Cacao is the purest form of chocolate you can consume, which means it is raw and much less processed than cocoa powder or chocolate bars. Cacao is thought to be the highest source of antioxidants of all foods and the highest source of magnesium of all foods.
The cacao fruit tree, also known as Theobroma Cacao, produces cacao pods which are cracked open to release cacao beans. From there, cacao beans can be processed a few different ways.
Cacao butter is the fattiest part of the fruit and makes up the outer lining of the inside of a single cacao bean. It is white in color and has a rich, buttery texture that resembles white chocolate in taste and appearance.
Cacao butter is removed from the bean during production and the remaining part of the fruit is used to produce raw cacao powder.
Cacao nibs are simply cacao beans that have been chopped up into edible pieces, much like chocolate chips without the added sugars and fats. Cacao nibs contain all of the fiber, fat, and nutrients that the cacao bean does.
Cacao paste comes from cacao nibs that have been slowly heated to preserve the nutrients and are melted into a bark known that is a less-processed form of dark chocolate bars. Cacao paste can be used to make raw vegan desserts or you can just eat it as an indulgent snack by itself!
Cacao powder contains more fiber and calories than cocoa powder since more of the nutrients from the whole bean are still intact. Cacao is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats, cholesterol-free saturated fats, vitamins, minerals, fiber, natural carbohydrates, and protein that make it an excellent source of nutrients. (source)
Cocoa is the term used to refer to the heated form of cacao that you probably grew up buying at the store in the form of cocoa powder.
Though cocoa may seem inferior to raw cacao, it’s actually very good for you (and less expensive) if you choose a variety without added sugars and milk fats or oils.
Cocoa powder is produced similarly to cacao except cocoa undergoes a higher temperature of heat during processing. Surprisingly, it still retains a large amount of antioxidants in the process and is still excellent for your heart, skin, blood pressure, and even your stress levels.
If you buy cocoa powder, be sure you buy plain cocoa powder, not cocoa mixes which often contain sugar. Look for either regular cocoa powder or Dutch-processed (a.k.a. dark) cocoa powder.
Dutch-processed cocoa powder (dark cocoa) is cocoa powder that has been processed with an alkalized solution, making it less acidic and much richer in taste. Regular cocoa powder retains a more acidic nature and bitter taste, and is used in baking recipes with baking soda where Dutch-processed cocoa powder is not since it has already been alkalized.
Cocoa powder is a rich source of fiber, has little fat, and has a bit of protein in it as well. (source)
Health benefits now associated with the cocoa bean are impressive:
Although raw cacao is the most nutritious form, most of the health studies to date involve consumption of cocoa or chocolate, not raw cacao. But the results are still very positive. It seems like a good amount of the nutritional and health benefits are retained after processing. Our goal then is to find a chocolate that’s as minimally processed as possible, but still tastes good.
Choose chocolate with a cocoa/cacao percentage of 70 percent or higher. The higher the percent of cacao, the lower the percentage of sugar.
Most store-bought chocolates have bad oils and additives and retain less nutritional value than hand-crafted or homemade chocolate as the cacao has been heated and refined. You don’t want to eliminate too many of the health benefits by eating a product that contains a lot of sugar and chemicals.
Read your labels carefully and look for the following:
Type of sweetener: Not only should you choose chocolate with low sugar content, but you should also look at what form of sugar it contains. Honey is sometimes used to sweeten raw chocolate products, which is far better than refined sugar. Many so-called “sugar-free” chocolates, in fact, contain agave which is up to 90 percent fructose. Fructose will reverse some of the positive benefits of chocolate. For example, fructose breaks down into a variety of waste products that are bad for your body, one of which is uric acid, and uric acid drives up your blood pressure. Strictly avoid cocoa powders that contain harmful aspartame (some Nestle & Ovaltine drinks).
Genetically engineered cocoa beans: Select chocolate products that are certified organic so that you be sure they aren’t genetically engineered (GE). Most chocolate today (even dark chocolate) is GE, unfortunately. Also opt for fair-trade products.
Type of fat: Fat in chocolate, as long as it’s the right kind, is a good thing. It slows down the absorption of sugar, lessening the insulin spike. Ideally, the type of fat in your chocolate bar should be what is contained in the natural plant—cocoa butter. Coconut oil would be the next best fat in chocolate. Make sure you avoid soybean oil (and any other form of soy), and other vegetable oils and trans fats.
The bottom line? It’s best to make your own chocolate which is quite easy and very healthy if you just follow a few guidelines. You can use cocoa powder and cacao powder interchangeably in baking recipes, smoothies, chocolate mousse, oatmeal, cookies, homemade raw treats, or even stir them into your coffee for a homemade mocha. Here are more tried and true recipes we make in our home:
“Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all His benefits— Who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, Who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, Who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” ~Psalm 103:2-5
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