Raw cacao is a true superfood and has been for several thousand years. Unfortunately, the benefits of cacao powder often get buried beneath loads of sugar and additives or heavy processing.
However, if you were to eat pure cacao (or even cocoa powder) everyday, your body would benefit from a huge amount of antioxidants and plant compounds as well as a few key essential minerals. In fact, you may be surprised at just how many health-boosting properties this delicious substance has.
Here’s more on what makes cacao so good for you and how to consume it in the best possible way.
The Rich History of Cacao Powder
Cacao powder starts its life as part of the cocoa bean, which grows on Theobroma cacao trees. These trees are native to South America where they have played a big role in the spiritual history of that region.
According to the World Cocoa Foundation, cacao was first cultivated as a crop by ancient civilizations like the Mayans and the Aztecs. Its botanical name literally translates to “food of the gods,” and it features heavily in both Mayan and Aztec creation stories.
At some point, cacao was mixed with hot water to make a rich, bitter beverage (perhaps the first version of hot chocolate). This beverage was frequently shared during religious ceremonies, including betrothals and marriages.
The cocoa bean itself was also highly valued. It was used much like currency and given out to victorious warriors as a reward.
Eventually, cacao made its way to Europe by way of the Spanish Conquistadors. Spices and sugar started to be combined with the bitter cacao to make a sweeter drink. At first, this newer version of hot cocoa was only for royalty and the social elite, but it started working its way to mainstream culture during the Industrial Revolution.
Around 1850, solid chocolate was created (one of the greatest inventions some would say). It didn’t take long for chocolate to explode in popularity— and it remains just as popular today.
Cacao vs. Cocoa vs. Chocolate
To get the full benefits of cacao powder, it’s important to understand the many forms it can take.
Generally speaking, cacao is the rawest and purest form you can get (short of actually eating a raw cocoa bean). It’s made by separating the fat of the bean (aka cocoa butter) from the solids. The solid part is then ground to make cacao powder or broken into larger pieces known as nibs.
The main point is that cacao powder is not exposed to heat and keeps most of its nutrients intact.
Cocoa powder is the next step down from cacao powder. It typically goes through a roasting process and can also be chemically treated to decrease the bitterness and bring out more flavor. Dutch processing is a specific method that makes cocoa more alkaline and better suited for baking recipes.
Unfortunately, processing (especially Dutch processing) reduces the nutrient and antioxidant content of the powder.
Chocolate is a multi-ingredient cocoa product. It can be made from cacao or cocoa powder and typically has sugar, cocoa butter, and milk added to it. Dark chocolate has the highest amount of cacao, while milk chocolate is heavier on sugar and dairy.
Top Benefits of Cacao Powder
Sky-High Antioxidant Content
Raw cacao is one of the highest antioxidant foods on earth.
Unsweetened cocoa powder has an outstanding ORAC value of 55,653, and the estimated ORAC value for the raw version is 95,500.
To put that in perspective, store-bought blueberries (another superfood) have an ORAC value of only 4669. That makes cacao up to 20 times more powerful as far as antioxidant capacity goes!
Most of the antioxidants in cacao are a type known as polyphenols. Polyphenols have a long list of health benefits, including better heart health, reduced inflammation, and improved cholesterol levels.
To break it down further, cacao contains catechins (also found in green tea) and proanthocyanidins (also found in berries and red wine). These antioxidants have anticancer potential, neuroprotective properties, and many other benefits.
Rich in Important Minerals
Cacao powder is especially rich in certain essential minerals, including a few that many people don’t get enough of.
A great example of this is magnesium.
Magnesium is incredibly important for optimal health. It plays a role in over 600 enzymatic reactions within your body and is vital for things like quality sleep, mental health, and muscle function. Unfortunately, as much as half of the U.S. population falls short on magnesium intake.
The good news is that just one tablespoon of cacao powder contains about 7% of the daily value (DV) for magnesium.
That same tablespoon also provides about 4% of the DV for iron. You might not be very impressed with that number until you realize that cacao beats out top iron foods like spinach, beef, and lamb. (Spinach has about 2.7 mg of iron per 100 grams, and cacao has 13.9 mg per 100 grams!)
This makes cacao the top plant-based source of iron and better even than some animal sources.
Along with magnesium and iron, cacao is also rich in manganese, copper, phosphorus, and zinc. It also contains an amount of calcium comparable to cow’s milk, but your body may not absorb it efficiently due to the presence of oxalate.
Fights Chronic Inflammation & Free Radical Damage
Due to its incredibly high antioxidant content, there are major benefits of cacao powder for fighting two top contributors to disease: inflammation and free radicals.
As you may know, free radicals are unstable and very reactive molecules. They “attack” other beneficial molecules within your body, causing cell and tissue damage. This type of damage is known as oxidative stress and can eventually lead to inflammation and chronic disease, including cancer.
Chronic inflammation is another contributor to age-related disease. It can both come from free radical damage and contribute to free radical production, which sets up an extremely destructive cycle within your body.
Antioxidants are one of the top defenses you have against this damaging cycle. They neutralize free radicals, combat inflammation, and protect your health at the cellular level.
It bears repeating that cacao is one of the top antioxidant foods in the world. Consuming it regularly will replenish your supply of antioxidants and help keep you looking and feeling young.
Natural Mood Booster
Cacao is a natural mood lifter because it increases the production of certain chemicals that make you feel happier.
One way it does this is by promoting the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in stabilizing your mood. Low levels of it are linked to depression, but having enough of it contributes to feelings of well-being.
Another key to the mood-lifting effect of cacao is a lipid mediator known as anandamide.
Anandamide interacts with your endocannabinoid system and is sometimes called “the bliss molecule” because it stimulates feelings of pleasure and well-being. It’s rare to find enough anandamide in food to have an affect on your mood, but cacao is one such source.
Studies have indeed confirmed that consuming cacao can make you feel better and more content— and you might already know this for yourself!
Protective of Brain Health
One of the best anti-aging benefits of cacao powder is the protective effect it has on your brain.
The polyphenols in cacao have shown strong neuroprotective properties. In particular, flavanols (a type of polyphenol) can cross the blood-brain barrier and improve blood flow and blood supply to your brain.
This has a positive effect on learning and memory and may also help prevent age-related cognitive decline.
In fact, the antioxidants in cacao are so powerful that they may even help protect against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. They can also improve general mental performance and can boost your brain power on days when your mind isn’t feeling so sharp.
Highly Supportive of Heart Health
Consuming cacao powder regularly can significantly support your heart. Again, this largely comes from the antioxidant content of cacao, particularly flavanols.
Research has shown that the flavanols in cacao can significantly lower blood pressure. This is thought to occur because flavanols improve nitric oxide levels in your blood, which has the effect of enhancing blood vessel function and lowering blood pressure.
Something important to note is that cacao had a much greater effect on those who already had high blood pressure. This means it won’t necessarily drop your blood pressure if it’s at a healthy level but can be very helpful for those struggling with hypertension.
Overall, habitually consuming cacao may reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, and death from cardiovascular problems, which is quite impressive!
May Help Balance Blood Sugar
While eating sugar-laden chocolate bars is not good for blood sugar control, raw cacao is a different story.
Research has shown that there may be benefits of cacao powder for reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes because it helps to regulate blood sugar.
One way it does this is by slowing carbohydrate digestion and absorption. This has the effect of slowing the release of sugar into your bloodstream. It also improves insulin secretion and sensitivity, which is very important for preventing or treating type 2 diabetes.
You may not be surprised to learn that these benefits are, once again, attributed to the antioxidants in cacao. They truly are fantastic for your entire body!
Anti-Aging Power for Your Skin
Since cacao powder is packed full of antioxidants, it’s really no surprise that it is highly beneficial for your skin. Antioxidants are one of the best “foods” for your skin, whether applied topically or consumed through your diet.
Not only do free radicals take a toll inside your body, they also contribute to the breakdown of important skin proteins. This is especially true of collagen and elastin— the two anti-aging proteins that keep your skin looking plump, thick, firm, and wrinkle-free.
By supplying your body with powerful antioxidants, you can halt free radical damage before it takes place. This helps keep collagen and elastin intact and can even reverse the appearance of many common signs of aging.
Cacao specifically has been shown to provide protection against UV damage that accelerates skin aging. It can also improve blood flow to your skin, increase thickness, and enhance hydration. Other studies show that cacao flavanols improve skin texture and help keep its barrier intact.
You can get all these benefits simply by consuming cacao powder regularly. Of course, you may want to consider adding it to your skincare routine as well in the form of cocoa butter.
Choosing the Healthiest Cacao Product
Now that you know what cacao can do, it’s important to choose high quality products for the maximum effect. Remember, how cacao is processed has a big impact on how healthy and antioxidant-rich it is.
Here’s a look at the most important factors to keep in mind when looking for cacao:
- Raw is Best— There’s no question that raw, minimally processed cacao powder is the best choice. The only processing it should undergo is being separated from the rest of the bean— no high heat and no chemicals. This will give your body the maximum amount of antioxidants and nutrients possible.
- Cocoa Powder is Good, Too— Although raw cacao is absolutely the top option, that doesn’t mean cocoa powder is “unhealthy”. Yes, the processing it goes through does reduce its antioxidant and nutrient content. However, it still has as ORAC value of 55,653, which is much higher than most fruits and vegetables! Always choose the unsweetened variety and avoid Dutch processed as much as possible.
- Dark Chocolate Can Be Healthy— Dark chocolate can be a good way to consume cacao when eaten in moderation. The darker a chocolate bar is, the more cocoa powder (and antioxidants) it contains. Choose options that are low on sugar and have zero artificial ingredients. There are also dairy-free options now available if you’d like to avoid milk.
- Look for Organic and Fair Trade— Like any other plant, cacao can be grown with heavy pesticide use, which is something you definitely want to avoid. Buy organic whenever possible, and look for fair trade cacao/chocolate to support fair wages for cacao growers.
Perhaps the best “advice” when it comes to cacao powder is to eat it daily and often! In its raw form, this superfood is incredibly good for you: mind, body, and skin.
Top Recommendation: Cacao Bliss from Earth Echo
If you want a super-antioxidant alternative to sugar-laden hot chocolate mixes, look into Cacao Bliss from Earth Echo.
Not only does it contain pure, raw, cacao powder, it also has other antioxidant superstars in turmeric powder and cinnamon, all while maintaining rich, chocolatey flavor. You can make a cup of hot cacao, add it to smoothies, or use it any recipe in the place of cocoa powder.
Consuming this raw cacao mix is an easy way to boost your antioxidant intake— and you’ll feel like you’re enjoying a decadent dessert while doing it.
Learn more about Cacao Bliss here, and don’t be afraid to go “all-in” on this cacao.