You’re a chocolate lover. In honor of National Dark Chocolate Day, we thought you may be interested in knowing which dark chocolate has the highest health benefits. We don’t mean the chocolate bar you may find at the supermarket loaded with sugar, milk and other processed ingredients. We mean raw cacao. Isn’t chocolate just that–chocolate? Cacao or Cocoa – which is better?
To answer those questions, it all depends on what process it undergoes that matters when it comes to its health benefits. Although all dark chocolate is originally made from cocoa, or cacao beans, the end result can be vastly different. Let’s start from the beginning to help you get a better understanding of the difference and which one has more health benefits.
It all starts from the Theobroma Cacao tree, native to South America. The raw cacao beans are harvested from the tree’s seed pods. Cacao beans look like coffee beans and can be eaten raw. However, they are very bitter at this stage. Free of milk, sugar, and other processed ingredients, raw cacao beans are a superfood and have a host of amazing health benefits. Hint: when considering cacao or cocoa, raw cacao is better! Here’s why.
- Antioxidant Power – Cacao is loaded with organic compounds that are biologically active and function as antioxidants. It contains polyphenols called flavonoids with antioxidant properties. Cacao is also known to be rich in minerals such as potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, iron, zinc and manganese.
- May lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown that those who ate 100 g of chocolate a day — equivalent to a bar — had reduced insulin resistance and improved liver enzymes. Insulin sensitivity is a well-established risk factor of cardiovascular disease. Studies in humans and animals demonstrate that cacao and other flavanol-rich foods may exert protective vascular effects. We can use chocolate to celebrate National Heart Health Month, too! Any excuse will do.
- May improve mood and brain function. Numerous studies have been done on the benefits of cacao. One study showed that 5 days of consuming high flavonol cacao improved blood flow to the brain. It also contains phenylethylamine, an amino acid and natural aphrodisiac which helps the body release endorphins and boosts your levels of dopamine. When phenylethylamine and dopamine flood the brain, you gain a sense of well-being. Celebrate Valentine’s Day while you’re at it.
- May curb appetite and reduce sugar cravings. Raw cacao contains the amino acid l-tryptophan and natural MAO (monoamine oxidase enzyme) inhibitors, which together boost your serotonin levels. Higher serotonin levels keep you feeling full longer and suppress hunger. Not only that but the magnesium found in raw cacao also stabilizes insulin in your body, therefore reducing blood sugar swings and sugar cravings.
You can get cacao in nibs, butter, and powder. The higher the percentage of cacao and the lower the sugar content, the darker the chocolate and the more bitter it is. Cacao nibs are just the bean chopped up into small pieces. Add 1/2-1 ounce nibs to a favorite smoothie. The bitter flavor grows on you!
Cacao butter is made from the fattest part of the cacao bean. It is rich in texture, it’s color is white and can be applied to skin and hair as a moisturizer. To make cacao powder, the fat and buttery parts are removed and the rest of the bean is milled into a fine dark powder. The powder is used for baking desserts and is also great when put into smoothies. Solid chocolate or candy can be made from a preparation of cacao beans. You have a raw chocolate if the raw cacao beans have not been roasted.
Now the cocoa. Cocoa starts as cacao but the difference is it’s been degraded of nutrients during processing. The cacao bean is heated at high temperatures, which results in a slightly sweeter flavor. The higher temperature affects the molecular levels of the cacoa and therefore degrades it of nutrients. Cocoa, like cacao, can be made into chips and powder which are extremely popular in desserts, candy, and other treats. Check out our Chocolate Chia Pudding recipe made with cocoa powder.
Cocoa tends to be cheaper and easier to find. Make sure you are looking at the nutritional labels and ingredients. Try to avoid those with the added sugar, dairy, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup or emulsifiers. Although cocoa may have some benefits, you will most likely find other ingredients that are added to it. This combination of the already processed cocoa bean drowns out most of its nutrients.
So don’t mistake your average chocolate candy or chocolate covered treat for a health food. To reap the benefits, your chocolate bar must be at least 70% or higher cacao. Highly processed chocolate loses most of its nutrients and antioxidant effects and provides nothing but a lot of sugar.