Is Cocoa Powder Paleo?

is-cocoa-powder-paleo-sm-1024x817.jpgThe terms cacao and cocoa are often used interchangeably, but they are not technically the same thing. While both are made from cacao beans (also called cocoa beans) that grow within fruits of the tropical cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), cacao is usually referring to the raw and minimally processed form of the cacao bean, whereas cocoa is the processed form of cacao.

Likewise, cacao powder is often confused with cocoa powder, and while they may look similar, the two are quite different in their nutritional properties. While cacao powder is generally Paleo-friendly, cocoa powder may contain non-Paleo ingredients, so it’s important to always read the label on any cocoa powder you are considering buying.

Nutritional Value of Cocoa Powder

The nutritional information given here is for Rapunzel Pure Organic Cocoa Powder, which is an unsweetened, non-alkaline USDA-certified organic cocoa powder. The sole ingredient in this product is 100% organic, natural (non-alkalized) cocoa powder.

Serving size: 1 tablespoon (5g)

  • Calories: 14
  • Total Fat: <1 g
  • Saturated Fat: 0 g
  • Trans Fat: 0 g
  • Cholesterol: 0 mg
  • Sodium: 0mg
  • Total carbohydrate: <1 g
  • Dietary Fiber: 2 g
  • Sugars: 0 g
  • Protein: 1 g
  • Vitamin A: 0%
  • Vitamin C: 0%
  • Calcium: 0%
  • Iron: 0%

Health Benefits of Cocoa Powder

All chocolate is made from the cacao bean, which is technically not a bean, but rather a seed that grows within the cacao pod, a fruit from the tropical tree Theobroma cacao. Once the cacao bean is removed from its pod and processed, it is referred to as “cocoa.”
While the process involved in making cocoa powder can be quite complicated, it generally involves processing raw cacao beans under high temperatures and pressure, extracting their fatty cocoa butter, and grinding the remaining solids into a fine powder.

Raw cacao beans contain an abundance of nutrients, antioxidants and other unique chemicals which are responsible for the purported health benefits of dark chocolate, however many of these nutrients are destroyed when cacao is processed into cocoa. Additionally, many cocoa powders are treated with alkaline chemicals in a process called ‘dutching’ that further destroys healthful components contained within the cacao bean.

The nutritional profile of cocoa powder will vary by manufacturer, but generally isn’t anything to write home about, although some minerals (i.e. iron) are able to survive processing and may be present in some brands. If you are looking to attain the maximal health benefits from the cacao bean, you might opt instead for cacao nibs or cacao powder. If cocoa powder is what you ultimately desire, make sure to select a brand that is made from 100% non-alkalized, unsweetened cocoa.

Overall the nutritional content of cocoa powder is inferior to that of cacao powder, and the health benefits of chocolate are largely referring to those of raw cacao. Whereas raw cacao contains an abundance of nutrients including several minerals, dietary fiber, abundant protein, good fats and a host of bioactive compounds, most cocoa powder is largely devoid of these nutrients. Despite this, cocoa can be thought of and treated as a condiment, and used in moderation to enhance the flavor of certain cooked dishes and Paleo baked goods.

Where to Buy Cocoa Powder

Paleo-friendly cocoa powder is available in some grocery stores, health food stores, and online. Select a product that is unsweetened and non-alkaline (NOT processed with alkali and NOT dutch-processed). The only ingredient should be 100% (ideally organic) natural cocoa powder. Avoid products labeled as “ground chocolate” which often contain unfavorable ingredients as well.

Store your Paleo-friendly cocoa powder in an air-tight container, away from heat, light, and moisture. Enjoy your cocoa powder by the expiration date on the package.

Should I Eat Cocoa Powder? Is Cocoa Powder Paleo?

Raw cacao powder and cacao nibs are considered Paleo because they contain only one ingredient: raw, pulverized cacao beans (which are not actually beans, but the seeds of the fruit from the cacao tree). The nutritional content of cocoa powder varies between manufacturers, and pales in comparison to raw cacao. To determine whether a given cocoa powder is Paleo-friendly, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of how cocoa powder is manufactured when you go to read ingredient and nutrition labels on the various cocoa powder products available.

Unsweetened cocoa powder is the dry, brown powder that remains after raw cacao beans have had their fatty coconut butter removed and are otherwise processed (fermented, dried, roasted, pressed, etc.). The remaining dry solid is known as natural (non-alkalized) cocoa powder, which is naturally acidic and bitter-tasting. To decrease the acidity and bitterness of natural cocoa powder, many cocoa powders are further treated with alkaline chemicals in a process known as dutch-processing. Dutch-processed (alkalized) cocoa powder is darker and often redder (or black) in color, and less acidic and bitter-tasting compared to non-alkalized (natural) cocoa powder. Dutched cocoa powders have been shown to contain contain far fewer antioxidants than non-alkalized cocoa powders, thus is best to avoid these cocoa powders which may be labeled as “dutch-processed”, “dutched”, “alkalized”, “processed with alkali”, etc.

Many brands are sweetened with real or artificial sweeteners, and you should select a brand of unsweetened cocoa powder. Also be on the look out for artificial ingredients, colorings, preservatives, and any other ingredients that you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce. Some cocoa powders may also contain grains, gluten, dairy (i.e. milk powders), soy, or other non-Paleo ingredients, so definitely read your ingredient lists and select a cocoa powder that is ideally 100% organic, natural (non-alkalized) cocoa powder. Due to its relatively bland nutritional profile and the degree of processing required to produce cocoa powder, it falls under the Paleo-ish category. Accordingly, cocoa powder should be used only occasionally, in moderation, and treated as more of a condiment.

How to Make And Use Cocoa Powder

If you can get your hands on some whole cocoa beans, it’s quite easy to make your own cocoa powder! Alternately, raw cacao beans can also be used to make fresh cacao powder. Simply toss a few cocoa beans into a coffee grinder and pulverize until powdered. Grinding your cocoa powder fresh maximizes the nutrient and antioxidant content, and minimizes oxidation that occurs in processed, store-bought products.

Once you have your freshly-ground or store-bought Paleo-friendly cocoa powder, what do you do with it? Here are a few recipes you might enjoy, that employ the use of unsweetened, non-alkalized 100% natural cocoa powder:

Paleo Hot Cocoa
Sweet potato brownie recipe
Chocolate coconut cookies
Paleo Mug Cake
Paleo Ice Cream

References:

Kinsey Jackson

Kinsey Jackson, LMP, MS, CNS® is a clinical nutritionist specializing in functional and evolutionary nutrition. Her own experience of overcoming multiple autoimmune disorders by adopting a Paleo lifestyle vastly contributes to her passion for helping others to also reclaim their health and vitality by making informed dietary decisions.