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7 Benefits of Cacao: Does it Really Live up to the Hype?

Published on January 26, 2024


By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

https://www.holisticwritingconcepts.com
7 Benefits of Cacao: Does it Really Live up to the Hype?
7 Benefits of Cacao: Does it Really Live up to the Hype?

Cacao, one of the main ingredients in chocolate, has become a trendy ingredient in many natural foods and supplements due to its low-sugar content, chocolatey flavor, and natural antioxidants.

However, Cacao has also been controversial due to challenges surrounding unsustainable growing practices, worker conditions, and contamination issues.

So, does Cacao live up to its hype as a chocolatey superfood?

In this article, we do a deep dive into the bittersweet world of Cacao, including what it is, its colorful history, its studied benefits, the challenges surrounding its production, and how to enjoy Cacao responsibly.

What is Cacao? What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

Cacao is often confused with cocoa because they come from the same plant.

So, what’s the difference between cocoa and cacao?

Cacao is the raw, fermented, unprocessed cocoa bean. 

Cocoa is the processed version that has been heated, finely ground, and sifted. This high-heat processing reduces acidity and creates a more mellow flavor but strips the cocoa beans of many nutrients.

Cacao has a more intense, bitter flavor than cocoa and is considered superior health-wise because it retains its antioxidants and other nutrients, like magnesium and iron.

Cacao is typically sold as: 

  • Cacao nibs: Pieces of cacao beans that have been dried. These may be used as a substitute for chocolate chips or to add a crunchy chocolate flavor to energy bars, chocolate bars, etc.
  • Cacao powder: Powdered raw cacao that can be used in place of cocoa
  • Cacao coffee: This may be 100% cacao powder or cacao powder combined with ground coffee

Think of Cacao as a precursor to cocoa, like cocoa’s precursor to chocolate.

Although Cacao products are more expensive than cocoa, many people are willing to pay extra for its purported health benefits, which we’ll explore.

A Brief History of Cacao and Traditional Uses

You’ve probably read about the historical significance of Cacao and chocolate in ancient Mayan culture, where it was considered sacred.

Cacao cultivation dates back to 2000-1000 BC in Mexico and Guatemala, previously known as Mesoamerica. 

Researchers believe the Olmec culture was the first to domesticate it and to transform cacao into chocolate, where it was used in beverages reserved for nobility, the elite, various religious and spiritual rituals, weddings, and funerals.REF#3353

Pre-Hispanic cultures considered cacao a scarce and valuable product, especially outside of regions where it is produced.

10 Traditional Uses of Cacao for Health

Beyond rituals and ceremonies, Cacao has a rich history of use for supporting many aspects of health, including: REF#3354

  1. To support energy and reduce fatigue
  2. To promote weight gain
  3. To support nervous system function
  4. Promote digestion and elimination
  5. Support kidney function
  6. Promote cognitive function
  7. Support normal sexual function
  8. Promote longevity
  9. For breastmilk production
  10. For minor cuts, burns, and skin irritation

The fascinating history and non-stop popularity of the Cacao bean has made it the subject of several studies.

Here, we explore what science has uncovered about the potential benefits of Cacao.

7 Benefits of Cacao

Scientific analysis Cacao has revealed several active compounds believed to be responsible for its benefits.

Cacoa contains more phenolic antioxidants than most foods, including the flavonoids catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins.

It also contains various nutrients, including: REF#3355

  • Protein
  • Fiber
  • Fat
  • Manganese
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Zinc
  • Potassium
  • Selenium
  • Riboflavin
  • Niacin
  • Folate
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin K
  • Pantothenic acid

Of these, Cacao’s antioxidants are believed to be responsible for the majority of its health-promoting actions.

The following are seven potential benefits of Cacao based on modern research.

Benefit 1: Cacao Contains Health-Promoting Antioxidants

As previously mentioned, Cacao contains various antioxidants, such as the flavonoids catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins, that may play a role in its various health benefits. REF#3356 REF#3357

The antioxidants in Cacao work by supporting cell function via their free-radical scavenging properties.

Free radicals are unstable molecules that can cause cellular damage and inflammation in large numbers and/or if left unchecked.

Antioxidants, like those found in Cacao, may help support normal inflammatory response, which provides downstream benefits for: 

  • Immune function
  • Joints
  • Metabolic function
  • Skin health
  • Musculoskeletal function
  • Cardiovascular function
  • Longevity
  • Nervous system function

This is why you see Cacao as an ingredient in skincare products, supplements, and functional foods, its antioxidants may have broad-reaching benefits.

Benefit 2: Cacao May Help With Minor Aches and Pains

One of Cacao’s traditional uses was to ease minor aches and pains when taken internally or used topically.*

But does it work?

Research has shown Cacao contains various antioxidants and other plant compounds, such as flavonoid glycosides and Quercetin, with potential analgesic and anesthetic properties.REF#3358 REF#3359

More research is needed to determine if Cacao may help with minor pain management. However, anecdotal evidence and emerging research suggest a possible benefit.

Benefit 3: Cacao May Support Cardiovascular Function

Most health-conscious chocolate lovers have heard about the potential benefits of dark chocolate for heart function.

But is this true, or just another marketing ploy to make us feel better about eating chocolate?

Research suggests there is some truth in it. 

As you’ve already learned, Cacao contains various antioxidants that may support heart function via their effects on mitigating free radical damage and supporting inflammatory response.

Cacao also contains heart-healthy minerals, magnesium, copper, and potassium, which are believed to provide cardio-protective benefits. REF#3360

Research suggests consumption of Cacao may support normal levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol.REF#3361

However, given the fat and added sugar content of most chocolate (even dark) and that Cacao has superior nutrition compared to cocoa (which most chocolate is made from), you may be better off adding Cacao to your morning smoothie versus eating more chocolate.

Check with your healthcare practitioner about the best option for you.

Benefit 4: Cacao Has a Rich Chocolatey Flavor Minus the Fat, Sugar, and Calories

Part of the reason Cacao has become so popular is because it's an excellent alternative to high-calorie chocolate bars, chips, and beverages.

Cacao nibs, for example, give a chewy texture and chocolatey flavor to energy balls, healthy cookies, trail mix, yogurt, or granola without any added sugar or fat.

Cacao powder can be used in place of cocoa powder to add some nutritional oomph to desserts, like chia pudding, hot chocolate, and healthy fudge.

However, whether it yields a more nourishing end product depends on what else is added to the recipe and the degree to which it’s heated, which will destroy some of its nutritional value.

Cacao nibs or powder are also an excellent addition to smoothies for an extra energy boost.

Benefit 5: Cacao May Support Energy Levels

Chocolate is famous for helping busy adults get through their afternoon slumps by acting as a sweet treat pick-me-up.

It’s also been used traditionally to support energy, stamina, and vitality.

Research has shown Cacao contains various nutrients and plant compounds that may help support energy and a positive outlook, including: REF#3362

  • B-vitamins
  • Iron
  • Caffeine
  • Flavanols, which support blood flow to the brain
  • Theobromine, an antioxidant that has a mild stimulant effect
  • Magnesium, which helps lower stress

Cacao also supports the brain’s production of feel-good neurotransmitters, which may contribute to better energy levels. REF#3363

Benefit 6: Cacao May Support Metabolic Function

One typically doesn’t consider consuming chocolate to support metabolism.

Although that may be true of sugar-laden chocolates, studies suggest their precursor, Cacao, may support metabolic function. 

Although more robust research is needed, preliminary studies suggest the antioxidants in Cacao and cocoa may support metabolism via their effects on nitric oxide production, endothelial function (a layer of cells that line blood and lymphatic vessels), and glucose metabolism.REF#3363

Metabolic function is also intertwined with cardiovascular function, which, as previously discussed, may also benefit from Cacao.

More research is needed to understand how Cacao may influence human metabolic function.

Benefit 7: Cacao May Support Gut Health

Studies suggest Cacao may offer many benefits to the gut microbiome.REF#3364

Firstly, the fiber in Cacao promotes regularity and acts as a prebiotic, which feeds healthy gut bacteria.

Secondly, the polyphenols in Cacao may discourage the growth of unhealthy gut microbes while promoting normal inflammatory response.

These findings are significant given the scope of influence of the gut microbiome on immune function, inflammatory response, emotional well-being, cognitive function, nervous system function, and more.

More research is needed to understand the nuances of how Cacao impacts the gut microbiome.

The Potential Quality, Ethical, and Environmental Problems With Cacao, Cocoa, and Chocolate Products

Cacao may have many health benefits, but these may come with a price depending on the quality of the product.

Here are three potential problems with Cacao, cocoa, and chocolate products.

Cacao May Be High in Lead, Here’s What We Know

Recent headlines about high levels of lead in many brands of chocolate—particularly dark chocolate—really put a damper on everyone’s dark chocolate enthusiasm. REF#3365

So, what’s the deal with lead in chocolate, and how does it impact Cacao?

Although details are still emerging, investigations have revealed most dark chocolate contains higher than acceptable levels of lead.REF#3366 REF#3367

However, despite rumors about contaminated soil in developing countries being the problem, investigators have found it is more likely due to lead contamination during post-harvest processing than soil.

Unfortunately, cocoa beans' drying and fermentation may occur in uncontrolled and unsanitary ways, such as beans being left out to dry along roadsides, on tarps, in bags, in fields, on concrete, or in other places where lead-carrying dust may accumulate.

This isn’t great news for anyone who likes chocolate and may affect conventional or organic brands.

Although Cacao nibs may contain fewer heavy metals due to less processing, it isn’t a given.

Your best defense against lead in Cacao or any chocolate product is to buy from a company that sources Cacao from reputable growers and tests their products for heavy metal contamination.

You can also read the results of Consumer Reports testing on various chocolate bars, chocolate chips, cocoa, and hot cocoa mixes to see which products and brands tested highest for lead.

Cacao Production May Come at the Expense of the Environment

The majority of the world’s cocoa plants are produced by small landholders in West Africa.

The promise of increasing profits from growing more cocoa beans has driven many farmers to search for new or more land, leading to large-scale deforestation in places like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). REF#3368

These practices, which have destroyed an estimated three million hectares of forest between 1988 and 2008, are decimating healthy forests and the animals, plants, and insects that rely on them for existence.REF#3369

Fortunately, cocoa can be cultivated within a system known as agroforestry, which incorporates cocoa production into existing forests versus cutting them down. 

This method is considered sustainable and environmentally friendly, although many growers still prefer a no-shade growth process, which produces higher yields.

If you care about the environmental detriments of large-scale cocoa production, look for cacao, cocoa, and chocolate grown on sustainable, regenerative agroforestry farms.

The Cocoa Industry has a Reputation for Inhumane Working Conditions

As documented in The Dark Side of Chocolate and many other films, articles, and papers, many cocoa plantations, particularly in West Africa, do not pay a fair wage or provide a safe work environment and even employ child labor and forced labor practices.REF#3370

Governments, including the United States, are aware of this and are working to end child exploitation in cocoa production.

You can avoid contributing to this by selecting certified fair-trade cacao, cocoa, and chocolate products from companies who have pledged not to source the cocoa from suppliers who exploit children and workers. This is known as slave-free chocolate.

You can find a list of ethical companies dedicated to slave-free chocolate/cacao production at slavefreechocolate.org. 

Getting chocolate products from Certified Fair-Trade sources is also recommended, as these companies adhere to specific ethics.

The more consumers who are aware and ask about these things, the more pressure the industry will face to change its ways.

Enjoy Cacao Responsibly!

Cacao is delicious, nutritious, and has many potential health benefits. 

However, given the ethical and environmental challenges facing the chocolate industry, it is essential we source Cacao from companies that do not exploit children or workers and are stewards of the environment.

Likewise, ensuring you’re getting Cacao from a company that tests its products for heavy metals and contaminants is always wise. 

This is especially important if you’re pregnant, nursing, or sharing cacao or chocolate products with young children, who are more susceptible to the effects of heavy metals.

Enjoy responsibly.

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