Do you love chocolate, but worry it’s not so great for your waistline and overall health?
The good news is that there are some amazing health benefits of chocolate in its raw form.
The bad news is the sugar-filled chocolate bars you find at the grocery store check-out aren’t the kind that delivers these amazing health benefits.
If you want to cash in on the heart helping and brain boosting power of chocolate, you need to choose the right kind.
Cacao, Cocoa, and Chocolate: What’s the Difference?
Even though these three terms denote variations on the same basic thing, there are actually big differences between them.
Let’s start with the most familiar…
We all know what that is, right?
In the 21st century it is a sweet concoction made up of part cocoa (which I will explain in a minute), part sugar, and part butter.
It also often includes an increasingly large number of additives when made into candy bars, sauces, sprinkles, or anything sold in mass at your local grocery or convenience store.
Cocoa, on the other hand, simply denotes a powdered form of chocolate used in baking and in hot chocolate.
You may be familiar with it from those little single-serving packets you cut open and swirl around in hot water or milk on chilly evenings.
Cocoa can be the sugary stuff, such as what is in that box or tin on the grocery store shelf.
Or it can be unadulterated, little-processed, unsweetened and (ideally) organic.
In this form, it is almost as good for you as straight cacao.
The big difference between cocoa and cacao (besides the vowel switching) is that cocoa powder is processed at a higher temperature than cacao.
It’s not raw, but it can still contain many good-for-you substances.
It is also a source of fiber, is low in fat, and has some protein in it as well.
Last on our list is cacao.
Cacao is technically the term for the raw bean, which comes out of large pods grown on the tropical Theobroma Cacao tree.
Cacao is the purest form of chocolate you can consume.
A person can actually eat a cacao bean straight from the pod.
Usually, however, raw cacao is dried and presented as either a powder, a paste, or as “nibs.”
Nibs are great for snacking when you need quick energy on the go.
Cacao paste can be used for delicious vegan deserts and for other baked goods.
Finally, raw cacao powder can be a superfood substitute for cocoa whenever a recipe calls for the latter.
It can also be swirled into coffee or a smoothie, made into tasty recipes, or used solo for a super-healthy hot chocolate drink.
5 Health Benefits of Chocolate (Cacao)
So why would you want to go to all the trouble to consume raw cacao when cocoa and chocolate is so much cheaper and readily available?
The reason is nutrition.
There are few foods out there that compare to raw cacao in terms of mineral content, healthy fats, and especially antioxidant level.
Here is more on what raw cacao, and unsweetened organic cocoa to a lesser extent, have to offer health-wise:
#1 – Super High Antioxidant Content
The first, and perhaps most well-known, reason why cacao is a superfood is because of its super high antioxidant content.
In fact, some experts claim that it has the highest antioxidant level of any food out there.
Antioxidant content is measured in ORAC values.
Unsweetened cacao has an ORAC value of 55,653, which is significantly higher than other superfoods such as blueberries. (i)
In particular, raw cacao contains procynanidins and epicatechins, the same flavonoid phytonutrients found in red wine and berries.
Cacao is also a source of the catechins, another strong antioxidant found in green tea.
Finally, cacao contains monounsaturated fats, which have their own role to play in detoxification (ii) as well as in the immune system and as a helper for metabolism.
#2 – Helps Your Heart
Cacao can also promote cardiovascular health.
First of all, the flavonoids found in cacao have shown to decrease LDL cholesterol levels (often referred to as the “bad” kind of cholesterol).
At the same time, it has been known to raise HDL (the “good” kind of cholesterol), according to the Linus Pauling Institute. (iii)
Cacao is also a source of healthy fats, as mentioned above.
Recent research shows that healthy fats are a must-have in order to keep the heart, the arteries, and the blood flow moving and strong.
According to a Japanese study comparing flavonoid-rich dark chocolate to white chocolate, dark chocolate was responsible for increasing coronary circulation, whereas consuming white chocolate did nothing to help the heart and circulation. (iv)
#3 – Balances Blood Sugar and Helps People with Diabetes
Consuming cacao can also help stabilize blood sugar levels.
When a person has diabetes, their body does not produce enough insulin or other mechanisms which regulate blood sugars are not working properly.
Often this has to do with malfunctions in what are called “beta cells.”
Research published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry (v) reported that beta cells come back online with the help of specific types of super-antioxidant catechins available in cacao.
These types of phytonutrients also increase mitochondrial respiration, which is vital for proper metabolism.
#4 – Contains Many Essential Nutrients
Besides monounsaturated fat and many types of antioxidants, raw cacao also contains several essential minerals, including potassium, magnesium, calcium, sulfur, iron, copper and zinc (vi).
It has oleic acid within it as well, which is found in olive oil and has been shown to be protective against certain kinds of reproductive cancers. (vii)
Cacao also contains a variety of essential B vitamins, such as B2, B1, B5, B9 and B5, in addition to vitamin E.
#5 – Gives Your Brain (and Your Mood) a Boost
Last, but certainly not least, cacao is a serious brain-builder and a mood lifter.
A 2013 study by researchers at Tufts University found that older adults with either hypertension or diabetes had “significant improvements” in cognitive function and blood flow to the brain after drinking two cups of cocoa a day for one month (viii)
Eating raw chocolate can also elevate mood.
This is because cacao contains some very interesting neurotransmitters, sometimes called “love chemicals,” associated with motivation and pleasure.
One of these was discovered in the late 1990s.
It is an endogenously-produced (meaning produced within the body) fatty acid ligand called “anandamide.”
Cacao is one of only a few foods which contain it.
Anandamide is neuroprotective and immune system-boosting. (ix)
It is sometimes called the “bliss molecule” because of its ability to encourage neurogenesis (x) i.e. the formation of new nerve cells.
Because of this, it has both anti-depressant and anti-anxiety properties.
Cacao: Essential Points to Remember
There are some key points to consider when choosing a source of cacao.
First of all, keep it simple and keep it clean.
Pure, organic, raw, and fair trade is always best.
Also, avoid the sugary stuff and especially avoid any cacao or chocolate products that contain high fructose corn syrup as well as artificial ingredients and preservatives.
Yes, some high-cacao content chocolate bars and cocoa drinks can provide some amount of the same health benefits as raw cacao.
But keep in mind that these products may also contain added sugar, dairy, and artificial ingredients which can lower immunity.
Be sure to read the labels on these products.
Keep in mind that cacao is powerful stuff!
A little goes a long way when it comes to taste, nutrition, and caffeine content.
If you are sensitive to stimulants, try adding just a tad of cacao to a smoothie or coffee and see how your body responds.
Remember that even though you may be choosing the healthier version of chocolate, this doesn’t mean you have to give up on taste.
There are many healthy and delicious cacao recipes available on our site and online.
A Powerful Brain Health Supplement with Cacao
And if a healthy brain is important to you (which it should be for all of us as we age!), consider that cacao is even a key ingredient in some brain health supplements.
The best I’ve found is Ageless Brain, which combines the brain-boosting power of cacao with seven other powerful plants that nourish your brain from multiple different angles to create optimal health.
The result is it gently supercharges your memory, fights off brain fog, keeps you sharp, improves your clarity, helps you feel better overall, and reduces feelings of stress and anxiety in your day-to-day life.