Cacao powder has become an increasingly popular ingredient and supplement in recent years due to its many potential health benefits.
However, some people wonder about the caffeine content of cacao powder and how it compares to other foods and beverages like coffee or chocolate.
What is Cacao Powder?
Cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cacao beans and grinding them into a fine powder. It is essentially the raw, unprocessed form of cocoa powder before it has been roasted at high temperatures.
Cacao contains higher levels of nutrients and antioxidants compared to cocoa powder since it does not undergo processing. It has a rich, intense chocolate flavor and is naturally bitter.
Cacao powder is used to make raw chocolate, smoothies, drinks, desserts, and more. It contains beneficial compounds like flavonoids, magnesium, and fiber. Some research shows cacao may provide cardiovascular and cognitive health benefits.
Caffeine Content in Cacao Powder
The main stimulant found in cacao beans is not caffeine, but rather theobromine. Theobromine is chemically similar to caffeine but has a milder effect.
While cacao does contain small amounts of caffeine, the levels are quite low compared to coffee, tea, or chocolate. Exact caffeine content can vary based on cacao variety and growing conditions.
According to the USDA, two tablespoons (14 grams) of cacao powder contains approximately:
- 13 mg of caffeine
- 250 mg of theobromine
- 8 oz brewed coffee: 95 mg caffeine
- 8 oz brewed black tea: 47 mg caffeine
- 1 oz dark chocolate: 20 mg caffeine
So cacao powder has just a fraction of the caffeine compared to a cup of coffee or tea. Even compared to dark chocolate it is lower.
Key Takeaway: Cacao powder contains only about 13 mg caffeine per two tablespoons, much less than coffee, tea, or chocolate.
Effects of Cacao's Theobromine
Since cacao is naturally low in caffeine, most of its stimulant effects come from theobromine. Theobromine offers a gentle, sustained energy boost without sharp peaks and crashes like caffeine.
Theobromine stimulates the cardiovascular system and provides these effects:
- Mild increase in energy and alertness
- Improved blood flow
- Relaxation of smooth muscles like the bronchi in the lungs
- Mood lift
It may also offer some protection for the heart and cardiovascular system according to research.
Theobromine in cacao causes its characteristic "chocolatey" taste. It produces a subtler buzz than caffeine that many people find enjoyable.
Those who are highly sensitive to caffeine may still react to the low amounts of caffeine in cacao powder.
Symptoms like anxiety, jitters, insomnia, digestive issues, and rapid heart rate can occur in caffeine-sensitive individuals even with small doses.
If you tend to be very sensitive to caffeine, pay attention to how your body reacts when consuming cacao powder. Start with small amounts and avoid consumption late in the day if it affects your sleep.
Some people report better tolerance of the caffeine in cacao compared to coffee since it contains natural compounds that help "blunt" the effects of caffeine. But responses can vary greatly by individual.
While safe in normal food amounts, theobromine can cause toxicity if consumed in extremely high doses. Poisoning is rare and unlikely with typical cacao powder intake.
Signs of theobromine poisoning include:
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Increased heart rate, irregular heartbeat
- Restlessness, anxiety
Doses above 1,000 mg/kg of body weight are considered the toxic level. For a 150 lb person, this equals over 68 grams of theobromine at one time.
To put this in perspective, cacao powder contains about 1-2 grams theobromine per ounce. So, a toxic dose would require eating over 30 ounces of cacao powder at one time, which is highly unrealistic.
Consuming cacao powder within normal serving sizes is not a concern for theobromine toxicity.
Is Cacao a Healthy Coffee Substitute?
Many people consume cacao as a substitute for coffee due to its smooth energy boost and health benefits. However, there are some key differences to consider:
Coffee has significantly more caffeine than cacao powder. Those accustomed to caffeine from coffee may not get the same "lift" from cacao.
Cacao is intensely chocolatey, bitter, and nutty compared to coffee's roasted, earthy notes. The flavors can seem unusual at first for those expecting a coffee-like taste.
Cacao powder requires more prep than simply brewing coffee. It is usually made into drinks, smoothies, or desserts by blending the powder with water, milk, sweeteners, and other ingredients.
The theobromine in cacao offers more cardiovascular stimulation compared to caffeine's CNS stimulation. For some, cacao provides a "warmer", gentler buzz than coffee.
Cacao powder offers fiber, magnesium, antioxidants, and more nutrients than coffee. But it does not contain as much polyphenol content as things like green tea.
Overall, cacao can offer a decent coffee substitute, especially for those looking to reduce caffeine intake. But expect some adjustments to flavor, preparation, and effects compared to regular coffee drinking.
Making Cacao Drinks
Cacao powder mixes well into many hot and cold beverages. Here are some easy cacao drink recipes to try:
- 1 tbsp cacao powder
- 1 cup hot water or milk
- Sweetener to taste (honey, maple syrup)
- Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla
Whisk cacao powder into hot water/milk until dissolved. Add sweetener and spices as desired.
Iced Cacao Latte
- 1 tbsp cacao powder
- 1 cup cold milk
- 1 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 shot espresso
- Ice cubes
Blend all ingredients until smooth. Top with cinnamon.
Mexican Cacao Agua Fresca
- 2 tbsp cacao powder
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup cold milk
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- Ice cubes
Whisk cacao powder and brown sugar into water. Stir in milk and pour over ice. Garnish with cinnamon.
Blend all ingredients until creamy and smooth.
Health Benefits of Cacao
Aside from providing a gentle stimulant effect, cacao powder offers some potential wellness advantages:
Cardiovascular health - Flavanols in cacao may help lower blood pressure and improve circulation.
Inflammation - Antioxidants in cacao demonstrate anti-inflammatory properties according to studies.
Cognitive function - Compounds in cacao may boost oxygen supply to the brain and enhance memory and focus.
Mood - Cacao influences neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine to lift mood.
Antioxidant protection - Rich in polyphenols and antioxidants that reduce cellular damage from free radicals.
Blood sugar control - Fiber and antioxidants in cacao may help stabilize blood sugar levels.
Keep in mind that research on cacao is still emerging. But the studies so far indicate some promising health benefits.
Potential Side Effects of Cacao
For most people, cacao powder does not cause significant side effects in moderate amounts. Some potential adverse reactions can include:
- Migraines - Cacao contains tyramine which can trigger headaches in those prone to migraines.
- Digestive issues - High fiber content may cause bloating, gas, or diarrhea in sensitive individuals.
- Allergies - Cacao may trigger allergic reactions in those with nut or chocolate allergies.
- Anxiety - Theobromine may exacerbate anxiety in high doses, especially in those sensitive to stimulants.
- Insomnia - Cacao consumed late at night may disrupt sleep due to theobromine content.
- Interactions - Effects of cacao may be enhanced by caffeine or medications for hypertension, antidepressants, and others.
Start with small servings of cacao powder and avoid it if you experience negative symptoms. Check with a doctor before consuming if pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications.
How Much Cacao Powder Per Day?
There is no official dietary guideline for cacao powder intake. General recommendations include:
- 1-3 tablespoons per day
- Ideally split into multiple smaller servings
- Avoid exceeding 5 tablespoons daily
Consuming cacao powder within a range of 1-3 tablespoons per day allows you to get beneficial components without overdoing the theobromine or caffeine.
Pay attention to your individual tolerance. Those sensitive to stimulants may prefer just 1/2 to 1 tablespoon per day. Build up slowly if you are new to cacao powder.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does cacao powder keep you awake at night?
In some people, yes. The theobromine content may interfere with sleep, especially in close proximity to bedtime. Avoid cacao powder 4-6 hours before bed.
What has more caffeine, cocoa or cacao powder?
Cocoa powder tends to be higher in caffeine content since it is processed at hotter temperatures. Cacao powder retains more nutrients but less caffeine due to minimal processing.
Is cacao powder gluten free?
Yes, pure cacao powder is naturally gluten free. But always check labels since some brands may add ingredients that contain gluten.
Can I drink cacao powder daily?
Yes, 1-3 tablespoons of cacao powder per day is unlikely to cause side effects in most healthy people. But reduce intake if you experience headaches, anxiety, insomnia or other symptoms.
Does cacao expire or go bad?
Like coffee and tea, cacao slowly loses antioxidant content over time but does not truly expire. Stored in a cool, dark place it lasts 18-24 months. Quality is best within 3-6 months of opening.
Cacao powder offers a unique stimulant experience thanks to its high theobromine content. It provides a smooth, more cardiovascular buzz versus the intense CNS stimulation of caffeine in coffee or tea.
The caffeine content of cacao powder is quite low, averaging around 13 mg per two tablespoons. So cacao is unlikely to cause jitters, crashes, insomnia and other caffeine-related side effects.
Consumed in moderation, cacao powder provides a nice gentle lift in energy, mood, and focus. The naturally bitter, chocolatey flavor also offers an intriguing new addition to your morning routine or pick-me-up drink.