A few years ago, I was listening to a nutrition presentation and the speaker was talking about chocolate (yum) and kept referring to “ka-cow powder”….huh? What’s cacao powder? Why is she not pronouncing COCOA powder correctly? What is this madness?! lol

These days, my understanding of nutrition is even more expanded and I’ve realized the difference between these two forms of chocolate goodness. Here’s the lowdown:

Cacao (ka-cow) and Cocoa (co-co) both start from the same place: cacao beans from the South American-native trees Theobroma cacao. Similar in appearance to coffee beans, they’re fermented and dried. Both cacao and cocoa boast antioxidant properties (think shields around your cells, protecting against damaging toxins) as well as other health benefits like boosting mood and cognitive performance, reducing blood pressure and insulin levels, protecting the cardiovascular system, and providing the body with loads of nutrients, especially magnesium.

A few differences, however. 

Cacao is processed to a very small degree, at low temperatures, separating the fatty part of the bean from the rest. This level of low-processing helps the cacao bean maintain its high antioxidant effect and health benefits (good), but also keeps the bean tasting a bit…bitter (not-so-good).

Cocoa is processed to a much higher degree, at a high temperature. This results in less antioxidant effect and diminished health benefits (not-so-good). However, the higher temperature processing helps increase the sweetness of the cacao bean, making cocoa useful in baking (good).

So, while both are great, they each have their pros and cons. Personally, I like to purchase higher-quality cacao powder from our Real Food Buyer’s Club – this is the brand we like. It’s raw and fermented, ensuring the highest antioxidant, nutrient, and even fiber properties. It’s more bitter than cocoa, but since we use it primarily in smoothies, I like adding a little natural sweetener like dates, honey, or maple syrup anyway. We love the dark, rich taste of raw cacao!

Another way to try some cacao is by eating Cacao Nibs. These are just broken, tiny bits of the cacao bean – so a very pure form of this superfood. But be warned! They are not sweet. 🙂 Adding a bit to your normal ‘chocolate chip’ goodie over time will train and rewire your taste buds, kinda like we talked about here.

If you do choose to use chocolate chips, aim for the darker versions, which contain a higher percentage of cacao. Around 60-70% or higher is great! The more milk chocolate something is, the more dairy/milk it contains and the less antioxidant-rich cacao.

Chocolate versions to reduce or avoid all-together are cocoa mixes, which are often filled with added sugar, artificial sweeteners, and fillers (real, plain cocoa and cacao have no sugar). And I know it might hurt to hear this, but most commercially-made chocolate bars and candies are also made with junk ingredients, with little actual cacao or cocoa health-benefiting properties.

In fact, according to this article, to cut on costs, manufacturers swap the cocoa butter for polyglycerol polyricinoleate in their candy bars (think Hersheys, Nestle, Mars, etc)…leaving more health-trained tastebuds pretty grossed out from the aftertaste. The feel-goodness you might experience in the moment while eating these low-quality chocolates probably just comes from the sugar rush and not from any actual chocolate assets.

Instead, choose a higher-quality, purer chocolate like one of these little guys or this locally-made chocolate (just down from the gym!) – perfect to savor as a satisfying end to a meal. I find the higher quality and darker the chocolate (the more pure cacao), the slower I eat it and the more satisfied I am to not reach for more.

It’s good to get that chocolate fix – just aim to choose options that are closer to that 100% cacao mark as possible to get the most power and health benefit. Because, to (wildly) paraphrase a Charles M. Schulz quote, “All you need is love…but a little chocolate cacao every now and then doesn’t hurt.”
Jess + Team Valeo

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