HealthySpirit Blog

What Is Cacao

Healthy Admin - Monday, March 14, 2016

What is Cacao?

I'm using raw cacao powder, which is extracted from the seeds of the cacao fruit. These seeds are usually referred to as "beans" and are found within cacao pods, which grow on cacao trees. Cacao beans contain a range of nutrients including: protein, fibre, B vitamins, vitamin E and minerals like magnesium, calcium and zinc. Cacao has a mood enhancing effect due to a range of "bliss" chemicals found in it. These chemicals help increase circulation and the availability of serotonin plus other neurotransmitters in the brain. As a result this helps improve mood and may be useful with combating issues like  depression.

Cacao also contains the alkaloid theobromine, which gives cacao its bitter flavour. Theobromine has a stimulant and diuretic influence like caffeine but helps relax smooth muscle, dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure. Cacao is also rich in antioxidants like resveratrol, which has been found to help strengthen and protect blood vessels from damage.

Cacao beans are rich in saturated fatty acids, which makes them very heat stable as a cooking fat. The beans also contain some monounsaturated fatty acids and small amounts of omega 6 fatty acids.

To make cacao powder, the cacao beans are usually naturally fermented first. Fermentation is an important step in my opinion as it helps to reduce anti-nutrients like oxalates and phytates, which are compounds of oxalic acid and phytic acid bound to minerals like magnesium, calcium and zinc making them unavailable for absorption during digestion. The fermentation stage also develops the characteristic bitter taste of chocolate. Unfermented beans have a much milder flavour. Look for cacao powder, which has been made from fermented beans if you wish to include the mineral benefits.

The next stage of processing involves cold-pressing to remove the fatty cacao butter. The heating temperature during cold-pressing for raw cacao, is still low enough to retain some enzymes and heat-sensitive nutrients. Any heating above 45OC , which occurs during the roasting of cacao beans for cocoa production degrades these nutrients but does help to reduce phytates. So there are pros and cons for choosing raw cacao and it all depends on your state of health and what you wish to achieve from consuming cacao.

The pressed cacao beans are then dried and ground up to create cacao powder.

Cacao and Cocoa - What's the difference?
Cacao is therefore the less processed form of cocoa. Cacao has been processed with lower temperatures and may have undergone a shorter fermentation period or the fermentation step was omitted. As a result cacao retains more nutrients like antioxidants but the bioavailability of certain nutrients like minerals may be lower due to the increased presence of phytates and oxalates.

Cacao powder like pure cocoa (cocoa with no added sugar/cocoa butter) has a naturally bitter taste. This helps to balance the sweetness of the dates. So if you find that the recipe is too sweet for you then add a little more cacao powder. However cacao does have a drying affect so if you add more cacao then you will need to add a little more water to help the mixture stick together.

written by Mussarrat Butt

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