Cacao is like a hidden gem of the health world. You get all the chocolate-y vibes, but WAY more nutrients that regular cocoa powder.
If you love chocolate, you need to know about cacao.
I’ve been a chocolate-lover since I was little. My family was a huge fan of Hershey’s- I mean we even had season’s passes to the theme park and we’d go OFTEN, lol. We’d always end our day with a trip to Chocolate World, and would ride this weird 80s-style square car that took you through their museum of chocolate, showing you how chocolate is made. We would have massive fights over who ate who’s chocolate- it was a big freaking deal.
Since going plant-based and getting rid of refined sugar in my lifestyle, I haven’t really miss sugary-sweet chocolate. But, I can say that every time I make something with cacao in it, it totally feels like I’m taking a trip through time and making my inner kid really happy.
What is also cool is that this awesome superfood is packed with so many brain, heart, and body benefits. Goodbye guilty pleasure, hello superfood.
What is Cacao?
Chocolate (well, cacao beans) actually grows on trees! These trees are found in tropical regions throughout the world, like Central America, parts of Africa, and parts of South Asia.
If you’ve ever eaten chocolate, you’ve had cacao! There’s two edible parts of the bean. There’s the seeds:
And the fruit:
The sticky, white part, which is considered the fruit, is actually what helps the cacao beans ferment. This part doesn’t taste much like chocolate either.
How is the cacao bean processed?
Once cacao beans are harvested, they go through several processing steps:
- Fermentation- The beans, along with their sticky white fruit, are put into bins and covered. Microbes will feed on the pulp and ferment the beans. This helps to start developing the chocolate flavor.
- Drying- After fermentation, the beans are left to dry out.
- This is where the differences between cocoa and cacao come in:
- Cocoa: Roasting- When cocoa is being made, the beans are then heated at a high heat to further develop the chocolate flavor.
- Cacao: Cold-Pressing- Instead of being heated at high heat, the cacao beans are cold-pressed to make cacao. This will allow the beans to retain most of their superfood properties.
- Crushing- The beans can then be crushed and separated from their outer shells. This creates cacao nibs.
- Grinding- The nibs can now be ground into different forms like liquor and powder.
Cacao vs. Cocoa
The difference in processing technique determines whether you end up with cocoa or cacao. Cacao is made from drying, fermenting, and cold-pressing the raw cacao beans. Because the beans aren’t heated at high temperatures, you’re left with a nutrient-dense superfood.
Cocoa is made from fermenting, drying, and roasting the cacao beans at high temperatures. This leads to a sweeter product, but not as nutrient-rich as the cacao. Once you heat the beans, you lose some of the powerful nutritional properties.
Benefits of Cacao
Cacao is considered a superfood because it is so nutrient dense. It is rich in nutrients like magnesium, potassium, iron, calcium, zinc, copper, and manganese. If you have any history with using magnesium, you know that it can help to calm us and relieve stress and tension.
Cacao is packed with antioxidant effects from flavonoids and phytochemicals. These help to protect our cells against free radical damage. Oxidative damage, which I talked about more in this vegan collagen article, has been linked to premature aging and many of the modern day health issues that America is facing today.
Cacao can also help to boost mood and cognitive performance due to its main flavonoid, epicatechin. It has been said to preserve cognitive abilities during aging and helps to boost your mood.
Cacao can also help to protect our heart due to flavanols and procyanidins, which can increase antioxidant capacity in the blood plasma and reduce platelet reactivity. Both of these things will promote a healthier heart.
How to Find Quality Cacao
Look for cacao that is organic and that is ethically-sourced. The quality of the food we eat is important and its always worth your time to check out where the product is coming from and how it is produced.
Organic means that the product has been grown and processed without the use of man-made fertilizers, pesticides, or growth regulators.
Ethically-sourced means that the product has been obtained in a responsible and sustainable way. It means that both the people and land are cared for in an ethical way.
I usually get my cacao from Thrive Market. I also get this brand when I can find it at my local grocery store.
Different Cacao Products
There are three main types of cacao products to check out in the cacao family:
Cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been crushed and separated from their outer shell. I love sprinkling them on smoothie bowls (especially this Cacao Peanut Butter Smoothie). You get an extra dose of antioxidants while having a fun smoothie topping.
They can also be used to replace chocolate chips in cookies or even chocolate chips in a banana nice cream. They’re just not as sweet or soft as chocolate chips, but they work!
Cacao powder is made by cold-pressing the oil (which creates cacao butter) out of cacao nibs and drying what remains into a powder.
Having a bag of cacao powder on hand is the perfect way to get cacao’s incredible nutrients in a variety of ways- smoothies, drinks, energy balls…. this list is endless.
Cacao butter is the pure oil that is pressed out of the cacao bean. And even though it has the word *butter* – it’s still made from plants. 🙂
You can use cacao butter for making homemade chocolate, which is my favorite way to use it. It can also be used in hot drinks instead of coconut oil to make a thick, creamy texture.
How to Use Cacao
Cacao powder is so incredibly versatile! You can use it in smoothies, energy balls, hot cacao drinks, or even in baked goods. Heres a few of my favorite recipes:
Tips for Using Cacao
My biggest tip for cacao is to get some and start experimenting! It is one of the most delicious superfoods out there.
If you make a cacao creation, tag me on Instagram! I would love to see what you come up with!????
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