Scientifically Proven Health Benefits of Cacao Powder and Dark Chocolate

Scientifically Proven Health Benefits of Cacao Powder and Dark Chocolate

Cacao powder is claimed to be a superfood because it contains naturally occurring antioxidants with many health benefits. Cacao powder comes from grinding up cacao beans after removing the cocoa butter (cocoa fat). The health benefits of cacao powder and dark chocolate have been linked to keeping your heart healthy, lifting your mood, preventing cancer, and even helping to lose weight.

Raw cacao powder shouldn’t be confused with cocoa powder – which is a highly processed form of cacao. Because cacao powder is produced with little processing, it retains most of its vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Dark chocolate usually contains the highest amount of cacao and should have between 70% and 90% of cacao in it.

In this article, you will learn about the many benefits of unsweetened cacao powder. You will also find out how to use this delicious healthy superfood to help boost your health.

What Is Cacao (Cocoa)?

Cocoa beans are native to South America and were used to make bitter drink by the Maya and Aztecs. The beans were also used for medical purposes and as offering in spiritual ceremonies. In the mid 1500s, cocoa beans were introduced to Europe by the Spaniards and they soon became a delicacy.

During the 17th century chocolate houses were established across Europe. Traditionally, cocoa was used in beverages, often mixed with spices such as vanilla and cinnamon, and sometimes with a sweetener such as honey. Later milk was included, and the start of modern chocolate drinks and confectionery began.

Cacao beans come from the fruit of the cacao tree or Theobroma cacao. The cacao tree produces a pod that is about 15-30 cm long and contains between 35 and 50 cacao seeds. Technically cacao beans are actually seeds. The seeds are dried in the sun which allows them to ferment naturally. (1)

Researchers advise that numerous sources say that cacao seeds are a superfood due to their immense health benefits. The unprocessed cacao seeds contain high levels of polyphenols and flavanols – natural plant-based antioxidants. It is the presence of these antioxidants as well as vitamins and minerals that make cacao powder so good for you. (1)

Cacao seeds are then processed into a substance called cacao liquor or chocolate liquor. From this, manufacturers make cocoa butter (from the fat of cacao seeds) and cocoa powder.

Cacao Powder vs. Cocoa Powder

It can be easy to confuse cacao powder and cocoa powder. What is the difference?

The British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology reports that during the production of cocoa powder, some of the goodness is lost. For example, fermentation and roasting can negatively affect the concentration of antioxidants and other beneficial compounds. (2)

Both raw cacao powder and cocoa powder contain antioxidants (polyphenols). However, cacao powder is the superior product when it comes to health benefits.

Dark Chocolate Benefits

Most of the research on the health benefits of dark chocolate is based on the biological components of the cacao seed.

It is also important to remember that milk chocolate and dark chocolate with less than 70% cacao solids will not have levels of antioxidants that give health benefits. For example, 50 g of milk chocolate may only contain 75 mg of the antioxidant theobromine. However, 50 g of dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao solids may contain around 220 mg theobromine. (2)

In this article, you will learn about the health benefits of cacao seeds that have been minimally processed.

Cacao Powder Nutrition

There are many health benefits of cacao powder thanks to the many nutrients, vitamins, and minerals it contains.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 1 oz. (28 g) organic, unsweetened, cacao powder contains the following nutritional value: (3)

  • 110 calories
  • 16 g carbs
  • 10 g fiber (36% RDI – recommended daily intake)
  • 5 g fat
  • 40 mg calcium (4% RDI)
  • 8 mg iron (6% RDI)
  • 8 g protein

Another way of getting the health benefits of cacao is to buy cacao nibs. These are made from crushed cacao seeds before they are ground into raw cacao powder.

1 oz. (28 g) organic cacao nibs also contains the following minerals: (4)

  • 64 mg magnesium (16% RDI)
  • 90 mg phosphorus (9% RDI)
  • 210 mg potassium (6% RDI)
  • 5 mg copper (25% RDI)
  • 5 mg manganese (27% RDI)
  • 1 mg selenium (3% RDI)

1 oz. (28 g) cacao powder has 8 g of protein which is 8% of your recommended daily intake. Of course, cacao powder also contains the above-mentioned minerals.

Unsweetened cacao powder and cocoa powder don’t contain sugar.

Cocoa is very rich in fiber (around 33%) and protein (about 20%) and is rich in all the amino acids.

The center of the bean contains about 54% cocoa butter which contains some vitamin E and is rich in vitamin K.

Cocoa beans are the number one source of magnesium (the most missing mineral in our diet), and they are rich in many other minerals like iron, calcium, copper, zinc, potassium and chromium.

A large percent of cocoa butter is oleic acid, the heart-healthy fat found in olive oil.

Cacao powder (and cocoa powder) contain certain amounts of caffeine. The journal Nutrients reported that caffeine and theobromine are compounds called methylxanthines which have psycho-stimulant effects. Interestingly, research has shown that the caffeine content in cacao along with theobromine doesn’t cause insomnia or anxiety. (5)

Cacao powder is a rich source of polyphenols (natural antioxidants)

The greatest benefits from consuming cacao powder are due to its powerful antioxidants – polyphenols. Research into the medicinal properties of cacao shown that its polyphenols have strong antioxidant activity. (6)

Health Benefits of Cacao Powder and Cacao Nibs – Summary

Research has confirmed the benefits of cocoa beans. Raw cocoa beans are very rich in antioxidants (flavonoids), much more than berries, red wine, green tea and any other fruit, vegetable or nut.

The powerful antioxidants in raw cacao can reduce the incidence of several serious illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer.

Dark cacao powder have protective effect on the cardiovascular system and helps to reduce blood pressure and protect your heart.

The flavonoids in unsweetened cacao powder can improve insulin sensitivity, so may help treat symptoms of type-2 diabetes.

Pure cacao powder can also increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin causing you to feel better and help treat depression.

100 percent cocoa may seem to improve your brain function, and also act as a mild stimulant.

Raw chocolate powder (sugar free cocoa powder) may also reduce inflammation, blood clotting, helps blood flow, increases the good cholesterol (HDL) and decreases the bad cholesterol (LDL).

The Benefits of Cacao Powder

Let’s look in more detail at the amazing health benefits of cacao powder.

Cacao Powder Can Keep Your Heart Healthy and Help Prevent Heart Attacks

The naturally occurring polyphenols and flavonoids in organic, raw cacao powder have a protective effect on your heart.

Research into the cardiovascular benefits of consuming cacao has found that dark chocolate helps to lower blood pressure, inflammation, and lipids (a type of fat in blood). (7) Other studies have found that consuming around 25 g of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate with at least 85% cocoa content can help to keep your heart healthy. (8)

Other studies have shown that the levels of antioxidants in cacao help to relax your arteries and promote healthy blood circulation. (9)

Some researchers have reported that moderate consumption of foods containing antioxidant flavonoids like dark chocolate can help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. (10)

One study from Sweden found that people who regularly ate dark chocolate had less chance of suffering from heart failure. (11)

Some researchers also suggest that consuming flavonoid-rich chocolate products could lower your risk of a stroke. (11)

Of course, there are many lifestyle choices that help to lower your risk of a heart attack. Regularly eating a small amount of dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao could help to improve your heart and vascular health.

Cacao Powder May Help Lower Blood Pressure

The high levels of flavanols in cacao powder also help to lower your blood pressure naturally.

Research into cocoa flavanols has found that they have an anti-hypertension effect in the body. Researchers found that drinks containing high levels of flavanols caused a significant decrease in blood pressure in people between ages 50 and 80. (12)

Another study also found that flavanols caused significant improvements in many markers of cardiovascular health. The flavanol-rich drinks helped to reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure by around 4 mmHg. (12)

One study from Japan found that the benefits of consuming dark chocolate include lowering blood pressure. (13)

A review of 35 trials on the effects of cocoa flavanols on blood pressure found that consuming cocoa products containing between 30 and 1,200 mg flavanols helped reduce blood pressure by 2 mmHg. (14)

Find out about more natural ways you can bring your blood pressure down to healthy levels.

Cacao Powder Can Improve Brain Health and Cognitive Function

Antioxidant compounds in cacao powder like theobromine can help to boost your cognitive power.

A systematic review of studies published between 1970 and 2017 found that theobromine from cacao can help boost brain health. The antioxidant effect of cacao extracts can help to prevent or delay the onset of neurogenerative diseases. (15)

Another study found that a flavonoid called epicatechin in cocoa powder can have a positive effect on the brain. This antioxidant can help increase blood flow to the brain and prevent free radicals from destroying neurons in the brain. The study concluded that cocoa or dark chocolate can benefit brain health and cognitive abilities. (16)

Other studies have shown that dark chocolate can help to protect against nerve inflammation in the brain and can lower the risk of stroke. (16)

One study on humans found that flavonoid-rich cocoa products can have a direct effect on blood flow to the brain. The researchers suggested that the antioxidant effect of cocoa could have a protective effect against dementia. (17)

Daily consumption of cacao powder or cacao nibs could also benefit elderly people. Research has found that regular consumption of cocoa products rich in flavanols can help to increase blood flow to the brain and could help prevent dementia in the elderly. (18)

Apart from consuming raw cacao, learn about other ways you can improve your brain function and memory.

Cacao Powder Can Help Lift Mild Depression

Many people experience cravings for chocolate when they are depressed. Actually, consuming cacao powder or dark chocolate with a high cacao content could lift your mood.

Scientific research has revealed that cacao extracts stimulate the production of serotonin. This is a neurotransmitter that is connected with feelings of happiness. Scientists have found that consuming cacao can help to not only boost your immune system but elevate your mood. (19)

Double-blind, placebo-controlled trials have also shown that a consumption of 50 g of dark chocolate can boost your mood. The combination of caffeine and theobromine in dark chocolate has a psycho-stimulating effect and can help to improve mood. (5)

Drinking hot chocolate made from cacao powder may also help to lift your mood. Another study found that flavonoid-rich chocolate products can also positively impact behavior and mood. (20)

One study on the effect of cacao polyphenols on rats found that they have an anti-depressive effect. Scientists noticed that chocolate stimulates endorphins that trigger positive feelings in the body. They concluded that flavonoids in chocolate help to protect cognitive function and produce positive effects on mood. (21)

There are other foods that can help to boost your mood. You can also try to take these serotonin supplements to boost your mood.

Unsweetened Cacao Powder May Assist in Managing Type 2 Diabetes

Flavanols in products containing high levels of cacao can help to manage many of the symptoms of diabetes.

The journal Antioxidants reported that flavonoids in cacao extracts have an anti-diabetic effect. Cocoa flavonoids can improve insulin sensitivity and reduce blood fat levels (lipids). Researchers suggested that daily consumption of unsweetened dark cacao powder that contains high levels of cacao could help manage type 2 diabetes. (22)

However, other studies have not shown conclusive evidence on consuming cocoa-based products with flavanols to manage type 2 diabetes. (23)

When using raw cacao powder for helping to prevent diabetes symptoms, it’s important to choose unsweetened cacao powder. This will help to prevent spikes in blood glucose levels.

Cacao powder is just one of the many foods that can help manage type 2 diabetes.

Cacao Powder May Help You Lose Weight

It may surprise you to know that consuming cacao powder can help you manage your weight and it may even help promote weight loss.

The antioxidant-rich content of cacao products is the reason why dark chocolate could help prevent obesity. Research has found that polyphenols and flavanols in cacao powder help to increase carbohydrate metabolism and affect feelings of fullness. (24)

One study found that consuming dark chocolate containing 81% cocoa helped to lower body mass index (BMI). In the trial, two groups of adults followed the same low-carb diet. However, one group consumed 41 g of dark chocolate daily. After 3 weeks, the “dark chocolate” group had a 10% greater weight reduction when compared to the other group. (25)

Consuming raw cacao powder which is naturally high in antioxidants could help boost the effectiveness of your weight loss program.

Of course, you should always look for unsweetened cacao powder because raw cacao powder only contains 16 g carbohydrates and is sugar-free.

Learn about other great tweaks to help you lose weight naturally.

Antioxidants in Cacao Powder Can Benefit Your Skin

Regularly consuming cacao powder benefits your skin because of its high levels of antioxidants.

Researchers have discovered that chocolate drinks that contain high levels of flavanols (like the kind in cacao powder) helped protect the skin from UV damage. Regularly drinking chocolate drink increased blood flow to the skin and also improved skin hydration. (26)

Find out how to use essential oils for skin care to help give your skin a more youthful appearance.

Raw Cacao Powder May Prevent Cancer

There is some evidence that the consumption of pure cocoa may prevent cancer.

A review of studies from 2016 looked at the preventive effects of cocoa and cocoa antioxidants in colon cancer. The researchers claimed that cocoa and its flavonoids have shown to have anti-cancer properties. They said that cocoa polyphenols could help to treat colon cancer, however more research is required. (30)

Another review of studies found that “cocoa and its main polyphenols have been reported to interfere at the initiation, promotion and progression of cancer.” (31)

The Journal of Nutrition and Cancer found that cocoa and dark chocolate may reduce risk factors associated with cancer such as oxidative stress and chronic inflammation. (32)

Make sure to avoid these cancer causing foods and consume more foods that have cancer protective properties.

How to Make Homemade Hot Chocolate

One great way to get all the health benefits of cacao powder is to make a delicious hot chocolate drink. However, you should stay away from the sugar-laden hot chocolate mixes which contain very few of the benefits of cacao powder.

The best way to make a delicious antioxidant-rich hot chocolate drink is to buy organic raw cacao powder with no added ingredients.

Recipe for a healthy hot chocolate

For this recipe, you will need pure cacao powder, fresh (organic) milk, raw honey, and some chili or ginger.

  1. Put 1 teaspoon cacao powder and some ginger or chili powder in a mug.
  2. Add a little hot water (not boiling) to make a smooth paste.
  3. Heat 250 ml (organic) milk (or non-dairy alternative) in a pan.
  4. When the milk is warm, slowly pour it into your cacao paste and constantly stir to make sure all the paste dissolves.
  5. Add a teaspoon of honey to taste.
  6. Sit back, relax, and drink your delicious flavonoid-rich hot chocolate drink to help boost your health.

How to Incorporate Raw Cocoa Into Your Diet

Cocoa powder and cacao powder have a bitter taste, so when it is made into chocolate, sugar must be added. So if you choose dark chocolate, choose 70% cocoa content or more – and consume it in moderation.

But even better than that is to try and incorporate the raw cocoa into your diet, and the best way to do it is to add 1-2 teaspoons of raw cacao powder in smoothies, cereal, granola, or make a hot chocolate as the above recipe.

Here I’m going to give you some smoothie ideas that go especially well with raw cocoa, but of course you can let your imagination run, and create your own version:

Raw Cacao Chocolate Orange Smoothie

4 oranges, juiced
2 tsp raw cacao powder
2 bananas, peeled
1 mango, peeled and pitted

Pour the orange juice and all the other ingredients into the blender and blend. If you want you can add more juice or water to thin the smoothie.

Chocolate Coconut Smoothie

1 banana, peeled
2 pitted dates
1/2 coconut and all its water
2 tsp raw cacao powder (preferably organic)
1/2 lime, juiced
2 oranges, juiced

Add all the ingredients to the blender and blend until smooth. Either strain or drink it as is.

Chocolate Cherry Green Smoothie

1 cup cherries, pitted
1 banana, peeled
2 cups fresh baby spinach (or other leafy green)
2 tsp raw cacao powder
About 1 cup of water

Add all the ingredients to the blender and blend until smooth.

Chocolate Peach Green Smoothie

1 peach, pitted
1 cup fresh pineapple, cubed
2 cups of raw baby spinach (or other greens)
1/2 cup frozen blueberries
2 tsp raw unsweetened cacao powder
About 1 cup of water

Start by adding the liquid to your blender followed by the soft fruit. Add the greens to your blender last. Blend on high for 30 seconds or until the smoothie is creamy.

Chocolate Mango with Goji Berries Smoothie

1 mango, peeled and cubed
2 tsp raw dark cacao powder
1/3 cup dried goji berries
1 cup red grapes
2 cups (or large handfuls) of fresh baby spinach
1/2 cup frozen blueberries (or strawberries)
About 1 cup of water

Start by adding the liquid to your blender followed by the soft fruit. Add the greens to your blender last. Blend on high for 30 seconds or until the smoothie is creamy.

Cocoa, found in large amounts in dark chocolate, is a true superfood. You can find more information about it in my e-book about superfoods which is part of the Natural Health Revolution Program. This program will help you to achieve your health, nutrition or weight loss goals.

How Much Cacao Powder to Consume for Health Benefits?

There are very few people who would turn down the opportunity to eat more chocolate. However, it’s important to remember that milk chocolate contains very low amounts of cacao and high levels of sugar.

The European Food Safety Authority says that to maximize the health benefits of cacao, you should take 200 mg cacao flavanols per day. This means that you should consume about 10 grams of dark chocolate that is rich in flavanols (meaning it has a high cacao content). (27)

However, some studies say that you need around 900 mg of cocoa flavanols to get the best health benefits from it. This would mean that you consume 45 g of cacao powder per day to boost your health. (28)

The amounts mentioned above are roughly nearly one to three tablespoons of cacao powder.

Unless you buy cacao powder or cacao nibs, you should choose unsweetened dark chocolate that contains at least 70% cacao.

Side Effects (Precautions) of Cacao Powder

Cacao is a natural product that is generally safe to consume in moderate amounts.

Doctors from WebMD say that cocoa contains caffeine that may cause an increased heartbeat, nervousness, or insomnia. Some people also have allergic reactions to cocoa products like chocolate or hot chocolate. (29)

You should also avoid consuming large amounts of cacao-based products.

Related articles:

Healthy and Natural World