Growing up, we always had cocoa powder our the pantry.
It was used for baking; chocolate cakes and chocolate icing were really the only we used it.
Then, in the early to mid-2000s, the raw food movement, and so-called superfoods, crashed onto the scene.
Aaaaaaand cue raw “cacao”.
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Cacao vs cocoa. What’s the difference?
I remember thinking, ‘what the hell is cacao’? How is this different from cocoa? Several brands of cacao powder, cacao nibs, cacao beans, and cacao butter started popping up everywhere.
This is where it gets confusing because there’s no consensus on the two terms. Neither cacao nor cocoa is technically standardized. Regardless, it all starts with what’s commonly referred to as cacao beans.
Cacao beans are actually seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree. The tree produces large fruit called pods. Each pod contains 20-60 ‘beans’ embedded in a white pulp (1, 2). The beans are the foundation for all things cacao, cocoa, and chocolate.
Some use cacao to mean the pods, the whole beans and ground-up beans (mash) while cocoa refers to the powder that’s left after all the fat has been pressed out of the ground beans (1).
Manufacturers of so-called raw (unroasted) cacao bean products use and market the word “cacao” to differentiate between unroasted and roasted beans and their products. Raw products are also leveraged as being superior because they haven’t been roasted which proponents say degrades the beneficial properties of the beans.
Unknown to the dutiful customer who’s specifically seeking out raw cacao products, cacao beans can’t be used straight from the pods. In fact, fresh cacao beans don’t even taste chocolatey. Like many foods we enjoy, cacao has to be treated (a.k.a. “processed”) to improve their tasted and digestibility (1, 3, 4).
Fermentation– The beans and all the sticky pulp are put into containers and covered. During this process, microorganisms like bacteria, feed on the pulp and ferment the beans. It’s this microbial treatment that changes the beans where they start to develop that desirable distinctive chocolate flavor and aroma.
Drying – After the beans have fermented for several days, they are dried for several more days. Once dried, they can be sold to chocolate makers or those who want to sell them as ‘raw’ cacao products including whole beans, nibs, and powder.
Roasting – Like coffee beans, once the cacao beans are fermented and dried, they can be roasted. This further develops the chocolate flavor and increases its sweetness through caramelization.
Crushing – In this step, the beans are crushed and separated from the outer hulls. The resulting coarse, broken pieces are called nibs. Both unroasted and roasted beans can be crushed into nibs.
Grinding – Nibs are ground producing a liquid called a liquor (there’s been no fermentation of carbohydrate so this ‘liquor’ is alcohol-free). The liquor can be made into chocolate products or into cocoa powder.
To make cocoa powder, the liquor, which is about half fat in the form of cocoa butter, is pressed to remove most of the fat (2). This leaves the defatted ‘powder’ and cocoa butter. The percentage on a product label tells you how much cocoa powder and cocoa butter are present. The specific proportion of each is generally proprietary (2). You’ll only see descriptions like “75% cocoa” etc, on labels.
Loss of polyphenols
The appeal of raw (unroasted) or non-alkali treated cacao and cocoa products is due to the fact that raw products will retain more polyphenols. High-temperature processing, or longer processing times and alkali treatment all reduce the amount of cacao polyphenols, up 60% loss in total (5, 6).
The real question is, does it matter if there are differences in the amount of total polyphenols between the two processing methods? Will not eating raw version deprived you of the health-promoting properties of cacao/cocoa polyphenols? In short, do roasted and alkali-treated products still provide enough flavanols to make eating these products worthwhile?
Cacao and cocoa nutrition
When it comes to traditional nutrition chit chat, the main difference between different products will be the calories. This is because the bulk of the calories in cacao beans comes from fat (cacao butter). Products with more cacao butter will have more calories. If it’s a chocolate product like a chocolate bar, truffles, etc, then there’ll more calories coming from added sugar as well.
Here’s a comparison of a handful of nutrients in 1 ounce (28 g) of different cacao and cocoa products (4, 5).
|Cocoa Powder||Cacao Nibs, unsweetened||
|Dark Chocolate, 90% Cocoa|
|Fat||3.5 g||11 g||11 g||15 g|
|Saturated Fat||2 g||2.5 g||6 g||9 g|
|Protein||5 g||9 g||2 g||3 g|
|Carbohydrate||16 g||6 g||13 g||9 g|
|Fiber||9 g||3 g||4 g||4 g|
|Sugar||0 g||0 g||8 g||2 g|
|Iron||4 g||0.6 g||2 g||2.1 g|
|Magnesium||140 mg||40 mg||50 mg||*|
|Phosphorus||206 mg||99 mg||73 mg||*|
|Zinc||2 mg||0.5 mg||0.7 mg||*|
|Manganese||1.1 mg||0.5 mg||0.4 mg||*|
|Copper||1.1 mg||0.5 mg||0.3 mg||
* as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find the amounts of these nutrients in a 90% dark chocolate product, the databases were sparse but it will be close to that in the 70% products.
Cacao flavanol content of cacoa products
Cacao powder, raw
> 400 mg
Cocoa powder, roasted
74 – 260 mg
Cacao nibs, raw
> 400 mg
Dark chocolate, 90%
~ 350 mg
Dark chocolate, 85%
~ 300 mg
Dark chocolate, 70%
~ 100-200 mg
~ 50-100 mg
Polyphenols represent a class of compounds found abundantly throughout the plant kingdom.
They’re often referred to as nutrients or micronutrients which isn’t technically correct. Essential nutrients are those that we can’t make enough to meet our needs, or that we can’t make at all.
There are essential amino acids (for protein synthesis), essential fats, and essential vitamins and minerals. Without these, health suffers ultimately leading to death if overt deficiencies develop (e.g. scurvy, etc).
Polyphenols and similar compounds aren’t needed for survival BUT they do make the difference between surviving and thriving.
Polyphenols are subdivided into different, but similar-structured compounds:
As a subclass of polyphenols, flavonoids, in general, have gotten a lot of attention because they’re attributed to the health benefits of fruits, vegetables, red wine, olives, green tea, whole grains, olive and avocado oils, etc (7).
The polyphenols of interest where cacao is concerned are the flavanols, a specific group/type of flavonoids:
Cacao, cocoa, and chocolate have the highest concentration of flavonoids among commonly consumed foods. Over 10% of the weight of cacao is flavonoids.
A lot of robust evidence from both animal research and human interventional studies support the role of cacao/cocoa polyphenols (flavanols) in cardioprotection, improved blood vessel function, blood clot prevention, and improvements in blood pressure, insulin resistance (improved insulin sensitivity), and blood lipid ratios (LDL, HDL, and triglycerides) and more.
Most know that cocoa and chocolate contain caffeine (8). Most chocolate-based foods like cake or chocolate bars contain a lot less caffeine compared to the two main sources in the human diet (coffee and tea).
Another naturally-occurring compound found in cacao plants is theobromine (9). Like caffeine, theobromine has stimulatory effects on the central nervous system but its effects are much milder.
Theobromine has been shown to benefit both the respiratory and circulatory systems helping those with asthma, improve cognitive function, high blood pressure, improve HDL levels and more (10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18).
It’s important to note, that with all cacao health benefits, it’s the total amount of flavanols consumed that influences their overall effects and benefits. The type of cacao-based product consumed and the frequency of consumption will influence the impact of flavanols on health.
Blood pressure and nitric oxide
Cacao may help to maintain healthy blood pressure. The flavanols improve the production of nitric oxide (NO), a type of gas which enhances how well your blood vessels expand and relax (19, 20, 21, 22, 23).
Consuming cocoa/cacao has also been shown to protect blood vessels against oxidative damage which is a good thing as oxidation leads to reduced blood vessel function (24).
Cacao polyphenols have also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity thereby leading to a decrease in insulin-resistant related high blood pressure (25).
A Cochrane meta-analysis of 35 trials showed that those who consumed high amounts of cacao flavanols saw a greater reduction in blood pressure than those who consumed little to no flavanols (26).
Regarding blood pressure, intakes of 30-1218 mg of cacao flavanols result in a reduction of 2 mmHg (points) in blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, adding more dark chocolate and cacao products to your overall polyphenol intake goals may help your overall treatment (but don’t stop any medication you might be prescribed).
Lots of research has demonstrated how cacao polyphenols (flavanols) benefit heart health. As mentioned, they can help to lower and maintain blood pressure but also benefit both the structure and function of your heart’s blood vessels. They also improve the ratio of the various blood fats that are involved in cardiovascular disease.
Healthy blood vessels contract (to help move blood) and ideally should easily relax afterward. When this isn’t happening properly, it’s called “endothelial dysfunction” which leads to high blood pressure and stress on the blood vessels themselves. Poor blood flow is a measure of blood vessel problems.
Cacao/cocoa flavanols have been shown to improve blood vessel function and blood flow which improves cardiovascular health (21). The fat in cacao/cocoa products have been shown to positively improve the ratio of LDL to HDL “cholesterol” while lowering inflammation and by extension oxidation. More on inflammation in a bit but by lowering it, less damage occurs throughout your entire vascular system (21).
A central role in atherosclerosis is the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Oxidized LDL damages the lining of your blood vessels which stimulates the immune system. Immune cells rush to the site of damage endothelium (blood vessel cells) in an attempt to fight off what it thinks is a pathogen/foreign invader (the damaged LDL). Dietary antioxidants (vitamins C, E, lutein and zeaxanthin, beta carotene, etc) help to prevent LDL oxidation. Cacao’s flavanols have also been shown to prevent LDL oxidation and therefore prevent the pivotal first step in atherosclerosis.
Cacao also has blood-thinning properties by reducing the stickiness of platelets. By doing so, like omega-3 fats, helps to reduce blood clots (27) Another good news finding is that population studies have linked cacao/cocoa consumption with better heart health, reduced risk for heart failure, coronary artery disease and stroke (28, 29, 30).
A review of nine studies in 157,809 people found that higher chocolate consumption was associated with a significantly lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and death (31).
Brain blood flow and brain function
Cognitive decline is a common chronic disease of aging. Because the brain has massive amounts of blood vessels, anything that benefits your blood vessels in general by extension benefits your brain. That’s where cacao comes in.
Several studies have found that polyphenols in general (fruits, vegetables, green tea, olives, etc) reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Cacao flavanols can cross the blood-brain barrier and support healthy neuron (brain cell) growth, repair and maintenance by activating BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor) pathways (32, 33, 34).
Of course, the same nitric oxide that benefits the blood vessels in your heart and body, benefit your brain by improving blood flow and blood supply. Better blood supply equals more oxygen and nutrients delivered to your energy-hungry noggin and better brain function (35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40).
Mood and depression
The role of nutrition in healthy moods including depression is well established. Nutrient deficiencies can increase the risk of depression and the link between depression and vitamin D is strong. But chocolate?
Cocao and dark chocolate may also improve mood and symptoms of depression (18).
They positively impact mood in several ways. For one simple reason, eating pleasurable food makes us feel good. Secondly, cacao/cocoa polyphenols may play a role in healthy moods in a way we haven’t discovered yet. Thirdly, cacao increases feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, while we don’t know for sure, we think it’s cacao’s caffeine and theobromine content that’s responsible (39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44).
Like all antioxidants, the high concentration of antioxidants in cacao may have anticancer properties.
Two of cacao’s flavanols, catechins, and epicatechins help to reduce metastases (when cancer spreads to other tissues). Catechins and epicatechins appear to induce the crucial step in preventing cancer in the first place, apoptosis or programmed cell death. When cells start to grow out of control, which is happening all the time, there’s a fail-safe mechanism whereby the rogue cell is triggered to self-destruct. In this sense, the abnormal cell commits suicide and cacao makes this happen.
At least in population studies, those with higher intakes of polyphenols and flavonoids (catechins, epicatechins, gallocatechins, and epigallocatechins), like those found in cacao and other foods, are associated with lower risk of many cancers (45, 46).
Type 2 diabetes
Imagine thinking that eating cocoa, cacao or dark chocolate products could improve blood sugar control! How great would that be?
But it’s true. Cacao’s flavonoids can influence your biochemistry in ways that go far beyond macros like protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Phytonutrients actually get into cells and modify gene expression which is why they have awesome disease-fighting properties. Human studies have shown that cacao can help regulate blood sugar control and improve insulin sensitivity which leads to better blood sugar control (47).
A mere 1 ounce (28 grams) of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate eaten daily for 8 weeks resulted in greater fasting blood sugar reduction and lower A1c (a marker of long-term blood sugar control) in a group of 60 people with diabetes compared to a placebo group (23).
Furthermore, a recent review of 14 studies in over 500,000 people showed that 2 servings (60 g in total) of flavanol-rich chocolate per week was associated with a 25% reduced risk of diabetes (28).
Of course, chocolate products (bars, truffles, etc,.) will have more added sugar. If you’re interested in reaping the benefits of cacao’s flavonoids where blood sugar control is concerned, look to incorporating cacao nibs, unsweetened cacao or cocoa powder instead.
Asthma (theobromine and theophylline)
Flavanols may improve airway function. Specifically, it’s thought that cocoa may be beneficial for people with asthma, as it contains anti-asthmatic compounds, such as theobromine and theophylline.
Theobromine is similar to caffeine which may help provide relief to persistent coughing. Cocoa powder contains about 1.9 grams of theobromine per 100 grams or 3.5 ounces (48, 49, 50). Because theophylline helps your lungs dilate, your airways relax and decrease inflammation, the restrictive bronchial nature of asthma is improved (49).
In a small study on 10 healthy volunteers and guinea pigs of all things, cocoa’s theobromine was effective at reducing the nerve activation that causes coughing (50). In another small trial on 9 asthmatic children, both theobromine and theophylline relaxed and widened the airways (51).
Antioxidants like beta and alpha-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, lycopene, etc have been shown to provide protection from UV radiation. Likewise, when it comes to skin health, cacao’s antioxidants have a small but beneficial role.
One study using a cocoa beverage with 320 mg total flavanols improved skin elasticity and reduced wrinkles in 64 women with sun-related skin damage (50). But it’s not just sun-related damage that benefits. A group of smokers saw improved blood circulation and skin repair after consuming a cocoa-based beverage (51).
In two studies, cocoa flavanols increased the skin’s resistance to UV induced redness in 54 healthy people. However, this effect wasn’t reproduced in subsequent studies (50, 52, 53). Because it increases blood flow, a study on 10 healthy women found that cacao increased blood circulation and oxygen concentration in the skin which may improve skin quality (54).
The polyphenols in cocoa are antioxidants that prevent free radicals from damaging cells. One way to conceptualize oxidation is to think of an apple core that’s browned. Oxidation can damage fats, sugars, proteins that make up your cells and tissues, as well as damaging your DNA. Cacao has a potentially higher potential antioxidant capacity than many commonly promoted anti-cancer foods like green tea, blueberries and more (55).
Why does this matter?
Cacao improves your overall antioxidant status meaning you are better prepared to fight the onslaught of damaging free radicals. Consuming flavanol-rich cocoa has been shown to improve overall antioxidant status in study subjects (by increasing glutathione levels and through their own antioxidant activity). Cacao polyphenols have been shown to prevent blood fats from oxidation, an important factor in the development of chronic disease (56, 20).
But not just for chronic disease consideration. Cocoa flavanols were able to increase the antioxidant capacity of athletes before and during exercise which improves post-exercise recovery and performance (57, 58).
Short-term inflammation plays an important role in your body’s defense against infections and injury. Chronic inflammation negatively impacts all physiological functions, causing an array of degenerative conditions including diabetes; cancer; cardiovascular, osteo-articular, and neurodegenerative diseases; autoimmunity disorders; and aging (59).
It’s a vicious cycle. Injury or infection can cause inflammation and, in turn, inflammation can drive injury. Antioxidant-rich foods help to fight this (60). Cacao and cocoa products have powerful anti-inflammatory properties (61).
Benchtop, animal and human studies demonstrate that cocoa polyphenols effectively reduce levels of inflammatory markers. (62, 63, 64). A 4-week study in 44 men found that those who consumed 1 ounce (28 g) of cocoa products that contained 13.9 mg per gram of product (or about 389 mg of flavanols in total) had decreased levels of inflammatory markers (65).
Because inflammation and immune system activity go hand-in-hand, the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of cacao may have a positive impact on immune health.
Several important bioactive dietary components, such as cacao flavanols, exert their positive effects by tempering the immune system’s response to injury and any collateral damage that comes from that (66).
Many may not know that most of their immune system is found in their digestive tract; about 70% of the immune system is located there. A complex network of immune cells and lymph tissue called the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). Cocoa may also improve GALT function and overall immune fitness (67).
How do I use cacao products?
This all boils down to personal choice both in terms of your taste preferences and ease of incorporating them into your daily diet.
Unsweetened cacao or cocoa powder, and nibs will have a very intense flavour. Many find them quite bitter and without sugar, their chocolately flavor isn’t enhanced. You can buy sweetened nibs, and sweetened beans if you prefer.
For the ideas below, I find I still need something sweet to take the cacao flavour to the next level. My sweetener of choice is Splenda Brand Naturals Stevia and Erythritol blend – 100% sucralose free.
Despite the many benefits of dark chocolate products, remember they are high in calories. If you ate an entire 3-ounce (85-gram), 70%-cocoa chocolate bar, you’d gobble up 480 calories and 27 grams of added sugars. A workaround is to include unsweetened cacao products.
Including nibs is easy. Note though, they don’t melt so they’re not great in beverages:
- Toss them into your favourite smoothie or protein shake.
- Use them in baked goods like muffins and quick breads.
- Blend cacao nibs into homemade nut butters
- Add them to any store-bought nut and seed butters.
- Top your morning oatmeal with them.
- Mix them with nuts and dried fruit for an awesome trail mix.
- Use them in savory sauces, such as barbecue sauces and mole.
- Crust steak or duck with crushed cacao nibs for a unique flavor.
- Add them to your favourite energy balls or fat bombs.
- Use them in place of chocolate chips in granola recipes.
- Sprinkle roasted cacao nibs on top of yogurt.
I eat them in a unique way some might say. Because my coffee is sweetened, I will chew on some nibs with my morning cup of Joe. The intense bitter taste (which I like) will be offset with a sip of coffee.
Raw cacao powder
This is a staple for my smoothies. I add a couple of Tablespoons to any combination of flavours that go well with chocolate like peanut butter along with the usual suspects such as whey protein powder, ground flaxseeds, ground chia seeds, unsweetened shredded coconut, soy lecithin for my daily dose of choline, berries and either avocado or fresh or thawed frozen spinach.
Another way I love to use cacao powder is to mix it into plain, full-fat Greek yogurt along with some nut butter of some kind. I then top it with many of the other ingredients that find their way into my smoothie, except of course the spinach or avocado 🙂
The use of “cacao” versus “cocoa” on chocolate products, online, in the blogosphere, etc is inconsistent.
This is largely due to the fact that these terms have not been legally defined nor standardized.
Generally speaking, raw cacao products (nibs and powder) refer to versions that are made from fermented, dried, unroasted cacao beans. It’s true that their flavonoid content is higher, but not to the point where they don’t confer the same health-promoting benefits as their roasted counterparts.
Both raw and roasted cacao/cocoa products contain high amounts of favourable polyphenols (flavonoids and flavanols).
Still, if going for chocolate products like truffles, chocolate bars and the like, I do recommend a product with at least 70% cocoa. This will provide a decent amount of polyphenols without providing too many calories and added sugar. Therefore, choose the cacao-rich products that best fit your taste buds and budget, but enjoy them in moderation since they’re all calorie-dense.
When it comes to taste and health, cacao and cocoa products can be a delicious way to nourish your mind, body, and soul.
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Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.