What Is Cacao?
Occasionally, I post recipes with raw cacao as an ingredient. Cacao, a product of the tropical cacao fruit, is a superfood that has gained a lot of traction in the health and nutrition world. However, cacao is not a new discovery; it has a rich world history. Cacao was a culinary treasure to Mesoamericans for thousands of years and touted as the “Food of the Gods” for its rich nutrition profile and chocolate flavor. It continues to be globally celebrated as a popular health food today.
If you are unfamiliar with cacao, and want to know why it is a nutritional powerhouse, continue reading. I have put together everything you may ever need to know about cacao (and more).
- The name Theobroma Cacao was first applied to the cocoa tree by the father of modern-day taxonomic plant classification, Carolus Linnaeus. The name was published in his classic work Systema Naturae in the mid-1700s.
- The generic name Theobroma is derived from the Greek for “food of the gods;” from θεός (theos), meaning “god,” and βρῶμα (broma), meaning “food.”
- The specific name cacao is derived from the native name of the plant in indigenous Mesoamerican languages. Cacao was known as kakaw in Tzeltal and Classic Maya; kagaw in Sayula Popoluca; and cacahuatl in Nahuatl.
What is raw cacao?
- Cacao comes from the seeds (beans) of the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree, and is the source of natural chocolate. It is raw chocolate in its purest form, before other ingredients such as sugar and dairy have been added.
- Raw cacao is considered to be one of nature’s most nutritionally complex foods rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.
Where does cacao come from?
- Raw cacao comes from cacao seeds (beans) (grown in cacao pods) of Theobroma cacao trees, the same species of trees that produce cocoa and chocolate.
- Theobroma cacao trees are small (13–26 feet tall) evergreen trees native to the tropical regions of Central and South America.
- Today, the top ten producing cocoa-growing countries are the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, New Guinea, and Malaysia.
How is raw cacao harvested?
- Ripe cacao pods (which are yellow to orange in color) are harvested by hand with a machete and then taken to a processing location close to the trees.
- At the processing site, each fruit is opened and the pulp and seeds (beans) are removed. (On average, each pod contains 20-60 seeds.)
- The seeds are then split opened, fermented, and dried. Fermentation helps to remove a mucilage-like substance that surrounds the seeds and aids in bringing out the cacao seeds’ aroma and taste.
- Once fermented and dried, the seeds are gently heated/roasted and their husks are removed.
- The cacao is then crushed to make cacao nibs or put through a mill to make cacao powder.
Types of raw cacao
Once the cacao bean has been harvested and lightly processed, raw cacao is made into one of the following:
- Cacao nibs
- Cacao powder
- Cacao butter
- Cacao paste
1. Cacao nibs:
Raw cacao nibs are dried and fermented cacao beans that have been chopped into pieces.
- The texture of raw organic cacao nibs is similar to that of roasted coffee beans.
- Cacao nibs have a bitter and nutty chocolate flavor and add a nice crunch to foods.
- Crunchy cacao bits can be added to smoothies, breakfast bowls, granola and trail mix, cereals, yogurt, salads, sauces (mole and chili), puddings, baked goods (muffins), and desserts (ice cream).
2. Cacao powder:
After the fatty, buttery parts have been removed from the cacao beans, the remaining cacao is milled into a fine dark powder called cacao powder.
- A healthy alternative to conventional over-processed “cocoa,” low temperature processed cacao powder provides more health benefits than processed cocoa powder.
- Raw cacao powder can be added to smoothies, coffee, puddings, yogurt, granola bars, baked goods, and desserts. It can also be used to make a tasty and healthy hot chocolate. Simply swap 1:1 in any recipe that calls for baking cocoa.
3. Cacao butter:
Also known as Theobroma oil, cacao butter is the pure, cold-pressed oil of the cacao bean.
- To make cacao butter, cocoa beans are first fermented and lightly roasted. The cocoa butter is then separated from the rest of the beans.
- Cacao butter is edible and consists of healthy fats (mostly saturated like coconut oil) including essential omega fatty acids.
- Cacao butter has a rich, fatty, soft and creamy texture with a velvety, chocolate flavor.
- Easily shredded, chopped, and melted, cacao butter can be added to any recipe that requires oil, and where a chocolate flavor is desired. It can be added to smoothies, coffee, and paleo snack balls such as my paleo brownie bites.
- Cacao butter can also be used topically on the skin and lips as a moisturizer/conditioner. It provides hydration and antioxidants to the skin that fight free radicals. This help to reduce or prevent stretch marks. It also helps relieve dermatitis, eczema, rashes, burns.
- Cacao butter is used in recipes for making chocolate.
4. Cacao paste:
Raw cacao paste (also called cacao liquor) is made by crushing whole, raw cacao beans into a liquid. This liquid quickly solidifies at room temperature and the result is cacao paste.
- Cacao paste is naturally about 55% cacao butter, unsweetened, and easy to melt at low temperatures.
- It is similar to baker’s chocolate and can be used in any chocolate recipe.
Nutritional profile of cacao
One ounce (28 grams) of raw cacao nibs contains:
- 130 calories
- 4 grams of protein
- 2% DV of calcium
- 5% DV of potassium
- 8% DV of iron
- 16% DV of magnesium
- 36% DV of dietary fiber
Health benefits of raw cacao
- Raw cacao is a superfood which contains several unique phytonutrients, including high levels of sulfur, magnesium, and phenylethylamine (PEA). Protein, calcium, carotene, thiamin, riboflavin, flavonoids, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids are also present in cacao.
- This powerhouse combination of nutrients provide many health benefits. Cacao is known to decrease LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, improve heart function, increase focus and alertness, reduce cancer risk, lower stress levels, and improve mood.
- Raw cacao is considered to be one of the most antioxidant-rich foods on the planet. Cacao has more antioxidant activity than tea, wine, and goji berries. It has nearly four times the antioxidant power of your average dark chocolate and more than 20 times than that of blueberries.
- The flavanols found in cacao can increase nitric oxide bioavailability, activate nitric oxide synthase and exert anti-inflammatory and anti-platelet activity – all of which may improve vascular function and reduce blood pressure.
- Cacao is one of the best dietary sources of magnesium, a mineral responsible for over 300 biochemical reactions in our bodies – many related to muscle, nerve, and cardiac function.
- With 9 grams of fiber in one ounce, raw cacao supports digestive health.
- Cocoa beans have been used as a treatment for diarrhea due to the polyphenols contained in cacao, which inhibit certain intestinal secretions.
- Cacao is the highest plant-base source of iron, which is necessary for red blood cell production and to prevent/treat anemia.
- Cacao is a good source of protein, as it contains 4 grams of plant-based protein per serving.
- Cacao has been shown to have a beneficial effect on insulin resistance.
- Raw cacao contains good levels of vitamin C which helps improve and build immunity.
- Raw cacao is also naturally rich in powerful chemical alkaloids including anandamide, phenethylamine, and theobromine. The combination of these alkaloids has been linked to increasing serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. Elevated levels of serotonin and dopamine induces feelings of well being, boosts cognitive abilities, and decreases appetite.
- Anandamide, a lipid, is also known as “the bliss molecule” because its natural molecular shape represents that of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Anandamide has been associated with improving motivation and increasing pleasure.
- Phenylethylamine (PEA) is an adrenal-related chemical that our bodies naturally produce. We make PEA when we are excited. It causes the pulse to quicken, and helps us to feel focused and alert.
- Theobromine is a mild nervous system stimulant/neurotransmitter which makes up two percent of the cacao bean and is in the same molecular class as caffeine (but 10 times weaker). It releases the compound anandamide (see above), which produces uniquely euphoric feelings of relaxation and contentment. Theobromine is what makes cacao and chocolate unsafe for dogs, and some people find that it affects them the same way caffeine might.
Note: Raw cacao may present negative side effects for some individuals.
- Cacao can be addictive. Some health experts suggest that cacao may be one of the most addictive substances in the world.
- Raw cacao acts as a stimulant, which can negatively affect sleep and/or agitate kidneys and/or adrenal glands. To avoid interference with sleep, avoid consuming cacao after 2-3pm.
- Overconsumption of raw cacao leads to high levels of theobromine within the body, which can negatively affect the body’s central nervous system and may lead to a variety of health conditions including depression, insomnia, nightmares, tremors, restlessness, anxiety, heart palpitations, chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, mood swings, and paranoia.
- In mega doses (40 beans or more), raw cacao may act as a hallucinogen and can cause reactions similar to that of the psychedelic drug, LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide).
How does raw cacao taste?
- Pure, 100% cacao has a rich and bitter chocolate flavor. The intense flavor is similar to unsweetened dark cocoa powder or Baker’s chocolate.
- The actual flavors depends on the growing conditions (such as location, soil, sunlight, etc.) of the cacao tree. Cacao/chocolate that is shade grown (in the depths of the rainforest) is superior to sun-bleached cacao.
Is cacao the same as cocoa?
Cacao and cocoa are very similar in that they come from the same plant and are interchangeable in recipes. However, they are not the same product – they have differences that stand out from each other.
- Cacao is raw, less processed, and has more nutrition benefits than cocoa.
- Cacao does not contain additives, while cocoa often does.
- Cocoa is processed and refined with high heat. This application of heat damages the cacao beans’ micronutrients and antioxidant capacity, making cocoa less nutrient than cacao.
Where to buy raw cacao
You can buy raw cacao products at most health food stores and markets like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Cacao can also be purchased online.
Click on the following links to buy cacao online:
1) Raw cacao powder
2) Raw cacao nibs
3) Cacao butter
4) Cacao snacks
Bite-sized snack filled with naturally energizing and mood boosting cacao, antioxidant rich goji berries, and dates.
Paleo snack clusters made with whole fruits, nuts, seeds, coconut, cacao, and honey.
Many delicious recipes are made with cacao as a main ingredient. Some are sweet, while others are savory. I will add to this list as I create and/or find blog-worthy cacao recipes. For now, check out the following:
If you haven added raw cacao to your diet, perhaps you should. Raw cacao is considered to be one of nature’s most nutritionally complex foods rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. An antioxidant and nutrient powerhouse, cacao provides many health benefits. Studies have shown it to lower LDL cholesterol, improve heart function, increase focus and alertness, reduce cancer risk, lower stress levels, and improve mood. Cacao nibs, powder, butter, and paste can be used in cooking, baking, or eaten raw. These types of cacao (along with pre-made cacao snacks) can be bought in markets as well as online. If you haven’t already, bring cacao into your life – your health will thank you!
I want to hear from you.
- Have you tried cacao?
- Do you like the taste of cacao?
- Have you experienced a boost of energy, improved focus, or energy levels after eating cacao?
- What is your favorite cacao recipe?
If you have enjoyed this post, and/or found it to be useful, I’d be grateful if you would help it spread by emailing it to a friend or sharing it via social media. Thank you!
When she is not slaying fat and building muscle, Jennifer can be found trekking barefoot, traveling, cooking and refining her photography skills. She also enjoys reading and writing about food culture, history and the science of human movement.