A growing number of studies show that chocolate, especially antioxidant-rich dark chocolate, has highly impressive health benefits. The question is whether we are eating the chocolate that is really good for us.
I say cacao, you say cocoa, I say cacao. What is the difference, and is one better than the other?
The differences lie in processing - but the source is what matters.
The truth is that the everyday chocolate bars you find at your local shop don’t even come into the equation. The vast majority of studies exploring links between chocolate and health benefits are focused on cacao beans, either in a raw or minimally-processed form. Your everyday chocolate barely contains these precious beans.
Both cacao and cocoa are sourced from Theobroma Cacao (‘food of the gods’) - one of the most loved and beautiful trees on the planet. This is where the cacao fruit grows, and inside these treasured cacao pods lie the ‘golden cacao beans’, which are used to create both cacao and cocoa.
The difference between cacao and cocoa is mainly to do with the type of processing involved.
What is cacao?
Raw cacao beans are one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. They contain more than 300 different chemical compounds and have nearly four times the antioxidant power of your average dark chocolate cocoa bar. Cacao is the end product of raw, dried and fermented cacao beans, which are typically roughly chopped or finely ground into cacao nibs and cacao powder – also extracted as raw cacao butter and raw cacao paste.
The benefits of cacao
Cacao has endless benefits – here’s the science part!
Vitamins and minerals: Cacao is highly vitamin and mineral rich, containing an abundance of goodies such as B1, B2, B3, B5, B9, zinc, iron, copper, potassium, and manganese, vanadium and sulfur and magnesium.
Antioxidant effects: Cacao beans are absolutely packed with phenolic phytochemicals and flavonoids, which protect your cells against damage from free radicals.
Mood elevation: Have you ever noticed how a piece of dark chocolate seems to cheer you up? It’s not in your head: cacao has been shown to have a positive effect on hormonal release in the brain, encouraging the release of endorphins and “feel good” hormones, such as serotonin, dopamine, anandamide and phenylethylamine (PEA). These are well-studied neurotransmitters, which are associated with feelings of wellbeing.
Furthermore, cacao also contains chemicals called MAO-inhibitors that inhibit the recycling and digestion of the feel-good chemicals, keeping them in the bloodstream for longer without being broken down.
Brain boost: In addition to acting on the happiness hormones in the brain, a recent study has also implicated cacao in its ability to improve cognitive function. The flavanols released from cacao are absorbed and accumulate in the brain regions associated with memory. These flavanols increase blood flow to the brain, encouraging new neuron formation and enhancing the connection between existing neurons. Also epicatechin, the main flavonoid in cacao helps to improve various aspects of cognition.
Heart protection: Cacao has been shown to have an impact on improving heart health and blood vessel function - and an optimal functioning heart is at the root of living a long life. Both the flavanols, procyanidins and essential minerals and vitamins found in cacao can support healthy heart functioning by lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow and lowering LDL cholesterol. One study, in particular, confirmed the ability of cacao to lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol). Together, with its function in reducing overall triglycerides, reducing blood pressure, cacao comes out as a heart-healthy food!
Blood sugar regulation: Cacao is impressively high in fibre, and as a result, helps fill you up, encouraging you to eat less and lose weight. Thanks to a key flavanol called epicatechin, cacao has been shown to help regulate glucose production, allowing for better blood sugar control, and preventing against insulin resistance.
Ok, the science part is over – raw cacao is really good for you!
What is cocoa?
Unlike cacao, cocoa has been processed using various different techniques, which – much like the processing of all whole foods –also removes many of the most valuable nutrients. A recent study suggested that between 60% and 90% of the original antioxidants in cacao are lost through common 'Dutch processing'. The method was originally developed in the early 19th Century to reduce the bitterness of raw cacao, darken the colour, and create a more mellow flavour to chocolate, but unfortunately too much of the deep-seated goodness with it. Cocoa powder is extremely popular in cooking and there are two types of cocoa available. The alternative is the second type of cocoa powder – a natural cocoa powder which remains in more of its natural state and has a more acidic and bitter taste than Dutch-processed powder, while also containing more antioxidants. This unsweetened variety of cocoa powder is low in calories and is abundant in minerals such as calcium, copper, iron and is an excellent source of magnesium and dietary fibre.
Most commercial chocolate bars found in your local shop aren’t really a great source of cacao or cocoa as they exaggerate this kind of 'Dutch processing'. The cocoa powder used has typically been chemically processed and roasted, which is particularly damaging to the antioxidants.
So how do I source the best chocolate?
Look for certifications like ‘organic’, ‘fair trade’, ‘direct’, ‘trade’, ‘Rainforest Alliance’, and products that claim ‘bean to bar status’ is a great place to start. This ensures that you are not investing in farmer exploitation and environmental degradation and that you are protecting wildlife and the larger communities.
Is ‘organic’ important?
Choosing cacao or cocoa that has organic status is preferable. Of course, there are some excellent cacao farms producing high-quality cacao but can’t afford the organic status, however with organic products you can ensure there has been no use of chemicals during the growing and processing phase of production. Also, many non-organic varieties use toxic pesticides, fumigation chemicals and genetically modified ingredients.
Less is more
Always look for dark chocolate – 85-90% cacao or cocoa, preferably made with beans of single origins and from countries near the equator, like Ghana, Ecuador and Costa Rica. They have ideal climates for cacao trees and produce some of the world’s best chocolate.
A less is more approach applies to both the manufacturing process and how many ingredients are written on the label. The fewer the ingredients, the less processed the chocolate is likely to be, and the better it is for you. Avoid all chocolate bars that contain additional unhealthy ingredients. The worst of the bunch are partially hydrogenated oils, milk solids, high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavours.
You might not think that adding milk to chocolate is unhealthy, but if you’re trying to gain the antioxidant benefits of chocolate then stay clear of all types of milk chocolate. Milk actually inhibits the body’s ability to absorb the phytonutrients, including those found in chocolate. If you decide to make your own chocolate, buy the same quality cacao or cocoa powder and mix with other high-quality chocolate ingredients such as cacao nibs and cacao butter.
Food for thought
If this has got you in the mood for something chocolatey then give our deliciously smooth, antioxidant-rich, Cacao + Collagen a try. This nutrient-dense chocolate brew is the perfect way to experience the very finest, organic, ethically sourced cacao and cocoa powder together in one blend!