Cacao (not Cocoa) – A Look at Some of the Health Benefits

Cacao is often confused with Cocoathis article will explain the differences and what health benefits this wonderful bean can give you

What is Cocoa and what are the benefits

When you buy chocolate products have you ever taken a close look at the ingredients? If you have, you may have noticed some list cacao while others show cocoa.

If you shop in health food stores you may even have noticed raw cacao powder for sale or even cacao nibs. No matter how it comes about, when you encounter the word cacao for the first time it can cause a bit of head scratching.

Some people just presume it’s a different spelling and the two are the same. If you speak Italian or Spanish as a second language you may be even more inclined to think this way because both languages translate cocoa as cacao.

However, they are not the same. Far from it. Unfortunately, just to add a little more confusion to the mix, some manufacturers make the mistake of using the two words interchangeably in their product marketing lingo.

Cacao Vs Cocoa 

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree. These seeds are more commonly referred to as cocoa beans or cacao beans. People tend to think of seeds as being small. Cacao beans are quite large and have a bean-like shape. That makes it easy to understand where the “bean” comes. The difference between cacao and cocoa? Not so easy.

The fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree is a pod with a rind that is somewhat like leather and is generally 2-3 cm thick. Each pod contains 20-60 beans, along with a sticky, white pulp.

The beans are the important things. They are the key ingredient that becomes chocolate products. Things are made trickier by the fact that experts don’t appear to be able to agree when to use the term cacao and when to use cocoa.

Some experts apply the name cacao to the pods themselves, the beans inside them, and the ground bean contents. They use the name cocoa exclusively for the powder that remains when all the fat has been pressed out of the ground beans.

The manufacturers of less processed cacao products often favor using cacao right across the board. This is a way to imply their products are more natural.

Then there are the chocolatiers who specialize in making chocolate bars and similar products. They start from scratch with fermented dried beans. These chocolate experts generally reserve the name cacao for the pod and beans prior to fermentation. After the process is complete, they call the beans cocoa beans.

cacao beans how they are processed

How the Beans are Processed

The raw beans don’t actually taste much like the chocolate we all know and love. That distinctive flavor is the result of a series of a multi-step process that begins with fermentation.

The basic and, somewhat simplified process, looks a little like this:

  • Fermentation: The beans, complete with some of the sticky pulp, are placed in covered bins. They remain there for several days. This gives the microbes feeding on the pulp the opportunity to ferment the beans. The fermentation process helps provide the beans with that typical chocolate taste and smell.
  • Drying: After the fermentation process is successfully completed, the beans are allowed to dry. The drying process takes several more days. Once dry, the beans are ready to sell to chocolate manufacturers.
  • Roasting: In the case of raw products, this process is omitted. However, roasting the beans further develops the flavor and adds some sweetness. Unfortunately, it also destroys a lot of the antioxidants and flavonols. Some researchers state the roasting process can destroy between 60% and 90% of the antioxidants. That being the case, there’s a lot to be said for keeping things raw.
  • Crushing: During this stage, the beans are put under pressure. The crushing process separates them from their outer husks- The resulting cacao fragments are called nibs. Many health food shops sell these by the bag.
  • Grinding: Alternatively, the cacao nibs are ground to produce the thick, non-alcoholic liquor that’s the basis for so many chocolate products.
cacao of chocolate

Cocoa Powder or Candy

The liquor from the nibs is normally around 50% fat (cocoa butter). Cocoa powder is made by pressing the liquor until most of the fat is removed.

When making chocolate, instead pf removing anything from the liquor, chocolate manufacturers add other ingredients to it. Apart from sugar and vanilla, manufacturers often add a further helping of cocoa butter. They may also add some milk (milk chocolate).

Cacao Vs Chocolate

The Cacao nibs and other “raw cacao” products you see in so many health food stores should not be confused with chocolate. On a nutritional level, they are far superior.

As far as the confectionery goes, dark chocolate is the next best thing to raw cacao. The darker it is in color the better because the darkest plain chocolates contain the highest amount of cocoa.

A Look at Some of the Health Benefits

The problem with milk chocolate is it’s loaded with so much sugar and fat it can send your calorie intake through the roof. That moment on the lips really can become a lifetime on the hips.

Cacao is not much better. Discretion is required but, when eaten in sensible amounts, cacao is a nutritional powerhouse that supports good health in numerous ways. Just don’t go overboard.

Cacao is Rich in Antioxidants

People always rave about blueberries, stating they’re an excellent source of antioxidants. And it’s true. They are. However, pound for pound, raw organic cacao provides a lot more. Some sources state it provides 40 times as many antioxidants. Others estimate it as being a more modest 20 times more. Either way, it’s a lot.

Antioxidants are important. They purge the body of dangerous free radical toxins that can damage the health and cause disease.

These toxins are the byproduct of many natural processes that happen in the body, such as muscle contraction.

The body also picks up free radicals from the atmosphere and from food.

When the amount of antioxidants present in the body is insufficient to neutralize the damaging effect of free radicals it causes oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress has been linked to many serious diseases. It also plays a role in aging. So anything that provides the body with extra antioxidants is a good thing and raw cacao provides a lot.

It’s Anti-Diabetic

A scientific review published in a 2015 edition of Clinical Nutrition moderate chocolate intake may help prevent diabetes.

However, the mechanisms that provide this benefit have yet to be identified.

It Lifts the Mood

Cacao provides theobromine, which has is usually credited as being responsible for chocolate’s ability to lift the mood. (

There are actually more than 300 chemicals in cacao and theobromine is not the only one the can influence the mood.

It contains phenylethylamine, which is related to amphetamines. Cacao is also a source of anandamide. Again, it appears to help make you feel good.

Some research even suggests it may contain compounds that affect the brain in a similar way to marijuana, but the truth is the way cacao affects the brain is still not fully understood. (

It May Support Weight Loss

Cacao contains the stimulant caffeine. Theobromine is a stimulant too. Stimulants increase metabolism. This helps you to burn calories faster and, when used alongside the correct diet, may help you to lose weight.

By lifting the mood, cacao can also help prevent comfort eating. Several studies suggest a link between the compounds provided by cacao and weight loss.

The results of one clinical trial show the smell alone can be enough to affect ghrelin levels and reduce hunger. The flavonoids in cacao also appear to affect adiponectin secretion and insulin resistance in a way that may favorably influence the weight. (

The Nutritional Value of Cacao

Believe it or not, this dark wonder also boasts a calcium content that’s higher than milk. A 100 gram serving of milk contains 125 mg. That’s very good, but 100 gram serving of cacao provides 128 mg so it’s even better.

Cacao is also a good source of iron. It typically provides 7 to 12 mg per 100 grams. However, as with all plant-based iron, the body does not absorb it well. That’s the bad news. The good news is, taking it with Vitamin C will boost absorption. (

Getting more iron is never a bad thing. It can ward off fatigue and boost energy levels by helping to get oxygen into the blood.

Cacao is also an incredibly good source of magnesium. There’s around 499 mg per 100 grams.

Magnesium helps provide strong bones by aiding calcium absorption. It’s an important mineral that plays a role in more than 300 different enzymatic reactions, including the metabolism of food.

There is also evidence to suggest women who consume plenty of magnesium may be less likely to suffer from PMS.

Magnesium is good for the heart and it’s good for the brain. It does a lot of other things too and eating cacao is one way of getting extra magnesium into you. ( )

How to Add Cacao to your Diet

It’s easy to get get more cacao into your diet. You should be able to find it in any good health food store.

One way to take advantage of its nutritional value is to add some to your smoothies. It can be a little more bitter-tasting than normal dark chocolate but if you’ve got fruit in your smoothie it will sweeten things up.

It’s also possible to swap cocoa powder for cacao powder when baking. The taste is more or less the same. Or how about a cacao mocha? Cacao nibs can also mix well with fruit and nuts as a nutrient-rich snack.

Health Considerations

Despite the fact that it’s good for you in so many ways, cacao is high in calories. If you eat too much of it too often, you may gain weight.

If you go for normal chocolate instead of cacao, opt for the dark chocolate version. It’s higher in iron and lower in fat. Dark chocolate also provides up to four times the fiber.

Unfortunately, the amount of calories it delivers is more or less the same.

Concluding Thoughts

When eaten in moderation, even normal dark chocolate has the potential to benefit the health.

The same can be said for cocoa powder. However, cacao products will always be superior because it has not been roasted.

The heat may help improve the flavor but it destroys many of the antioxidants and flavonoids that are so beneficial for the health.

There’s a reason why health food stores stock cacao products in preference to those made from cocoa. Raw cacao has a superior value. It’s as simple as that.

Of course, anyone who is used to eating normal chocolate products may find the taste of cacao takes some getting used to. As with all things the body adapts. In time the taste will seem quite normal as the taste buds grow accustomed to the new flavor.

About Tony Jay

Tony Jay (CEO of AGJ Media, CPD certified in Diet and Nutrition) Tony is a fitness enthusiast, writer, and entrepreneur. He’s been active in the health and wellness industry since 2007 and firmly believes correct nutrition is the key to good health. A workaholic by nature, Tony uses power yoga to keep his mind sharp, maintain physical subtlety, and keep fit. LinkedIn

Leave a Comment