The star ingredient in your favorite chocolate bar offers so much more than just a sweet, mouthwatering taste (although that’s pretty awesome too).

By Kirsten Nunez
April 06, 2021
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Cacao is one heck of a magical food. Not only is it used to make chocolate, but it's packed with antioxidants, minerals, and even some fiber to boot. (And again, it makes chocolate.) What's more, cacao is available in a variety of forms, making it a super versatile pantry ingredient. Ahead, learn about the health benefits of cacao, along with how to eat it.

What is Cacao?

The cacao plant — also known as the cocoa tree — is a tropical tree that's native to Central and South America. While "cacao" and "cocoa" refer to the same plant and are often used interchangeably, let's stick to "cacao" moving forward.

The cacao tree produces melon-like fruits called pods, each of which contains 25 to 50 seeds surrounded by white pulp, according to an article published in Frontiers in Plant Science. While this pulp is totally edible, the real magic is within the seeds or beans. Raw cacao beans are bitter and nutty, but once processed, they develop that wonderful chocolatey flavor. From there, the beans can be made into products such as chocolate, cacao powder, and cacao nibs (aka cacao beans broken into small pieces). Important to note: Cacao isn't necessarily the same thing as the chocolate bar you know and love. Rather, it's the superstar ingredient that's responsible for chocolate's delicious taste and, when present in high amounts (~70 percent or more), its nutritional benefits.

Cacao Nutrition

Cacao beans offer fiber, monounsaturated ("good") fats, and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and copper, according to an article in the journal Frontiers of Immunology. Cacao is also packed with antioxidants, according to Annamaria Louloudis, M.S., R.D.N., registered dietitian and founder of Louloudi Nutrition; it also offers vitamin D, an essential nutrient that supports calcium absorption, according to findings in the journal Food Chemistry. (Related: I Look Forward to a Cup of This Chocolate-Spiced Beverage Basically Every Day)

Cacao nutrition depends on how the beans are processed. For example, when cacao beans are roasted at higher temperatures, the antioxidant content tends to be lower, according to an article in the journal Antioxidants. For a general idea of what's in cacao, check out the nutrient profile for 3 tablespoons of cacao nibs (crushed, roasted cacao beans), according to the United States Department of Agriculture:

  • 140 calories
  • 4 grams protein
  • 7 grams fat
  • 17 grams carbohydrate
  • 7 grams fiber
  • 0 grams sugar

Health Benefits of Cacao

Need another reason to eat chocolate, err, cacao? Here's a rundown of cacao health benefits, according to experts and research.

May Reduce Cancer Risk

ICYMI above, cacao beans are teeming with antioxidants. "Antioxidants inhibit the activity of free radicals by neutralizing them," explains Louloudis. This is key because high levels of free radicals can lead to cell damage and oxidative stress, a major factor in the development of chronic conditions such as cancer and heart disease. Cacao contains "antioxidants such as epicatechin, catechin, and procyanidins," which belong to a group of plant compounds called polyphenols, according to Louloudis. Cancer lab studies suggest that these compounds have beneficial effects against cancer. For example, a 2020 lab study found that epicatechin can destroy breast cancer cells; another 2016 study found that cacao procyanidins can kill ovarian cancer cells in test tubes. (Related: Polyphenol-Rich Foods to Start Eating Today)

Lowers Inflammation

The antioxidants in cacao beans can also help control inflammation, according to an article in the journal Pain and Therapy. That's because oxidative stress can contribute to chronic inflammation, increasing the risk for diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. So, as antioxidants in cacao combat oxidative stress, they can also pump the brakes on inflammation. What's more, these antioxidants can also decrease the production of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines, thereby reducing your risk for inflammation to begin with, according to Bansari Acharya, M.A., R.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist at Food Love.

Improves Gut Health

Craving some chocolate (and thus, cacao)? You might want to go with your gut. The polyphenols in cacao beans are actually prebiotics, according to an article in the journal Nutrients. This means they "feed" the good bacteria in your gut, helping them grow and flourish, which, in turn, can help you avoid both temporary and chronic digestive issues. Simultaneously, the polyphenols may also work against the bad bacteria in your tum by inhibiting their proliferation or multiplication. Together, these effects help maintain microbial balance in the gut, which is key for supporting basic functions such as immunity and metabolism, according to the article. (Related: How to Improve Your Gut Health — and Why It Matters, According to a Gastroenterologist)

Supports Heart Health

Aside from combatting oxidative stress and inflammation — two contributors to heart disease — the antioxidants in cacao beans release nitric oxide, which promotes vasodilation (or widening) of your blood vessels, says Sandy Younan Brikho, M.D.A., R.D., registered dietitian and founder of The Dish on Nutrition. In turn, blood can flow more easily, helping decrease high blood pressure (aka hypertension), a major risk factor for heart disease. In fact, a 2017 study found that eating six servings of chocolate a week could reduce heart disease and stroke. (In the study, one serving equaled 30 grams of chocolate, which is equal to about 2 tablespoons of chocolate chips.) But wait, there's more: Magnesium, copper, and potassium — which are all found in cacao — can also reduce the risk of hypertension and atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in your arteries that's known to inhibit blood flow, according to Louloudis.

Helps Control Blood Sugar

The aforementioned 2017 study also found that chocolate can also lower the risk of diabetes and it's all thanks to (surprise!) the antioxidants in cacao beans, and therefore, chocolate. Cacao flavanols (a class of polyphenols) promote the secretion of insulin, the hormone that shuttles glucose into your cells, according to an article in the journal Nutrients. This helps stabilize your blood sugar, preventing it from spiking. This is important because chronic high blood sugar levels can increase your risk for diabetes. Cacao also contains some fiber, which "[slows] the absorption of carbohydrates, thus stabilizing blood sugar levels and [providing] you with a more steady stream of energy throughout the day," notes Louloudis. For instance, just one tablespoon of cacao nibs offers around 2 grams of fiber; that's nearly the same amount of fiber in one medium banana (3 grams), according to the USDA. The more controlled and stabilized your blood sugar (due to, in this case, the fiber and antioxidants in cacao), the lower your risk for developing diabetes.

All that being said, it's important to note that a lot of cacao-containing products (i.e. traditional chocolate bars) also have added sugars, which can raise your blood glucose levels. If you have diabetes or pre-diabetes, use caution when buying cacao products such as chocolate, advises Louloudis, who also recommends consulting your doctor for specific recommendations to make sure you're keeping your blood sugar in check as best as possible. (Related: How Diabetes Can Change Your Skin — and What You Can Do About It)

Enhances Cognitive Function

The next time your brain needs a pick-me-up, grab a cacao product such as dark chocolate. In addition to containing a bit of caffeine, cacao beans are one of the richest sources of theobromine, a compound that stimulates the central nervous system, according to an article in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (BJCP). A 2019 study found that dark chocolate (which contains 50 to 90 percent cacao) seems to improve cognitive function; the researchers hypothesized this may be due to the psychostimulant theobromine in the chocolate.

So, how do theobromine and caffeine work, exactly? Both compounds interfere with the activity of adenosine, a chemical that makes you sleepy, according to an article in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology. Here's the deal: When you're awake, the nerve cells in your brain make adenosine; adenosine eventually accumulates and binds to adenosine receptors, which makes you sleepy, according to John Hopkins University. Theobromine and caffeine block adenosine from binding to said receptors, keeping you awake and alert.

The epicatechin in cacao might help, too. Oxidative stress can damage nerve cells, contributing to the development of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, according to research published in the journal Molecular Neurobiology. But, according to the aforementioned research in the journal BJCP, epicatechin (an antioxidant) may protect nerve cells from oxidative damage, potentially reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disease and helping keep your brain strong.

Now, if you're sensitive to stimulants such as coffee, you might want to go easy on the cacao. Not only is cacao a natural source of caffeine, but the theobromine in cacao can also cause increased heart rate and headache at high doses (think: closer to 1,000 mg), according to a study in the journal Psychopharmacology. (Related: How Much Caffeine Is Too Much?)

How to Choose Cacao

Before you head to the supermarket and buy a lifetime supply of chocolate, it may help to understand how cacao products are processed and labeled. This way, you can better navigate product descriptions and choose the best item for reaping the cacao health benefits and your taste preferences.

For starters, know that "cacao" and "cocoa" are synonyms; they're the same food from the same plant. The terms don't indicate how the product was processed or prepared, which may affect the final taste and nutrition content (more below). So, in general, how are cacao beans processed? All cacao start beans their journey via fermentation, a key step in developing their classic chocolatey flavor. Producers remove the pulp-coated beans from the pods, then cover them with banana leaves or put them into wooden crates, explains Gabrielle Draper, pastry chef at Barry Callebaut. Yeast and bacteria (which are naturally found in the air) feed on the cacao pulp, causing the pulp to ferment. This fermentation process releases chemicals, which enter the cacao beans and trigger reactions that develop the brown color and chocolate flavor, according to research published in Food Science & Nutrition. Fermentation also produces heat, causing the pulp to break down and drip off the bean; the beans are then dried in the sun, says Draper.

Once dry, most producers roast cacao beans between 230 to 320°F and for five to 120 minutes, according to an article in the journal Antioxidants. This step reduces potentially harmful bacteria (i.e. Salmonella) that are often found in raw (vs. roasted) cacao beans, explains Draper. Roasting also decreases bitterness and further develops that sweet, mouthwatering chocolate taste. The only drawback, according to research? Roasting slightly reduces the antioxidant content of cacao, especially at higher temps and longer cooking times, thereby cutting down the potential perks you just read about.

Here's where things get a bit murky: Although there are a minimum roasting time and temperature to minimize microbiological issues, the exact roasting process varies greatly by vendor, says Eric Schmoyer, senior project manager of research and development at Barry Callebaut. The Food and Drug Administration also doesn't have a standard definition for what "roasting" involves, adds Draper. So, different companies can roast their beans anywhere between the aforementioned temp and time ranges and still call their products "cacao" and/or "cocoa."

As the cacao-containing products advertised as "minimally processed? For some companies, this might mean heating their beans at minimum temps (i.e. on the low end of that 230 to 320° F range) to kill harmful bacteria while retaining nutrients and bitter flavor profile — but again, every producer is different, says Schmoyer. Other companies might completely skip heating (to preserve nutrients) and use unroasted beans to make cacao products, which they might describe as "raw." But despite the potentially higher nutrient content, these raw products can have some drawbacks. Remember: Heat-processing reduces the risk of microbiological issues. So much so that the National Confectioners Association Chocolate Council has expressed concern about raw chocolate products due to potential Salmonella contamination. That said, if you want to eat raw cacao, it's always a good idea to consult your doc before taking a bite, especially if you have a compromised immune system or condition that increases your risk of developing a serious food-related infection.

So, what does this all mean for you? At the grocery store, don't let the cacao/cocoa label throw you off, as these terms don't indicate how the cacao beans were roasted. Instead, read the product description or head to the company's website to learn about their processing methods, especially since the definitions of "roasted," "minimally processed," and "raw" are inconsistent in the world of cacao. (Related: Healthy Baking Recipes That Use Cocoa Powder)

You can also check the ingredients list to determine how the product was created. At the supermarket, cacao is most commonly available as hard chocolate, which may contain other ingredients such as milk or sweetener. You can find chocolate as bars, chips, flakes, and chunks. Different chocolates contain varying amounts of cacao, which are listed as percentages (i.e. "60 percent cacao"). Louloudis suggests looking for products labeled "dark chocolate," which typically has a higher cacao content, and opting for varieties with 70 percent cacao — i.e. Ghirardelli 72% Cacao Intense Dark Bar (Buy it, $19, amazon.com) — since it's still semi-sweetened (and, thus, less bitter and more palatable). And if you don't mind the bitter bite, she encourages choosing dark chocolate with an even higher percentage to really reap the cacao health benefits. Acharya also recommends picking an item without artificial flavors and additives, such as soy lecithin, a popular emulsifier that can be inflammatory for many people.

Cacao is also available as spread, butter, paste, beans, and nibs, says Brikho. Try: Natierra Organic Cocoa Nibs (Buy It, $9, amazon.com). There's also cacao powder, which is found on its own or in hot chocolate drink mixes. If you're shopping for cacao as a recipe ingredient (i.e. cacao powder or nibs), "cacao" should be the only ingredient, such as in the case of Viva Naturals Organic Cacao Powder (Buy It, $11, amazon.com). And while some people use whole beans to make DIY cacao powder (or eat them as is), Draper advises against it since, as mentioned above, raw beans can contain harmful bacteria and "the process for making cocoa powder from whole beans can be quite complex if you don't have the proper equipment at home." So, for the sake of efficiency and safety, skip the whole beans and use high-quality, store-bought cacao powder instead.

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How to Cook, Bake, and Eat Cacao

Since cacao is available in so many forms, there are endless ways to eat it. Check out these delish ways for enjoying cacao at home:

In granola. Toss cacao nibs or chocolate chips into homemade granola. If you're using cacao nibs, which are more bitter, Cameron suggests adding sweet ingredients (such as dried fruit) to balance the bitterness.

In smoothies. To offset the bitterness of cacao, pair with sweet add-ins such as bananas, dates, or honey. Try it in a blueberry cacao smoothie bowl or dark chocolate chia smoothie for a nutritious sweet treat.

As hot chocolate. Make your own hot cocoa from scratch (with cacao powder) instead of reaching for sugary pre-made drink mixes for a healthier take on a timeliness drink.

In breakfast bowls. Craving a crunch with a side of health benefits? Cacao nibs are the way to go. Draper suggests eating them with oats, strawberries, honey, and hazelnut butter for a wholesome breakfast bowl; try this recipe for oatmeal with goji berries and cacao nibs. You can also mix cacao powder right into the oats for a chocolately flavor sans extra sugar.

In baked goods. For another classic take on cacao, treat yo-self with homemade chocolate baked goods. Try these unique eggplant brownies or, for a no-fuss dessert, these two-ingredient chocolate crunch bars.

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