Used as a therapeutic remedy for countless ailments since as early as 600 B.C., cacao is beloved worldwide for its medicinal benefits. But this superfood is not just nutritious; it’s delicious, too. Its rich, chocolatey flavor makes it a popular culinary ingredient and a tasty addition to baked goods, smoothies and beverages.
Read on to learn the health benefits of cacao and a few easy ways to incorporate it into your diet.
What exactly is cacao?
Cacao beans grow on trees found in Central and South America and are rich in flavanols, a specific kind of plant-based nutrient with multiple health benefits. When these beans are processed, they become cocoa and chocolate, but may lose a significant portion of their health-promoting components depending on the process.
However, raw and organic beans keep many of the super powers of cacao that are lost through processing. In fact, raw cacao:
- packs in more calcium than cow’s milk, ounce-for-ounce
- is a good source of iron, magnesium and antioxidants
- may help with issues such as depression, stress, inflammation, blood pressure and heart health
7 ways to enjoy the health benefits of raw cacao
Those that are new to cacao may find it bitter in taste. If this rings true for you, you may want to start off by consuming smaller portions of cacao first and gradually increasing the amount of cacao you consume.
Here are a few ways to make cacao a regular (and delicious) part of your diet.
Cacao bar: One of the easiest ways to incorporate cacao into your diet is by enjoying a few squares of raw organic chocolate. Select a single origin bar and try pairing it with your favorite teas or a handful of nuts for a nutritious yet luxurious culinary experience.
Hot chocolate: Whip up a healthful, warming beverage by mixing 1 tablespoon of cacao powder, 1 to 2 tablespoons of a plant-based sweetener and 1 cup of milk. (Use a plant-based milk such as unsweetened almond milk or coconut milk, for fewer carbs.) Warm the mixture for 5 minutes over medium heat on your kitchen stove.
Chocolate milk: If you prefer a cold beverage, dissolve 1 tablespoon of cacao powder and 1 to 2 tablespoons of no-calorie plant-based sweetener in 1 tablespoon of hot milk. Then, add ice cubes and 1 cup of cold unsweetened almond or coconut milk.
Smoothies: Enjoy a tasty breakfast or afternoon snack by adding 1 to 2 tablespoons of raw cacao powder to your daily smoothie. You can top your creation with cacao nibs to add a pleasing crunch. (Cacao nibs also taste great in assorted goodies such as granola mix and wholesome muffins.)
Energy balls: Energy balls are a great way to add a nutritious boost to your daily diet. You only need a few ingredients to make these tasty snacks. Our favorite? Raw cacao powder, cacao nibs, cashews and dates. Try this recipe.
Raw brownies: Raw brownies are perfect for those with vegan and paleo lifestyles, as they are free of dairy, sugar, wheat and gluten. They’re also very easy and quick to make, as no baking is necessary. Swap out the confectioners-style sugar for Confectioners Swerve for an even lower sweet treat. Elevate your raw brownies with pecans, unsweetened coconut flakes, dates or honey, or a combination of these healthful ingredients.
Baked goods: Take your baking game to the next level with cacao powder. This delicious ingredient adds a deep chocolatey flavor to baked treats such as cakes, cookies and pies. Don’t know where to start? Try these Salted Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups from our Eat Fit Cookbook.
Pro tips: Always check that you are buying unsweetened powder instead of cocoa mixes with sugar. A higher fat percentage is better too, as it adds flavor and is more satisfying so you’ll consume fewer calories overall. Also, aim to select products with fair trade labels (or are ethically sourced), so you know the workers who harvested the cacao were fairly compensated for their labor.
Note: Registered dietitian Molly Kimball offers brand-name products as a consumer guide; she, along with Ochsner Health System, do not solicit product samples nor are paid to recommend items.