Cacao: What is it, Anyway?
Do you know what chocolate is? Of course you do. Sweet, sweet chocolate. It comes in so many varieties that there’s usually something for everyone. Chocolate is full of sugar and happiness and comes in enough flavors that there’s something for everyone.
But where did chocolate come from, and what’s in it? If you are trying to work on a healthier diet, something to consider would be cacao, a magical superfood that comes from the same plant as chocolate.
Even though ‘cacao’ and ‘cocoa’ seem interchangeable, there are important differences that set them apart. Cocoa is packed full of sugar, while cacao is a raw food. If you are looking to up your superfood game, cacao is definitely a great place to start. So, what is cacao exactly? Where did it come from? Let’s answer some questions before we start throwing it into everything we eat.
Where Does Cacao Come From?
Before there was the chocolate bar, there was cacao. As you grab for a Hershey bar, take a second to remember its roots. Cacao is the reason chocolate isn’t totally terrible for you, so it deserves some praise. It all starts with the Theobroma cacao, or, more simply, the cacao tree. Cacao is the term used for the pods from the tree which are taken to make chocolate.
The cacao tree is a small evergreen tree that grows in tropical and sub-tropical regions. These trees can grow to be about 8 meters tall. Hanging from the trees, you will see not Snickers bars, but an array of colored pods. The purple, green, red, or yellow pods are the vessels for the most precious cargo, cacao beans. Each of these pods can hold 10-50 beans inside. The thick protective pod keeps birds and other hungry critters out, so more cacao for us!
History Of Cacao
Now that we are experts on the cacao tree, here’s a little history lesson. Cacao has been around for about 4,000 years and is native to the Amazon Basin in South America. The original form used by humans was a fermented drink, and the beans were sometimes used as currency. Chocolate was regarded as an item of royalty and was consumed at feasts and presented as an award to soldiers. It was most frequently combined with chilis, which is something you do not see as much of today.
Once chocolate became popular in South America, it spread to Central America and Europe. Much of the cultivation of cacao shifted to West Africa, which now provides 2/5ths of the world’s cacao.
Cacao Vs. Cocoa
Alright, what’s the difference between these two? These two terms might seem interchangeable, but there are some differences to note. The most important thing to think about here is heat. Cacao is the most natural form of the beans you can get for consumption. It is made from fermented beans that are not roasted. Cacao is considered a raw food, so it fits into the guidelines for paleo and raw diets. In fact, it’s also a superfood! More on that later.
When cacao is harvested from the tree, it’s left to dry and then roasted. Not much is done to it, so it is considered the purest form of cacao you can get. Sometimes referred to as ‘naked chocolate,' it’s normally sold in a powder which can be added to foods or enjoyed on its own.
Cocoa, on the other hand, is where we get into the sweet territory. It is also most commonly sold as a powder. However, it is definitely not a raw food. Cocoa has been roasted at a high temperature and is often mixed with sugar and dairy before selling. If you want a sweet hot chocolate, this is probably the way to go, whereas cacao can be mixed in for nutrients and health benefits.
Health Benefits of Cacao
Over the years, raw diets have been trending, and cacao fits the bill for this. Its recent popularity has people shelving traditional cocoa and opting for its less processed sibling. The taste is much more bitter and nutty than cocoa, so many people will add it to foods for nutrition. So, what exactly are you getting when you add cacao?Calcium
Cacao is jam-packed with calcium, even more than dairy milk!
These are naturally occurring antioxidants, which help to reduce the risk of disease. Polyphenols are also said to reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure. In fact, cacao powder has 40 times the amount of antioxidants than blueberries have.
Flavanols are said to increase carbohydrate digestion and improve overall gut health.
Along with these benefits, cacao also has iron and magnesium, so when you add cacao to your diet, you are basically becoming the epitome of health. Cacao is also thought to help reduce high blood pressure, lower heart attack risk, and improve blood flow to the brain. On top of that, studies have shown that cacao can help with symptoms of depression and stress. It can naturally elevate moods, and who couldn’t use a boost in that department once in a while?
Types of Cacao
It doesn’t just end as cacao. The colorful tree pods mentioned earlier house different varieties of the beans.
ForasteroForastero is your run-of-the-mill grocery store cacao bean. It is the most common one used in the chocolate industry. This bean is mostly cultivated in West Africa. It’s the most versatile bean.
TrinitarioTrinitario only makes up less than 10% of the beans used for the production of cocoa. This is a hybrid strain of cacao that grows in South Africa. Its flavors can be all over the place, which makes it harder to use for production.
CriolloComing in as the second rarest form of seed, this one will rarely be seen in regular chocolate production. It is sought after by craft chocolate makers. It is not as bitter at the others.
NacionalThis is the rarest and least known cacao. It was only discovered in 2011 and grows in Peru. You definitely won’t see this one in mainstream chocolate making. It does make rich and creamy chocolate when it gets to be used, though.
Adding Cacao to Your Diet
Now that we know about how amazing cacao is, how can we incorporate it into our diets? Well, it’s relatively easy. The main way to get your cacao on is to purchase it in powder form. However, there are other variants. Another popular way to consume cacao is in nib form. The nibs are also made from the fermented beans and then cracked. They can be eaten on their own or added to recipes. Raw cacao powder can be added to essentially anything, so here are some ideas to help you get started.
One more thing to note here is that while adding cacao is an amazing way to incorporate more superfoods into your diet, be careful with it. Too much consumption could possibly be dangerous. Theobromine poisoning has the potential to cause heart failure and kidney damage. The recommended amount is 1-2 oz daily.
SmoothiesThis is a no brainer. Make your favorite smoothie, and throw in however much cacao powder you want. If you don’t want to taste the powder, add a little bit. If you absolutely love it, throw in a bunch. Smoothies are great because you have control over how much of everything you’re consuming. If you want a real antioxidant boost, don’t forget the blueberries!
BakingPut down the brownie mix and make your own! Swapping out cocoa powder for cacao powder can lower your sugar intake and help make a more natural baking mix. Throw cacao powder into cake mixes, brownie mixes; you name it.
Granola BarsAlong with smoothies, granola bars are a fantastic way to add your nutrients to your diet. Making them at home is pretty easy, thanks to the internet. Add cacao powder into the mix for those nutrients on top of your nuts and raisins!
Incorporating cacao into your diet is a great way to get your chocolate fix while putting down the candy bar. Try out a smoothie or a granola bar with cacao in it. Adding those antioxidants and other nutrients to your diet is a proven way to boost your mood, and we can all use that once in a while.
Cacao is a little pricier than a tub of cocoa powder, but the health benefits that you are getting make it worthwhile. That’s not to say that a chocolate bar or cup of hot chocolate full of marshmallows isn’t warranted once in a while. Treat yourself! Good luck on your cacao journey, and hopefully, some of these ideas work for you.