By Dr Joe
Is cacao good for you? Let’s talk about the benefits (if any) of having cacao powder or cacao nibs as part of your overall healthy eating plan. And how you may be very easily misled too.
Oh yes, I meant it alright…a healthy eating plan can involve cacao, believe it or not.
You will discover on this page that cacao, for all its wierd sounding name, is one of the most under-rated plant-based food you will ever come across.
Having a sound knowledge of cacao benefits is a good starting point. It explains why you want to have cacao powder in your dietary portfolio in the first place.
What’s the point of consuming a product if you have no idea what the purpose really is.
I acknowledge that there are several people who are into particular foods by virtue of introduction by their parents. That is fine.
But modern day nutrition demands mindfulness in whatever you are doing or should I say, eating. That is why it is crucial that you understand the benefits of cacao.
Before we talk about why cacao powder is good for you, we need to establish what the difference is between cacao powder and cocoa powder.
So, what is the difference between cacao powder and cocoa powder?
Another way of asking the question is: Is cacao powder the same as cocoa powder? To the uninitiated, it is very easy to fall into the mindset that cacao powder and cocoa powder are one and the same.
Well, I can confirm that cocoa powder and cacao powder are not the same. Don’t be fooled.
Yes, there is a difference between them.
> And the difference between cacao powder and cocoa powder lies in the making of both powders. Cacao powder is natural and non-alkalized whilst Cocoa powder is processed and that process includes alkalinisation.
The similarities of cacao powder and cocoa powder is that both products come from the same seed in the fruit of the plant called Theobroma cacao. And that is where the similarities end literally.
Cacao powder is the initial product that is made from the cacao seeds when the cacao seeds are cold-pressed, preferably in the raw state.
However, when the seeds are processed by fermenting, roasting or heating followed by alkalinisation, then cocoa powder is the end result.
As you would imagine cold pressing of the cocoa seeds preserves the nutritional constitution of the cacao seeds. Therefore, cacao powder has all the nutritional elements of the cacao seeds intact.
By the same token, processing of the cacao seeds through roasting process and high heat diminishes the nutritional value of the cacao seeds. Therein lies the major difference between cacao powder and cocoa powder.
Whilst 70% or higher, dark chocolate may provide some of the benefits I will be talking about here, your preference should be raw, original, organic, sugar-free, dairy-free cacao powder or cacao nibs.
Advertisers may want to hoodwink you into buying milk chocolate and white chocolate; insinuating the same benefits. Don’t fall for it. White chocolate for instance provides you with no nutritional value. Why…because white chocolate has no bio-active cacao anti-oxidants in it. None!
Truth be told: unsweetened, organic, bitter, raw, dairy-free cacao has way more health benefits than any sweetened variety of cacao-related products. Don’t be deceived by false, misleading advertising!
Cacao unarguably is the best plant source of flavonols and polyphenols on the planet. It will take some beating to match it.
So, what are the cacao powder health benefits?
Now we have the foundation knowledge of the similarities and differences between cacao powder and cocoa powder, we can now turn our attention to what cacao powder is good for.
Why is cacao powder good for you?
Cacao powder benefits lay in the fact that cacao is one of nature’s foods that you would classify as a superfood. Cacao is a superfood. Cacao is a powerful superfood. Period.
Superfoods are foods considered to be high in two groups of natural substances called antioxidants. The two groups of antioxidants are flavonols and polyphenols. Cacao powder is rich in these two groups of antioxidants. This is why cacao powder is good for you.
Cacao powder is bursting with an abundant supply of antioxidants. Cacao powder represents one of nature’s highest sources anti-oxidants.
1. Cacao benefits your heart and blood vessels – heart disease and stroke prevention
There has long been an outstanding observation that populations that consume a lot of plant-based nutrition and beverages have a lower incidence on cardiovascular diseases. This means plant-based nutrition is good for your heart and your blood vessels.
Cacao represents one of these plant-based foods that perform these same functions. Cacao does this through the pathway of activating the nitric oxide synthase enzyme activity, thereby boosting the production of nitric oxide in the body.
The fact that a cacao drink has nitric oxide enhancement ability lies with this study that experimented cacao drink on 11 smokers.
Smokers inherently have impaired Nitric Oxide production because the smoking habit appears to inhibit the activity of the enzyme that facilitates the production of Nitric Oxide.
The net effect is that the Nitric Oxide pool in smokers is significantly smaller compared to non-smokers. This ultimately leads to hardening of the arteries in smokers in the medium to long term. So, can you reverse this impairment of Nitric Oxide production by drinking cacao concentrated drink? Turns out, you can.
The smokers in that study were given 100 ml of concentrated cacao drink and were noted to have a rise in nitric oxide levels in their blood.
When you have a rise in nitric oxide, blood vessels open up as the vessel walls become more relaxed and pliable. Relaxed blood vessels from consuming cacao creates an environment for a healthy heart, because the heart has less work to do pumping blood from inside it.
You will remember that the discovery of the physiology of Nitric Oxide is the reason Furchgott, Ignarro and Murad got the 1998 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine.
Relaxed blood vessels means the vessels are pliable making blood supply to cells and tissues totally unhindered. Unimpaired blood flow means oxygen and nutrients are transported to body cells and tissues, where they are desperately needed, with ease.
This unimpaired blood flow to tissues includes the heart muscle. An efficient rich blood supply enables the heart to perform it’s pumping function effectively. Cacao enabling this rich blood supply to heart muscle prevents heart disease.
I will encourage you to exploit this health benefit of cacao in particular, coronary heart disease prevention.
With cacao preventing hardening of blood vessels (atherosclerosis), there is an additional net cacao health benefit of prevention of strokes. This is because blood vessels in the brain are protected and supported by a larger pool of nitric oxide.
2. Cacao is good for your blood pressure – heart attack prevention
This health benefit of cacao springs from the one above.
We have just established that enhanced nitric oxide production makes blood vessels more relaxed. What does this mean? It means the flow diameter of each blood vessel is wider.
Ultimately a wider flow diameter allows blood to flow through much more easily. This means the pressure within the blood vessels downstream is lower…much lower.
The pressure within the blood vessels downstream is representative of your blood pressure measurement. This is the reading your doctor gets when he/she measures your blood pressure.
Consuming cacao facilitates lower blood pressure from the increased nitric oxide production. So, you can consume cacao for blood pressure support.
What’s the substance in cacao that amplifies nitric oxide production in the body – flavonols. Yes, the flavonols are the real deal here.
Relaxed blood vessels lower the global blood pressure in your body. A relatively lower blood pressure makes the blood supply to your heart muscle quite abundant preventing heart attacks.
Other body organs benefit from this lower blood pressure too. All organs are well perfused facilitating adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients unhindered. Waste products are also cleared from tissues without fuss too.
One proof being an observational study of the Kuna Indians of Panama. The indigenous Kuna Indians living in the remote Ailigandi islands of Panama seem to be free of high blood pressure, heart disease and peripheral blood vessel disease despite indulging in a diet that is high in salt intake.
These health parameters of the indigenous Kuna Indians still living in these remote Panamanian islands have been compared in that observational study to similar Kuna Indians who have migrated to the cities.
Researchers found the indigenous Kuna Indians to have consistently lower blood pressures compared to the city-dwelling Kuna Indians. The only difference was the diet. The indigenous island Indians ate more fruit and drank 10 times more cacao drink even though salt consumption in the islanders was much higher.
The conclusion from that research being the blood pressure escalating effects of high salt intake can be overridden by a high intake of flavonol-rich cacao consumption. That’s how powerful the blood vessel relaxing effect of cacao is.
Another mode of action by cacao preventing heart disease is via its actions concerning platelets.
Blood cells in the body called platelets do have a role to play in the origin of heart attacks. You will be glad to find out that the flavonols in cacao prevents unnecessary clumping of these platelet cells.
If you prevent unnecessary platelet clumping inside the blood vessel that supplies the heart muscle, you prevent angina and full-blown heart attack. This is something that cacao can do for you. Cacao prevents heart disease in more ways than one.
Essentially what you get with cacao is a double whammy health promotion effect of blood vessel relaxation and platelet aggregation prevention inside the blood vessel.
We can go to bed safe in the knowledge that cacao actually does prevent heart attacks. Awesome!
3. Cacao is good for your cholesterol
One thing we know about cacao is that it has polyphenols as part of the antioxidant package in it. The polyphenols in cacao are called catechins and procyanidins.
The question is whether the polyphenols in cacao have any effect on cholesterol levels in the blood. What better way to prove it than to try cacao on individuals with normal cholesterol levels and those with high cholesterols level.
160 individuals were given low strength, medium strength, high strength cacao drink or a dummy drink with no actual cacao in it. Both groups consumed the assigned beverage twice a day for 4 weeks.
The participants had blood test both at the beginning of the research and at the end of the 4 weeks.
What the study showed.
The study demonstrated that those who consumed the cacao-infused beverage had lower LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) at the 4-week mark compared to what the level was at the beginning of the study.
Not only that there was a rise in the HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) at the end of the study too in those who consumed the cacao drinks.
It is heart-warming (no pun intended) when a food substance boosts the production of good cholesterol whilst reducing bad cholesterol at the same time. All thanks to the polyphenols in cacao.
4. Cacao promotes insulin sensitivity – cacao good for blood glucose control
Let me say this upfront and indeed this is confirmed by this piece of research.
White chocolate is useless. I have mentioned this earlier on but I am repeating this for emphasis sake. If you are consuming white chocolate in the hope that you are doing your body any favours, forget it.
The study does prove the fact that white chocolate is just a pretty face. Okay, let’s hear it…
In that study 15 healthy individuals were randomised to consume 100 g of dark chocolate bar and 90 g of white chocolate. The two groups were assigned to do this over a 15-day period.
Before the study commenced, they needed to be free of chocolate for a period of 7 days so as not to confound the results of the study.
After the first 15 days, they were swapped over to do the opposite. So, those who had white chocolate swapped to the dark chocolate for the 2nd phase of the study. This is called a cross-over study. At the end of each study phase, a glucose tolerance test was done.
The oral glucose tolerance test was done with insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance as outcome measures.
The study showed insulin sensitivity was increased and insulin resistance lower during the dark chocolate phase whilst no such effect was seen in the white chocolate phase.
As a bonus, blood pressure was also lower in the dark chocolate phases of the study.
This next study sought to test the effect of flavanol-rich dark chocolate on blood vessel wall function, insulin sensitivity, pancreatic beta-cell function, and blood pressure in hypertensive patients with impairment in glucose metabolism.
Similar study design. 19 individuals known to have high blood pressure and glucose intolerance were randomised to receive 100 g of dark chocolate that was flavonol-rich versus white chocolate that was flavonol-free following a chocolate-free wash-out period. Swapped over after 15 days.
The dark chocolate flavonol-rich phase of the study produced an increase in insulin sensitivity whilst reducing insulin resistance. Blood pressure reduction was also noted in dark chocolate phase. Blood flow was increased in the dark chocolate phase. An improvement in pancreatic beta cell function was another bonus observed.
The conclusion from that study seems to be that dark chocolate flavonols have a positive impact in cardiovascular risk factors inclusive of total cholesterol and bad cholesterol.
What is happening here is that; with cacao promoting insulin sensitivity, it reduces insulin requirements per unit food consumed. There are other studies that support the notion cacao reduces insulin resistance whilst upregulating glucose uptake by cells from the circulation.
All of these health benefits of cacao are thought to be mediated by nitric oxide boosted by the bio-availablity of flavonols that cacao contains. This represents one of many anti-oxidant effects of cacao powder and cacao nibs.
5. Cacao powder health benefit – Does cacao improve mood and memory function?
A lot of remarks have been bandied around suggesting cacao is good for memory improvement and mood elevation but is it true or is it just conjecture?
One study seems to have had a look at this suggestion.
The study recruited 72 individuals from both sexes aged between 45 and 64. There were 3 parallel groups on this study. One group consumed a chocolate drink laced with 500 mg of polyphenols with a second group consuming 250 mg and the third consuming 0 mg.
Each group drank the assigned drink daily for 30 days.
They were to self-assess mood after each drink at 1 hour, 2.5 hours and 4 hours after each drink using a standardised visual analogue scoring system.
Cognitive function was tested by the researchers rigorously.
The participants reported a good measure of calmness and a feeling of being content, when they consumed the 500 mg polyphenol chocolate drink.
However, the effect of the 500 mg chocolate drink on mood and cognitive function was deemed negligible in that study.
6. Cacao for anxiety
One health benefit of cacao from that study, may therefore be that cacao may help with anxiety. If you have anxiety issues, have a trial of original raw cacao drink for a fortnight and judge for yourself if it works for you or not.
Something to remember is; when it comes to matters of the mind, response can vary from one person to another. Give cacao a try and see if it helps your anxiety and even panic attacks.
I have a friend who had severe anxiety issues. It was actually affecting his work. I suggested he tried organic raw dairy-free, unsweetened cacao powder. He could not believe his luck. His problem with anxiety are now well and truly over. His concentration is much better and all of his psycho-somatic symptoms of anxiety are gone.
He is a happier soul and he got his life back from anxiety. You may say, this is anec dotal evidence, but what stops you from giving cacao powder a try if you have anxiety issues. You may just surprise yourself.
As for overall effect of cacao on mood issues like depression, we see anecdotal evidence every now and again. It may not be scientifically proven as shown in the study above and this one.
But what does it matter what science says, if your personal experience says something different.
I know people who swear that using unsweetened raw cacao powder or cacao nibs has had huge benefits on their depression. I also know people who attest to the fact that cacao powder actually improves their cognitive performance or cognitive function.
In issues related to cacao and cognitive performance; cacao and depression; cacao and anxiety; my view is that, it doesn’t hurt to consume cacao and see how you respond to it.
Your personal experience may represent proof of concept regardless of what science may be saying. After all, cacao powder is food. It is non-pharmaceutical. There’s hardly any harm you will be doing yourself by having it for a good number of weeks and judge for yourself.
7. Cacao protects skin
We have established that cacao does promote blood flow by relaxing blood vessels through its nitric oxide functionality. Of course, that increase in blood flow does include blood flow to the skin too.
Can this increase in blood flow to the skin and the powerful antioxidant effect of cacao translate to protection of skin damage from the sun? Turns out cacao can be useful for maintenance of skin health.
This study gave a high dose cocoa flavonol drink (326 mg/dl) and low dose flavonol drink (27 mg/dl) to 2 groups of women over a 12-week period. Skin health parameters were measured before and during the study.
Blood flow to the skin was measured along with skin hydration and skin density. The reserachers found better outcomes in the high dose flavonol group. Decrease in skin roughness and reduced scaling were also noticed in the high flavonol group.
In terms of what you could see with your naked eyes, the group who consumed the high flavonol cacao drink actually had a 25% reduction in skin UV damage from experimental forced UV exposure, by the end of the study.
Does this study prove that drinking raw unprocessed cacao drink will improve your skin texture and give you glowing skin? Well, not conclusively.
But it wouldn’t hurt your chances if you include a natural drink like cacao to fight premature skin ageing. At least in the short to medium term, cacao could help with a healthier skin texture and photoprotection from the sun.
8. Cacao powder health benefit – Cacao improves Sleep and Energy
Okay, I will be upfront here. What I am going to say here is my personal experience.
As a doctor, I work odd hours of the day. This means my sleep is disrupted over and over again. The net result is over the years my body clock has completely gone out of whack. Ruined!
I had subsequently developed sleep problems that never seem to go away. Enter unprocessed cacao. Cacao has become a major life saver for me. Cacao has corrected my sleep issues quite quickly. I now sleep like a baby.
And you know what’s even better?
I wake up alert. I don’t wake up feeling groggy like those prescription meds will do to you when you take them. Alarm goes off in the morning and off you go. Wake up fully alert in seconds if you had unprocessed natural cacao drink the night before.
There’s something else. You will be bouncing throughout the day with lots of energy to spare. Some studies like this one and this one do not seem to show that exercise performance does improve with cacao objectively. However, they did show that cacao does reduce oxidative stress and you might burn more free fatty acids when you workout.
The fact that cacao gives you an energy boost is not surprising because cacao contains phenylethylamine, anandamide and tryptophan. These are substances that speed up communication between the nerve cells in the brain making you alert.
Tryptophan for instance boosts serotonin synthesis in the brain. If you get tryptophan like you do from cacao, you know that good sleep is guaranteed.
Those are some of the benefits of consuming cocoa products made from cacao. Cocoa products do have benefits but these are not exclusive to it, I have to say. There are other plant sources of antioxidants but it will be difficult to beat cacao as a natural source of polyphenols and flavanols.
Why the health benefits of Cacao powder can be a misunderstood weapon:
As I said above, there are other foods around that have the polyphenols just like cacao. The polyphenols in these other foods are just as effective. The essential point is that cacao just seems to have a higher concentration of these antioxidants. That’s one big bonus.
The problem though is that the cacao products you see in your department stores have been processed to the point of being useless. Most of the products you see on your supermarket shelves have been severely adulterated by adding sweeteners, table sugar, dairy and preservatives.
The sweeteners or sugar are what makes them appeal to you and your taste buds but that’s all you are getting. You won’t be getting the benefits mentioned above.
What does this mean? It means you are being short-changed. You may be having that chocolate product in the vain hope that you are feeding your body with antioxidants. Sadly, you are not…unless you have access to cacao powder that is unprocessed and cold-pressed or at worst, minimally processed.
Also, don’t forget that cacao (when you get the real thing) has calories in it. Pure cacao powder has less calories though compared to say dark chocolate.
This means you don’t need to consume a lot of it to get the benefits. 2 spoonfuls a day is probably all you need. That’s all I use personally. You might use a little more than I do but you don’t need shed loads of it.
See suggested reading below:
Can This Delicious Elixir REALLY Ease Stress, Boost Energy and ERASE Belly Fat?