When eaten in a cold-processed and organic form, cacao powder benefits a wide variety of health conditions, as you will see below. The only way cacao powder may not be good for you is if you have been tested to be allergic, if you eat non-organic mono-cropped varieties, if you eat too much, or if you are eating cacao powder mixed with unhealthy ingredients such as excess sugar and factory farmed dairy.
When I discovered cacao powder many years ago on the Big Island of Hawaii, it was literally a life altering experience. There before me was the ingredient from which all chocolate is made from, and up until that point I had no idea what chocolate actually was!
Okay, so what exactly is it?
All chocolate is made from the nuts (also called beans) of the cacao tree. Cacao nuts are the large seeds within a cacao pod. Within one cacao pod comes many cacao nuts. Technically speaking, a nut is a large seed. These nuts are then dried, lightly fermented, and processed so that that oil separates from the powder. Quality cacao powder products will be cold-processed so that the delicate and valuable nutrients are preserved.
There are a large variety of cacao strains, and some are more nutritionally beneficial to humans than others. Luckily, scientific research on cacao nuts has shown the most potent varieties and top strains are now grown in large quantities. Cacao nuts, nibs, butter, and powder are so popular that they can be purchased from stores all over the world.
Of course, chocolate bars are one of humans most favorite foods and are consumed on a mass scale. However, cacao powder benefits from their natural form are somewhat of a new discovery, of rather a new re-discovery as we will see. I offer profound gratitude to people like David Wolfe, cacao expert, who have repositioned cacao in its rightful place as one of the top superfoods on the planet.
A Brief History of Cacao and Cacao Powder
Although there is still debate on the origins of the cacao tree, genetic studies have suggested that the place of its inception is the Amazon region of South America. Its use among humans cannot be exactly defined, yet its use culturally can be traced to at least 2000 years ago (1).
The Olmecs, a pre-Mayan civilization, possessed knowledge of cacao and seemed to have been the first civilization to cultivate it (2). This knowledge was then passed down to the Mayans, and later to the Aztecs. Amongst the Maya, cacao was worshiped as a “food of the gods” and became a central part of their culture.
One of the favorite methods of cacao use among the Maya was to create a drink mixed with ground raw cacao powder, chili peppers, vanilla, and other spices (3). I have made this drink many times and highly recommend it. Warm, chocolate spice… yum!
There was even a period when cacao was used as a currency (4). Truly, cacao nuts were money! They were traded as a form of currency in Mayan and then Aztec culture even until 1887 in Mexico!
The history of cacao took a dramatic turn when Hernan Cortes invaded Aztec territory and brought back cacao to Spain in 1528. Its use in Europe then spread like wild fire (5).
In the ensuing centuries cacao cultivation took on a whole new level as large plots were grown and manufacturing facilities began to pump out cacao powder mixed with sugar, which eventually became the famous chocolate bar we know so well today.
Potential Side Effects
Chocolate bars are loved the world over and yet there is so much concern over the negative health effects. You may be wondering at this point, “If cacao powder is so healthy then why are chocolate bars considered a health threat?” Good question. What I am speaking on here is cacao powder in its cold-processed, heirloom, and organic form.
On the other hand, when cacao is genetically modified, heat processed into a powder, and then combined with sugar, milk, and other preservatives, the original essence of cacao is not only lost, but made potentially harmful for some people. Also, cacao powder does contain more caffeine than whole cacao nuts, so if you are sensitive to caffeine then you may want to limit or stop consuming it.
To avoid the potential negative side effects of cacao powder, look for these important qualities:
- certified organic
- fair trade
- not genetically modified (such as the CCN1 strain which should be avoided)
- grown in it’s natural jungle habitat
Scientific Research on Cacao Powder
- We all love to feel good and cacao powder actually has compounds in it that can increase our feelings of well-being and happiness. One such compound is Anandamide, which is literally translated as the bliss chemical. It is known as the bliss chemical because it is released when we are feeling great (6). Cacao is one of the only foods known to posses this compound (7).
- Cacao powder contains serotonin, which is a primary neurotransmitter in the human brain (8). Cacao also contains significant levels of tryptophan, serotonins precursor. Consuming foods high in serotonin and tryptophan, such as cacao powder, may help create a stress-defense shield and keep us feeling happy and optimistic.
2. Preventing Free-radical Damage
- Cacao powder may well be the one of the highest source of antioxidants of any food (9)! Antioxidants are able to prevent free-radical damage by offering electrons to unstable atoms.
3. Losing Weight
- Anyone interested in losing weight would be wise to consider adding cacao powder to their diet. The main reason cacao powder may be able to help someone lose weight is its ability to curb appetite (10). This is due to the extremely high levels of nutrients. When the body receives a high dose of nutrients, we receive the message to eat less because we have received what we need.
- Studies have shown that cacao powder may contain the highest content of magnesium of any food (11). Dr. Steve Windley, MD states that, “Magnesium, a critical mineral, is used in more than 300 bodily processes… Sources estimate that nearly 70 percent of Americans get inadequate doses of magnesium every day.” (12) Conclusion: eat cacao powder and meet the body’s magnesium nutritional needs.
- According to cacao expert David Wolfe, cacao powder contains 314 percent of the U.S. RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of iron per 1 ounce serving (13). Iron is a critical mineral in the oxygen-carrying protein hemoglobin, and sufficient levels in our diet can resist anemia.
6. Other Important Minerals
- Cacao powder is also high in Chromium, Manganese, Zinc, and Copper (14). These minerals are essential components of a functional and thriving human body.
7. Other Important Nutritional Components
- Cacao powder also contains significant levels of fiber and protein.
Cacao Powder Recipes
One of my personal favorites to mix cacao powder into my morning smoothie of berries, maca, hemp protein powder, and a base of pau d’arco tea. Cacao powder is also great as the base for a delightful fudge. Try mixing it with coconut oil, vanilla, and honey in a food processor. For more amazing cacao recipes check out Naked Chocolate: The Astonishing Truth About the World’s Greatest Food (this is an affiliate link, so if you decide to purchase the book I will make a small cut!).
The Cacao Revolution
Isn’t it great news that cacao powder is one of the healthiest foods on the planet! No longer do we need to feel worry or guilt over chocolate. We can drink a spicy cacao powder beverage or eat pieces of tasty fudge and know that we are actually consuming something healthy that can make us feel alive, energized, and happy. The cacao revolution has begun, and we have our ancestors and detailed modern scientific research on cacao powder benefits to thank for that!
I encourage you to connect with this amazing food, encourage your clients to use it, and experience what our ancestors called, “the food of the gods.” Enjoy!
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(1) http://www.cocoatree.org/frombeantobar/thehistoryofchocolate.asp Retrieved April 13th, 2010.
(2) Wolfe, David. Naked Chocolate pg. 15
(3) http://www.cocoatree.org/frombeantobar/thehistoryofchocolate.asp Retrieved April 13th, 2010.
(4) Wolfe, David. Naked Chocolate pgs. 16 and 24
(5) Ibid. pg. 18
(6) Wolfe, David. Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future. pg. 43
(8) Ibid. pg. 45
(9) Ibid. pg. 40
(10) Wolfe, David. Naked Chocolate pg. 65
(11) Wolfe, David. Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future. pg. 40
(12) http://www.purehealthmd.com/supplements/minerals/magnesium/magnesium-benefits.html Retrieved April 13th, 2010.
(13) Wolfe, David. Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future. pg. 40
(14) Ibid. pgs. 41-42