 12(12), 3691. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12123691
Murphy, K. J., Chronopoulos, A. K., Singh, I., Francis, M. A., Moriarty, H., Pike, M. J., Turner, A. H., Mann, N. J., & Sinclair, A. J. (2003). Dietary flavanols and procyanidin oligomers from cocoa (Theobroma cacao) inhibit platelet function. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 77(6), 1466–1473. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/77.6.1466
Payne, M. J., Hurst, W. J., Miller, K. B., Rank, C., & Stuart, D. A. (2010). Impact of fermentation, drying, roasting, and Dutch processing on epicatechin and catechin content of cacao beans and cocoa ingredients. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 58(19), 10518–10527. https://doi.org/10.1021/jf102391q
Román, G. C., Jackson, R. E., Gadhia, R., Román, A. N., & Reis, J. (2019). Mediterranean diet: The role of long-chain ω-3 fatty acids in fish; polyphenols in fruits, vegetables, cereals, coffee, tea, cacao and wine; probiotics and vitamins in prevention of stroke, age-related cognitive decline, and Alzheimer disease. Revue neurologique, 175(10), 724–741. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neurol.2019.08.005
Seem, S. A., Yuan, Y. V., & Tou, J. C. (2019). Chocolate and chocolate constituents influence bone health and osteoporosis risk. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 65, 74–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2019.02.011
Wikipedia Contributors. (2022, March 7). Cocoa Solids. Retrieved from Wikipedia website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cocoa_solids, viewed March 7 2022