Woman holding a banana and cacao smoothie bowl

Cacao benefits and how to use it

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It looks like chocolate, tastes like chocolate, and it’s got ‘feel-good’ properties to boot. Cacao really is “the food of the gods”.

What is cacao?

Derived from the beans of the cacao plant, cacao (pronounced “ca-kow”) has been coined a superfood. Cacao is the raw form of cocoa, and is made in a way that preserves the antioxidants and nutrients.

To make cacao, cacao beans are dried and fermented, and then heated at a low temperature. The heat will then separate the different parts of the bean, separating the fatty part from the bean.

Raw cacao has a slightly bitter flavour and triggers our most sensitive tastebuds – the bitter taste receptors. This may sound off-putting, but it can work in your favour, as you're likely to only snack on one or two pieces of raw ‘chocolate’ (rather than eat an entire bar of mass-produced milk chocolate). You can find cacao as a powder, nib or butter.

Where is cacao grown?

Money might not grow on trees, but chocolate – cacao’s beloved by-product – does. Cacao’s Theobroma tree is native to Central and South America but grown commercially throughout the world’s tropics. Today, Africa produces about 70 per cent of the world's cacao.

It’s now thought that humans have been enjoying cacao since as far back as 600BC, when the Mayans are thought to have prepared the first hot chocolate drinks from mashed cacao seeds.

What is the difference between cacao and cocoa?

It is easy to be confused regarding the difference between cacao and cocoa. They may sound similar, since they are both derived from the beans of the cacao plant.

Cocoa is made from roasted and ground cacao seeds which gives a slightly sweeter flavour and different health effects. Since the seeds are roasted at a higher temperature, they have a decreasing amount of antioxidants and nutrients than cacao. Production costs are lower for making cocoa, which makes it cheaper and easier to find. Cocoa powders are often mixed with sugar or sweeteners, making it a much less nutritional product.

Switching out cocoa powder with cacao powder will not only be a healthier choice, but it will also help you consume more of essential nutrients and minerals.

What are the benefits of cacao?

There is a reason that cacao is considered the “food of the gods”. It is densely packed with antioxidants and other minerals. Cacao has a high amount of iron and magnesium, in addition to being very low in sugar. This makes it a much healthier choice in your everyday life. No milk is added to cacao, so it is also suitable for those who are lactose intolerant. 

Furthermore, cacao contains active antioxidants which come from the plant polyphenols, which is a category of plant compounds that offers various health benefits. Adding polyphenols to your diet can boost digestion and brain health.

How to use cacao?

Cacao powder should be considered a kitchen-cupboard staple to support your healthy lifestyle. It is a very versatile product that can be used in numerous of dishes.

There are multiple ways of incorporating cacao in your daily routine, such as: