Dec 022014

cacaoAs temperatures drop, your mind might we wandering to cold nights huddled up with a blanket and sipping on a steaming frothy mug of hot cocoa. Lately I’ve been noticing that cacao has been popping up in all sorts of recipes, from smoothies, as an ingredient in *baked and raw foods or as a garnish. So what is the difference between cocoa and cacao? Let’s clear up the confusion on Cocoa and Cacao so we can maximize our nutrition and make the most of our indulgences.

What is Cacao?

Cacao is the purest form of chocolate you can consume, which means it is raw and much less processed than cocoa powder or chocolate bars. Cacao has one of the highest antioxidant properties of all foods and the highest source of magnesium of all foods.

Cocoa looks the same but it’s not. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures. Sadly, roasting changes the molecular structure of the cocoa bean, reducing the enzyme content and lowering the overall nutritional value.

Cacao has been used throughout many cultures and because cacao beans were prized for their medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties, they were traded just like currency among ancient South American civilizations. Rumor has it Casanova was fond of them.

Cacao is a type of tropical tree, part of the evergreen family, that produces the world’s chocolate in raw form–before fat, sugar, and other “sweeteners” are added. The cacao tree grows in a few specific regions of the world naturally, including Mexico and South America, where most of the cacao or chocolate beans/seeds come from. It is these seeds that are used to make cocoa and cocoa butter.

What is the Nutrition and Health Benefits of Cacao?

Raw cacao powder contains more than 300 different chemical compounds and nearly four times the antioxidant power of your average dark chocolate and more than 20 times than that of blueberries. And check this out—raw cacao contains protein, calcium, carotene, thiamin, riboflavin, magnesium, sulfur, flavonoids, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. All these phytochemicals have incredible benefits throughout the body, such as lowered LDL cholesterol, improved heart function, and reduced cancer risk.

Cacao also boasts benefits to the brain releasing serotonin and the “good for you” endorphins that are referenced as “blissful” and “euphoric.”

What are Cacao Nibs?

Cacao nibs are simply cacao beans that have been chopped up into edible pieces, much like chocolate chips without the added sugars and fats. Cacao nibs contain all of the fiber, fat, and nutrients that the cacao bean does.

I see Cacao nibs frequently used as a garnish on smoothies, but I’ve taken to sprinkling them on yogurt or fruit with chopped nuts, to add some texture and those powerful antioxidants. I’ve also seen them use in making quick energy snacks like the Chocolate Coconut Energy Balls below.

Chocolate Coconut Protein Energy BallsWhy should I eat Dark Chocolate?

Dark chocolate is the result of crushing and liquefying cacao seeds, without the shell, in to what is known as chocolate liquor. It’s further processed into a chocolate powder or bars of chocolate through a press. The darker the chocolate and the less added to it, such as sweeteners and fats, the stronger and more powerful the effects of the health enhancing ingredients. To get the best benefits look for at least 72% dark chocolate bars.

Both cacao and cocoa are highly nutritious for you and are sure to satisfy your chocolate cravings around the clock. If you want more nutrients, I would suggest you choose cacao, but if you want less calories and a decent source of antioxidants, go with cocoa powder, which is less expensive as well.

*You can use cocoa powder and cacao powder interchangeably in baking recipes, smoothies, oatmeal, cookies, homemade raw treats, or even stir them into your coffee for a homemade mocha.

I hope you’ll be enjoying a healthy cup of cacao this winter, and discovering more exciting ways to incorporate cacao in your diet.

Try this recipe for delicious Chocolate Coconut Energy Balls

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