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Cacao: What Is It and What Are The Benefits?
Cacao was popular in ancient civilizations around Central and South America due to its health benefits. Today, people are enjoying cacao in forms other than chocolate for its taste and benefits.1
But what is cacao? We go over the plant in detail and how it is used in treats such as chocolate, as well as cacao’s health benefits.
What is Cacao?
Cacao is a tree that is native to Central and South America, and its fruit has been consumed for thousands of years.4
Cacao plants have two edible parts: the seeds (beans) and the fruit. If you’ve had chocolate, you’ve had cacao beans. The beans are made into chocolate by fermentation, grounded into a paste, then sweetened. They also add flavor to the cacao production process to create popular chocolate bars such as Hershey’s.5
Cacao in its purest form would be unprocessed cacao nibs, which are crumbled cacao beans. They’re dense, crunchy, and taste like 100% dark chocolate.4
Cacao vs. Cocoa
If chocolate is made from cacao, then what is cocoa?
Language distinctions, translations, and a cross-over use of the words have caused some confusion between the two terms.
Typically, cacao refers to the cacao tree (plant) as well as the unrefined, unprocessed cacao beans. Cocoa is usually the term used after the beans have been roasted and made into products such as powder (cocoa powder), liquor, or butter.6
You can find both cacao and cocoa in stores and markets around the country today. However, finding unprocessed cacao might be harder.
Health Benefits of Cacao
Here are 6 cacao health benefits.
Gives you energy
Cacao contains theobromine, a naturally occurring stimulant. Because of the energy boost associated with theobromine, many people today are trying brewed cacao instead of coffee.
Theobromine gives you mild energy that doesn’t result in the jitters or crashes that are usually associated with the caffeine found in coffee. Cacao is nearly caffeine free, making its energy boost natural and healthy.1
If you’re wondering how to try unprocessed cacao, try brewed cacao as a coffee replacement. You can drink it black, or sweeten it with your favorite sweetener.
Cacao is one of the richest sources of antioxidants and is packed with a wide range of polyphenols and flavanols, a subclass of polyphenols.2 Polyphenols are also associated with improved blood vessel function, healthy blood pressure levels, and insulin resistance, both of which can reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes.7
Antioxidants fight free radicals and oxidation in the body, while offering anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects. Antioxidants are known to protect the body against the potential onset of diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases.8
Rich in fiber
Cacao is a fiber-rich food, with just one ounce containing 9 grams of fiber which is about 35% of the daily recommended value.2
Fiber plays a role in many different aspects of your health. Fiber helps to prevent high blood pressure, stabilizes blood sugar, and regulates bowel movements.9
Cacao is one of the best natural sources of magnesium, a nutrient that many Americans are deficient in. Magnesium supports the heart, aids in digestion, builds strong bones, and balances the brain’s chemistry.1
One cup of cacao contains about 420 mg of magnesium, which is more than the recommended daily amount for adults.10 If you’re looking for a natural source of magnesium, try cacao nibs.11
May reduce your risk of heart attack
One of the best cacao health benefits is that it is rich in flavanols, a subclass of polyphenols, that help improve the nitric oxide levels in your blood. This helps to relax and dilate your arteries to improve blood flow. Cacao has also been found to reduce LDL cholesterol, which is the “bad” cholesterol that can block arteries.12
Can improve brain function
Since flavanols also relax the muscles of the blood vessels, there is an improved blood supply to the brain. Studies have suggested that this can improve mental performance, and may even reduce the risk of mental impairments, such as Alzheimer’s.14
How to Incorporate Cacao Into Your Diet
It’s important to note that not all cacao is created equally. To reap as many of the health benefits of cacao as possible, make sure you’re consuming 100% cacao powder or nibs, which is the purest form of it.
The quality, taste, and benefits can also differ based on cacao production. You can pay attention to nutrition labels to see how much sugar that is added into the product, among other additives.
Here are some ways you can enjoy 100% cacao:
- Drink brewed cacao as a coffee replacement
- Add cacao to your normal coffee
- Add cacao to your smoothie
- Add cacao nibs to your oatmeal
- Make healthy bars with cacao nibs and dates
- Make energy balls with cacao nibs
- Bake a recipe with cacao nibs such as a flourless chocolate cake
About Saber Healthcare Group
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Saber Healthcare is an organization dedicated to providing consultant services to long-term care providers. This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to be seen as professional advice. Please consult with a medical expert before relying on the information provided.
- “7 Reasons Why Chocolate is Good for You and Good for Your Soul.” Crio Bru, criobru.com. November 2018. Accessed June 21st, 2023. https://criobru.com/pages/fb-tast-tf-lpv-flowc-art-7choc.
- Garr, Stephanie. “10 Health Benefits of Cacao.” To’ak, toakchocolate.com. April 2023. Accessed June 21st, 2023. https://toakchocolate.com/blogs/news/10-health-benefits-of-cacao.
- La Forge, Tiffany and Wilson, Debra Rose. “6 Ways to Boost Your Coffee with Vitamins and Antioxidants.” Healthline Media, healthline.com. March 29th, 2020. Accessed June 21st, 2023. https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/vitamin-coffee-natural-boost.
- Abarbanel, Aliza. “What Is Cacao, And How Does it Relate to Chocolate?” Conde Nast, bonappetit.com. March 29th, 2018. Accessed June 22nd, 2023. https://www.bonappetit.com/story/what-is-cacao.
- “Cacao.” Encyclopedia Britannica, britannia.com. Accessed June 23rd, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/plant/cacao.
- “What is Cacao?” Lake Champlain Chocolates, lakechamplainchocolates.com. Accessed June 22nd, 2023. https://www.lakechamplainchocolates.com/what-is-cacao/.
- Cook, Doug. “Cacao vs Cocoa. What’s The Difference?” dougcookrd.com. December 7th, 2019. Accessed June 23rd, 2023. https://www.dougcookrd.com/cacao-vs-cocoa-whats-the-difference/.
- Kahn, Jamie. “Nine benefits of antioxidants: From disease prevention to healthy aging.” Future US, livescience.com. August 26th, 2022. Accessed June 26th, 2023. https://www.livescience.com/benefits-of-antioxidants.
- “Dietary Fiber: Types and Health Benefits.” Saber Healthcare Group, saberhealth.com. September 27th, 2022. Accessed June 23rd, 2023. https://www.saberhealth.com/news/blog/fiber-types-and-benefits.
- Nibbed, Anna & Lisa. “Why cacao is the new coffee.” Nibbed, nibbedcacao.com. August 8th, 2022. Accessed June 21st, 2023. https://nibbedcacao.com/blogs/news/why-cacao-is-the-new-coffee.
- “Magnesium.” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, ods.od.nih.gov. Accessed June 23rd, 2023. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/.
- Mandl, Elise. “10 Health and Nutrition Benefits of Cocoa Powder.” Healthline Media, healthline.com. May 22nd, 2023. Accessed June 23rd, 2023. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/cocoa-powder-nutrition-benefits.
- “Habitual chocolate consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease among healthy men and women.” National Library of Medicine, PubMed. Accessed June 23rd, 2023. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26076934/.
- “Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control, and metabolic profile in elderly subjects: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study--a randomized controlled trial.” National Library of Medicine, PubMed. Accessed June 23rd, 2023. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25733639/.