Every so often, you read a headline proclaiming that chocolate is good for you, according to the latest study. Most people will be happy to run to the nearest store to get a bar of chocolate without remembering the old adage: If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. If you read the fine print (or the actual studies), you’ll likely see that the findings pertain to the health benefits of cacao, and not that milk chocolate bar you’re saving for cheat day.
Chocolate, cacao, cocoa…they’re all the same, right? Well, not exactly.
Cacao vs. Cocoa: What’s the Difference?
Some people use cacao and cocoa interchangeably, but technically speaking, they aren’t the same thing.
Cacao, cocoa, and chocolate all start the same way, as seeds in a pod hanging from the Theobroma cacao tree. These pods are harvested and broken open, and the seeds are left to ferment and dry. When these dried and fermented seeds are chopped up, you get cacao nibs, which are like a natural version of chocolate chips. Cacao nibs are the health food advocates’ guilt-free snack.
When the seeds are heated, the fatty portion that separates is called cocoa butter. This is the ingredient used in lotions, soaps, and chocolate. The rest of the beans are crushed and turned into cacao powder. If the beans are heated further to bring out a sweeter profile, the crushed version is called cocoa powder. When cocoa powder is treated with alkali, you get Dutch-process cocoa powder, a less-acidic ingredient found in many chocolate recipes. You can substitute one for the other in recipes.
While cacao powder is more nutrient-rich, the taste of cacao vs. the taste of cocoa is more bitter. On the other hand, cocoa powder may be more pleasing to the palette, but it may lose some of the health benefits of cacao during the heating process. And what about chocolate? If you’re using health as an excuse to snack on a chocolate bar, at least go for dark chocolate—this has fewer added ingredients (like sugar) that may not be so great for your health.
Health benefits of cacao and cocoa
Cacao is bursting with nutrients like magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper, and manganese, but its health benefits don’t stop there. A review published in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care suggested that cocoa may have a role in everything from weight loss to neuron protection and mood enhancement. Some of the more specific health benefits of cacao and cocoa include:
May help fight free radicals. Free radicals wreak havoc on the human body, causing everything from cancer to heart disease. Antioxidants have been found to combat these free radicals. In a study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, nonalkalized cocoa powder made from Ghanian cacao beans exhibited a higher antioxidant capacity compared to teas and red wine.
May help prevent heart disease. Studies suggest that the flavonoid content of cocoa lowers blood pressure, improves blood vessel flexibility, and improves blood cholesterol profile, which means cocoa may be good for cardiovascular health.
May help treat type 2 diabetes. Researches from Brigham Young University in the U.S. found that a compound in cocoa can help boost insulin production and control blood sugar levels. But in an interview, study author Jeffery Tessem warned that this doesn’t mean diabetes patients should start eating more chocolate. The study team is instead looking for ways to extract the compound from the cocoa to develop future diabetes treatment.
May improve brain function and put you in a better mood. A review published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology reviewed the ways in which the antioxidants and flavonoids in cocoa powder and chocolate can improve cognitive abilities and induce positive effects on mood—which means science supports what we’ve known all along: Chocolate makes you happy!
In a nutshell: Cacao and cocoa both come from the same source—cacao beans. Cacao beans are processed into cacao nibs, cacao butter, and cacao powder. When cacao is processed further and roasted at a high temperature, the result is cocoa. The additional processing adds a layer of sweetness to cocoa, making it more appealing to those with a sugar tooth, but this processing also may some of the benefits of cacao beans. There are still no studies that pinpoint if baking either cacao or cocoa further reduces its nutritional value.
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Navitas Cacao Nibs
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