Shocker: Cocoa and cacao are not the same thing. I don’t know about you, but I certainly thought they were for a long time. I thought normal people said cocoa, but fancy people said cacao. Fancy people and granola people. I was neither, so I stuck with plain old cocoa. But, alas, I am growing as functioning adult and have learned the difference.
Cocoa is what most of us are familiar with. It’s the cocoa powder from a can we bought as kids to mix with milk or hot water. It’s what most generic chocolate bars are made from as well. Cocoa is derived from cacao, which is the raw and natural form of the plant.
Cacao is the purest form of chocolate you can consume. It is thought to be the highest source of antioxidants and magnesium of all foods. ORAC scores are a way to rate antioxidant levels in foods. One study found that raw cacao powder had an ORAC score of 95,500 versus just 13,120 for processed dark chocolate.
Antioxidants promote cardiovascular health by helping dilate blood vessels, reduce blood clotting, improve circulation, help regulate heartbeat and blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol, and reduce the risk of stroke and heart attacks. They also help to protect our bodies from environmental and metabolic toxins. They help repair and resist damage caused by free radicals, and may reduce risk of certain cancers.
Raw cacao also has several effects on the brain:
It increases the levels of certain neurotransmitters in our brains which promotes a positive outlook, facilitates rejuvenation, and simply helps us feel good.
It raises the level of serotonin in the brain, thus acts as an antidepressant and promoting a sense of well-being.
It stimulates the secretion of endorphins, producing a pleasurable sensation similar to the “runner’s high.”
It contains phenylethylamine, a chemical naturally found within the brain, which helps increase focus and alertness.
Raw cacao beans are also rich in a number of essential minerals including magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium and manganese. Magnesium balances brain chemistry, builds strong bones, and helps regulate heartbeat and blood pressure. Magnesium deficiency has been linked with hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and joint problems. Sulfur builds strong nails and hair, promotes beautiful skin, detoxifies the liver, and supports healthy pancreatic functions.
The good news is that cacao power can be swapped 1:1 for cocoa powder in just about any recipe. Making the change to cacao is as simple as buying a different product from the store. Some warn that cacao will taste a little different than cocoa. Most cocoa is laced with sweeteners, so in contrast, the raw cacao will taste a little bitter. This is a taste that will grow on you and will be worth it with all the increased health benefits.