Perhaps you’ve seen cacao powder for sale at the store, but aren’t quite sure what cacao is, how to use it, or whether or not it’s Paleo-friendly. Or maybe you’re wondering what the difference is between cacao powder and cocoa powder. This article will hopefully answer any questions you may have about what cacao is, and whether or not you should include cacao powder in your Paleo diet. To cut to the cacao chase however, the answer is YES, cacao powder (and cacao in general) is Paleo! Cacao!
Nutritional Value of Cacao Powder
The nutritional information given here is for Navitas Naturals Cacao Powder. This certified organic cacao powder is kosher, vegan, raw, and free of gluten, sugars, fillers, and GMOs. It’s sole ingredient is organic cacao (Theobroma cacao).
Serving size: 2.5 tablespoons (14 g)
- Calories: 60
- Total Fat: 1.5 g
- Saturated Fat: 1 g
- Trans Fat: 0 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 10 mg
- Total carbohydrate: 9 g
- Dietary Fiber: 4 g
- Sugars: 0 g
- Protein: 3 g
- Vitamin A: 0%
- Vitamin C: 0%
- Calcium: 2%
- Iron: 8%
Health Benefits of Cacao Powder
In short, the word cacao typically refers to the raw and minimally processed form of the cacao bean, whereas cocoa is the processed (often roasted) form of the cacao bean. Cacao powder is made by pulverizing raw cacao beans, after the shells and the fatty components (cocoa butter) have been removed. Cacao beans (cocoa beans) are not actually beans, they are the seeds that grow within cacao pods, which are the colorful fruits of the tropical cacao tree (Theobroma cacao).
The healthful antioxidants, nutrients, and beneficial chemicals contained in dark chocolate are provided by the cacao component of chocolate, and are particularly abundant in raw, minimally processed cacao products. In fact, raw cacao is thought to contain the highest concentration of flavanoid antioxidants of any food in the world! Antioxidants are important for good health because they combat free radicals that can cause damage in our bodies.
Being a seed, cacao contains an abundance of nutrients and is particularly rich in the minerals iron and magnesium. Cacao seeds also contain a fair amount of dietary fiber, both insoluble and soluble. The nutrient-dense cacao seed (AKA cocoa bean) is 10-15% protein by weight, and a source of the essential amino acid tryptophan. Cacao also contains some unique and potent mood-enhancing chemicals such as theobromine, anandamine, and phenylethylamine.
The antioxidants and other nutrients that are naturally contained within the raw cacao seed are largely destroyed when cacao is processed at high temperatures into cocoa and chocolate. When cacao is labeled as “raw” it means that the cacao beans have been processed at low temperatures that preserve and protect most of the nutrients and antioxidants. Thus raw cacao powder contains a higher proportion of bioactive nutrients and antioxidants, compared to unsweetened cocoa powder (which is essentially roasted cacao powder).
Where to Buy Cacao Powder
Cacao powder is available in many grocery stores, health food stores, and online. If you’re in the market for a truly raw cacao powder, it’s best to inquire with each product manufacturer to ensure their cacao beans were only exposed to low temperatures since their time of harvest.
To keep your cacao powder as fresh as possible (and best maintain its nutritional content) be sure to store your cacao powder in an air-tight container, away from heat, light, and moisture. Enjoy your cacao powder by the expiration date on its package.
Navitas Naturals company maintains high standards for their products. Their cacao is sourced from Peru and their processing facility is located in Marin County, CA. Navitas Naturals maintains their GMP’s (good manufacturing practices) and HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) certifications, and test their products on a regular and voluntary basis in accordance with HACCP standards.
Should I Eat Cacao Powder? Is Cacao Powder Paleo?
I’ll cut to the chase here for you: both cacao powder and cacao nibs are Paleo-approved, so go ahead and indulge (in moderation of course). Cacao! Raw cacao contains the highest concentrations of nutrients and antioxidants, and the further that cacao is processed, the more of its nutrients are lost. If you have a weak immune system, or another health issue of concern, you may want to avoid eating truly raw forms of cacao for reasons discussed below.
After cacao beans are harvested, they are left to ferment in the hot tropical sun for several days underneath big piles of banana leaves. This fermentation process helps to decrease the bitter flavor of roasted cocoa, and brings out the chocolatey flavor of the cacao. While raw cacao may contain the highest levels of nutrients, it also may contain more pathogenic (disease-causing) microorganisms (i.e. bacteria, fungi, etc.). The fermentation of cacao beans creates the perfect environment for all sorts of unfavorable critters to grow, which can later contaminate raw cacao products. When raw cacao is processed into cocoa, the beans are roasted which enhances the cocoa’s chocolatey flavor and color, as well as killing potentially pathogenic bacteria. Thus if your immune system is compromised, or you have other health issues of concern, you may want to steer clear of raw cacao, and stick with cocoa that has been roasted.
Some people also express concern about cadmium (a toxic heavy metal) that can be transferred into the cacao tree from the soil. The theobromine naturally contained within cacao is a nervous system stimulant and vasodilator that some people may react adversely to as they would caffeine. Cacao also contains oxalic acid, a compound that inhibits calcium absorption. These drawbacks should not be an issue for most people however, when cacao powder is used in moderation. This means, don’t eat it every day, and rotate it in and out of your diet.
How to Make Cacao Powder And Eat Cacao Powder
If you can get your hands on some whole, raw cacao beans, it’s quite easy to make your own cacao powder! Just throw a few cacao beans into a coffee grinder and pulverize until powdered. Grinding your cacao powder fresh maximizes the nutrient and antioxidant content, and minimizes oxidation that occurs in processed products.
So now that you have your homemade or store bought cacao powder, what in the heck do you do with it!? There are an endless number of ways to incorporate cacao powder into your meals and snacks, but here are a few fun ideas for you to try out. Cacao!
- As a healthier alternative to conventionally processed cocoa
- In baked goods and other desserts
- Sprinkled over fruit
- Homemade hot cocoa
- Mixed into smoothies and shakes
- Mix into marinades for meats or vegetables
- Blended into paleo ice cream
- As an essential ingredient in Mexican mole sauce