Cacao powder is a nutritional powerhouse packed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial plant compounds. Made from the minimally processed cacao bean, cacao powder retains more of the bean's original nutrients compared to processed cocoa powder.
Research shows that regularly consuming cacao powder can provide powerful benefits for your heart, brain, mood, and more.
What is Cacao Powder?
Cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cacao beans to separate the cacao butter, then grinding the remaining cacao solids into a powder.
Unlike cocoa powder which is roasted at high temperatures, cacao powder is processed at low temperatures to preserve its nutritional value. Cacao powder has a rich, chocolatey flavor but lacks the sweetness of cocoa powder.
Cacao beans originate from the Theobroma cacao tree and are native to South and Central America. The Olmecs and Mayans cultivated cacao beans as early as 1500 BC, valuing them as currency and in traditional medicine.
When choosing cacao powder, look for raw, organic and non-alkalized versions to get the full nutritional benefits. Cacao powder contains no added sugars or chemicals and is gluten-free.
Now let's explore the top 10 science-backed ways cacao powder can improve your health.
1. Packed with Antioxidants
Key Takeaway: Cacao is one of the highest antioxidant foods on earth due to its abundant flavonoids and polyphenols.
Cacao powder contains very high levels of antioxidants called flavonoids, a type of polyphenol. In particular, it provides epicatechin and catechin, two of the most potent antioxidants from the flavonoid family.
Studies show that the antioxidant activity of cacao powder is much higher than popular superfoods like acai berries, goji berries, blueberries and pomegranates. Just a small 1 ounce (28g) serving provides an incredible amount of antioxidants.
Antioxidants protect your cells against oxidative damage caused by free radicals, which are unstable molecules linked to chronic inflammation and diseases like cancer.
By neutralizing free radicals, the antioxidants in cacao powder help prevent cell damage and premature aging. The powerful antioxidant effects also help lower oxidative stress throughout the body.
So by regularly consuming antioxidant-rich cacao powder, you can reduce inflammation and your risk of many chronic conditions.
2. Improves Heart Health
Cacao is great for your heart health thanks to its flavonoids, antioxidants, magnesium and fiber.
Studies demonstrate that eating cacao products significantly improves blood vessel function and blood flow, lowering blood pressure. Cacao's abundant flavonoids promote healthy circulation by improving the production of nitric oxide, a compound that relaxes blood vessels.
The antioxidants in cacao powder also help reduce oxidation of LDL cholesterol, decrease blood clotting, and protect the health of your arteries. This adds up to a reduced risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
Cacao is also one of the highest magnesium foods, and magnesium deficiency is strongly linked to heart disease. As a rich source of soluble fiber, cacao powder can further support cardiovascular health by helping lower cholesterol levels.
3. May Enhance Brain Function
The flavonoids in cacao powder appear to have positive effects on the brain. Studies indicate that regularly eating cacao:
- Improves blood flow to the brain - Cacao's ability to increase cerebral blood flow may help delay age-related cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.
- Enhances learning, memory and mood - Bioactive compounds in cacao boost levels of key neurotransmitters involved in cognition and positive mood, including serotonin and anandamide.
- Protects neurons - The antioxidants in cacao powder reduce inflammation throughout the body, including in the brain. This is protective against oxidative damage that can destroy neurons.
More studies in humans are needed, but current research on cacao is promising in supporting brain function and warding off age-related mental decline.
4. Boosts Mood
Cacao powder contains compounds that elevate your mood, fight stress and promote relaxation.
Cacao provides serotonin and anandamide, two "bliss" chemicals that act as natural antidepressants. Raising brain levels of serotonin and anandamide can help relieve depression and anxiety symptoms.
Theobromine, a mild stimulant in cacao, increases dopamine levels for a mood boost. Cacao also supplies tryptophan to support production of the "happiness hormone" serotonin.
Plus, the magnesium in cacao helps regulate stress hormones that influence mood. The combination of feel-good nutrients makes cacao an excellent food for boosting mental wellbeing.
5. May Help You Lose Weight
Despite its fat content, cacao may help support a healthy body weight in various ways:
- Appetite control - Cacao powder is very high in fiber, which promotes feelings of fullness and curbs cravings. This can prevent overeating.
- Fat burning - Compounds in cacao have been shown to increase fat oxidation and thermogenesis, helping to burn more calories.
- Blood sugar control - The fiber and antioxidants in cacao powder slow down sugar absorption, preventing blood sugar spikes and crashes that trigger hunger and cravings.
However, more human studies are needed to confirm cacao's role as a weight loss food. Enjoy cacao powder in moderation as part of a balanced diet and active lifestyle for best weight management results.
6. Protects Against Diabetes
The phytonutrients in cacao powder improve insulin sensitivity, regulate carbohydrate metabolism and help control blood sugar levels. This makes cacao beneficial for preventing and managing diabetes.
In one study, people who consumed cacao powder daily for 4 weeks had better insulin resistance markers and reduced blood sugar levels, even without changes to diet or activity.
Cacao's flavanols promote healthy blood glucose regulation by supporting insulin secretion and signaling. The antioxidants also protect insulin-producing cells in the pancreas from oxidative damage.
Through these protective mechanisms, regularly eating cacao powder can lower your risk of developing diabetes or diabetic complications.
7. May Extend Your Lifespan
Emerging research suggests cacao consumption may slow aging and extend lifespan.
Studies demonstrate that the antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds in cacao powder can counteract age-related changes at the cellular level.
Cacao flavanols appear to protect cells from senescence, a state of "aging" that leaves cells unable to divide and grow. Preventing this cellular senescence could potentially help you live longer.
Cacao powder also seems to preserve youthful gene expression patterns and delay age-related cognitive and physical decline, allowing you to stay vibrant and healthy as you get older. More studies confirming cacao's anti-aging activity are needed.
8. Boosts Exercise Performance
Cacao contains beneficial compounds that enhance physical performance and workout recovery:
- Nitric oxide - Cacao flavonoids increase nitric oxide production, which expands blood vessels to boost circulation and oxygenation. This effect may enhance endurance and strength.
- Caffeine - Cacao beans provide a small dose of caffeine, which can make workouts feel easier by dulling fatigue.
- Magnesium - This mineral supports muscle contraction and energy production. Magnesium also helps move blood sugar into muscles for fuel during exercise.
By improving oxygenation, energy supply and muscle function, the nutrients in cacao powder deliver performance-enhancing effects. Cacao is also great for recovery thanks to its anti-inflammatory antioxidants.
9. High in Nutrients
In addition to its stellar antioxidant content, cacao powder contains a variety of essential vitamins and minerals:
- Magnesium - Cacao powder provides 130mg of magnesium per ounce (28g), meeting over 30% of the daily value. Magnesium supports energy levels, bone health, brain function and muscle contractions.
- Iron - With around 5mg of iron per ounce, cacao powder boosts oxygen transport in the blood to fight fatigue and anemia.
- Zinc - This important mineral supports immune function and growth. An ounce of cacao powder has around 2mg.
- Copper - Necessary for iron absorption, copper aids in metabolism and tissue growth. Each ounce contains nearly 1mg.
- Potassium, phosphorus and calcium - Cacao delivers smaller amounts of these minerals to support bone strength, muscle and nerve function.
Thanks to its diverse nutritional profile, adding cacao powder to your diet ensures you get these key micronutrients.
10. Easy to Add to Your Diet
Cacao powder has a delicious chocolatey taste that makes it easy to incorporate into meals and snacks. Here are some simple ways to eat more cacao powder:
- Smoothies - Blend cacao powder into your favorite smoothie recipe for antioxidant benefits. Start with 1 tablespoon per serving.
- Oatmeal - Mix a tablespoon of cacao powder into your oats along with cinnamon and natural sweetener for an energizing breakfast.
- Baking - Substitute up to 1/4 of the flour in recipes for cacao powder to add nutrition. Works well in muffins, breads, pancakes and more.
- Hot cocoa - For a cozy antioxidant-rich drink, whisk together cacao powder, hot water or milk and a touch of honey.
- Yogurt - Stir cacao powder into Greek yogurt with fresh fruit for a quick high-protein snack or dessert.
- Granola - Adding a tablespoon or two of cacao powder kicks up the nutrition of homemade granola.
Cacao powder blends well into shakes, oatmeal, granola, pudding, smoothie bowls, muffins, energy bites and more. Begin with 1-2 tablespoons per serving.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between cacao and cocoa powder?
Cacao powder is made from minimally processed, cold-pressed cacao beans. It retains more antioxidants and nutrients compared to cocoa powder, which is created by roasting cacao beans at high heat.
Is cacao powder healthy?
Yes, cacao powder is extremely healthy thanks to its high antioxidant content and nutrients like magnesium, iron, fiber and zinc. Studies show cacao powder benefits heart health, brain function, blood sugar levels and more.
How much cacao powder should you eat per day?
There's no official recommendations, but 1-2 tablespoons (10-15 grams) of cacao powder daily is a healthy amount with proven benefits. Mix it into smoothies, oats, yogurt, baking and more.
Does cacao powder have caffeine?
Cacao powder contains approximately 50mg of caffeine per ounce (28 grams). This is much less than the 95-200mg per cup of brewed coffee. So cacao provides a gentle energy boost without the intense jitters and crash of caffeine.
Is cacao powder gluten free?
Yes, cacao powder is naturally gluten free. Opt for raw organic cacao powder to avoid any cross-contamination. Always check labels to confirm gluten free status.
Cacao powder offers powerful health benefits thanks to its rich supply of antioxidants and nutrients like magnesium, iron, zinc and fiber.
Research shows that regularly eating cacao powder can improve cardiovascular health, enhance brain function, control blood sugar, boost exercise performance and more.
To reap the benefits, opt for raw organic cacao powder and aim for 1-2 tablespoons daily. Mix cacao powder into smoothies, oats, yogurt and desserts for a healthy chocolate flavor.