Cacao powder has become increasingly popular in recent years, not just for its rich chocolatey flavor, but also for its many health benefits. As the ketogenic diet continues to gain mainstream traction, many keto followers have been wondering whether cacao powder can be included as part of a low-carb, high-fat diet.
The good news is that cacao powder is generally considered keto-friendly, as long as you pay attention to portion sizes. Cacao is relatively low in carbohydrates and can be a great way to add chocolate flair to keto recipes and beverages, as long as consumed in moderation.
What is Cacao Powder?
Cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cacao beans to separate the fatty cocoa butter, then grinding up the remaining cacao solids into a fine powder. It has an intensely chocolatey, slightly bitter flavor similar to dark chocolate.
Cacao powder contains no added sugars or dairy and is usually processed at lower temperatures compared to regular unsweetened cocoa powder. This helps preserve more of the beneficial antioxidants and phytonutrients found naturally in cacao beans.
Some key differences between cacao powder and regular cocoa powder:
- Cacao powder is made from cold-pressed, unroasted cacao beans.
- Cocoa powder is made from roasted cacao beans and usually processed at higher heats.
- Cacao powder has a richer chocolate taste and more antioxidants.
- Cocoa powder is more commonly used in baking.
Is Cacao Powder Keto? Breaking Down the Carbs
When determining if a food is keto-friendly, it's important to look at the net carb content. Net carbs are calculated by subtracting fiber from total carbs, as fiber does not impact blood sugar or ketosis.
Here is the carb breakdown for a 1 tablespoon (6g) serving of cacao powder:
- Total carbs: 2g
- Fiber: 1g
- Net carbs: 1g
With just 1g of net carbs per serving, cacao powder can generally be included as part of a keto diet, as long as portion sizes are kept in check.
Most keto dieters aim to keep net carbs between 20-50g per day. As long as you account for the carbs from cacao powder as part of your daily totals, it can be a great low-carb way to add antioxidants and indulgent chocolate notes to your diet.
Health Benefits of Cacao Powder
Cacao powder offers several science-backed health benefits, thanks to its robust antioxidant content and unique combination of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.
Rich in Antioxidants
Cacao beans are one of the highest antioxidant foods on the planet. Cacao powder contains antioxidant compounds called flavonoids, which have powerful anti-inflammatory and disease-fighting properties in the body.
The ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) value of cacao powder is 95,500 μmol TE/100g. To put this into perspective, blueberries have an ORAC value of 4,669 and dark chocolate has an ORAC value of 13,120. The higher the ORAC value, the more effectively a food can neutralize free radicals which cause oxidative damage in the body.
May Improve Heart Health
Several studies have found that the flavanols in cacao can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health markers. The antioxidants in cacao powder may also help reduce LDL ("bad") cholesterol oxidation and prevent plaque buildup in the arteries.
One analysis of randomized controlled trials showed that eating chocolates high in cacao flavanols resulted in:
- A slight reduction in blood pressure
- Improved blood flow to the circulatory system and brain
- Less damage to blood lipids
Boosts Brain Function
The flavanol antioxidants in cacao powder may also boost brain function by increasing blood flow to the brain, reducing neuroinflammation, and improving neuron signaling pathways.
Several studies have found short term improvements in cognitive performance, attention, processing speed, and memory after consuming cacao flavanols. More research is still needed, but cacao shows promise as a brain-boosting superfood.
Animal and lab studies suggest cacao may help regulate blood sugar levels, increase insulin sensitivity, and reduce complications associated with diabetes.
The polyphenols in cacao help inhibit certain digestive enzymes, slowing the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream. Cacao also contains magnesium, shown to improve insulin sensitivity in people with diabetes.
However, keep in mind that these findings have not yet been replicated in human trials. Talk to your doctor before using cacao to manage diabetes.
May Aid Weight Loss
Cacao is rich in fiber, which helps promote feelings of fullness and satiety. The antioxidants in cacao may also help reduce fat absorption and burn more fat.
One study found that people who consumed a cacao beverage before a meal felt fuller and ate significantly less food compared to the control group. More research is needed, but cacao shows potential as a keto-friendly food that can support weight loss.
Protects Skin Health
Thanks to its antioxidant content, cacao powder may help protect your skin from sun damage and reduce signs of aging. Compounds in cacao help inhibit the production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which degrade collagen and elastin in the skin.
Applying cacao powder directly to the skin or consuming cacao daily may improve skin texture, hydration, and appearance over time.
Key Takeaway: Cacao powder provides a powerful dose of antioxidants and unique phytonutrients that offer anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, brain, heart, and skin benefits.
Tips for Using Cacao Powder on Keto
When staying in ketosis, portion control is key with carb-containing foods like cacao powder. Here are some tips for incorporating cacao powder into your keto diet:
- Use sparingly - Aim for 1-2 tablespoons maximum per day. Measure servings carefully.
- Count net carbs - Be sure to count the net carbs from cacao powder into your daily totals.
- Add to keto desserts - Use cacao to make keto cookies, mug cakes, puddings, etc.
- Make chocolate smoothies - Blend cacao into high fat smoothies with avocado, coconut milk, etc.
- Flavor your coffee - Add a teaspoon of cacao powder to your morning coffee.
- Use in savory dishes - Add rich chocolate notes to chili, curries, marinades, and mole sauce.
Getting creative with cacao powder can help you reap the benefits while keeping net carbs low. Prioritize using cacao in recipes that are very low in carbs overall, so the cacao powder carbs have minimal impact.
Keto-Friendly Cacao Powder Recipes
Here are some delicious keto recipes featuring cacao powder:
Keto Chocolate Avocado Smoothie
Per serving: 306 calories, 5g net carbs
- 2 cups unsweetened almond milk
- 1 avocado
- 1-2 tbsp cacao powder
- 1 tbsp almond butter
- 1 tbsp chia seeds
- Sweetener of choice (stevia, monk fruit, erythritol)
Blend all ingredients until smooth and creamy. For thicker texture, use frozen avocado.
Keto Chocolate Granola
Per serving (1/4 cup): 218 calories, 3.5g net carbs
- 1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
- 1/2 cup raw pecans, chopped
- 1/4 cup cacao nibs
- 1 tsp cacao powder
- 1/4 cup melted coconut oil
- Pinch sea salt
Mix dry ingredients. Drizzle with coconut oil and mix well to coat. Bake 10-12 minutes at 350°F until lightly browned.
Low Carb Mexican Mole Sauce
Per serving (1/4 cup): 73 calories, 3g net carbs
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tbsp cacao powder
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 2 tbsp peanut butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
Saute onion and garlic. Add spices and cook 2 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and simmer until thickened.
Is Cacao Powder Dairy Free and Vegan?
Cacao powder is vegan, dairy-free, and paleo friendly. It contains no animal products or byproducts. Be sure to select pure cacao powder and always check the ingredients list for any hidden milk powders or other non-vegan ingredients.
When purchasing pre-made chocolate or cocoa mixes, these often contain milk powders, soy lecithin, or other non-vegan additives. But pure cacao powder is completely plant-based.
Purchasing High Quality Cacao Powder
Not all cacao powders are created equal. Here's what to look for when purchasing:
- 100% cacao - Avoid "dutched" cocoa powder or any products with added sugars/fillers.
- Raw or low-temp processed - Minimal processing helps preserve antioxidants.
- Organic & non-GMO - Ensures pure, high quality cacao beans.
- Single origin - Higher quality cacao from a specific growing region.
- Fair trade - Ethically sourced cacao beans.
Some recommend looking for cacao powder sourced from Peru, Ecuador, or the Dominican Republic. These regions produce exceptionally flavorful cacao beans.
Store cacao powder in an airtight container in a cool, dark place to preserve freshness.
Nutrition Comparison of Cacao vs. Cocoa Powder
|1 Tbsp Cacao Powder
|1 Tbsp Cocoa Powder
Is Cacao Butter Keto-Friendly?
Cacao butter (also sometimes called cocoa butter) is the fattiest part of the cacao bean. It is extracted during processing and is solid at room temperature.
Cacao butter is very low carb and high fat, making it an excellent keto food:
Per 1 tbsp cacao butter:
- Calories: 120
- Fat: 14g
- Net carbs: Trace
Cacao butter has a mild chocolatey aroma and creamy, velvety texture. It's great for making keto-friendly chocolate treats and fat bombs. However, cacao butter provides mostly saturated fat, so consume in moderation.
Potential Side Effects of Cacao Powder
Cacao powder is generally well tolerated, but some people report:
- Digestive issues - Since cacao can act as a stimulant, high intakes may cause stomach discomfort, nausea, gas, or constipation in sensitive individuals.
- Stimulant effects - The caffeine and theobromine in cacao may cause jitteriness, rapid heartbeat, and anxiety in those sensitive to stimulants.
- Allergies - Cacao may cause hives, itching, or irritation in those with food sensitivities. Discontinue use if any symptoms develop.
- Migraines - Cacao triggers headaches in those prone to migraines.
- Interactions - Cacao may interact with certain medications. Consult your doctor.
To avoid side effects, start with small amounts and discontinue use if any negative symptoms occur. Pregnant women and children should avoid high intakes of cacao powder.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is all chocolate keto-friendly?
No, you must choose low carb chocolate options for keto. Most chocolate bars and candies are high in sugar and not keto-compliant. Opt for unsweetened 100% cacao baking bars with no added sugars. Lily's makes great keto-friendly chocolate chips and bars. Always read labels carefully.
What's the difference between cacao and cocoa?
Cacao and cocoa come from the same cacao beans, but cacao is raw and processed at lower temperatures to preserve nutrients. Cocoa is roasted at higher heats which degrades some nutrients but develops more complex roasted flavor notes.
Is cacao powder alkaline?
No, truly raw cacao powder is not alkalized or dutched. Some cocoa powders are processed with alkali to make them more pH neutral and give a darker color. Avoid "dutched" cocoa and look for raw cacao powder for the most antioxidants.
Can I replace cocoa powder with cacao in recipes?
You can substitute cacao for cocoa powder in most recipes, but keep a few differences in mind. Cacao has a stronger chocolate taste and may slightly impact texture since it contains more fat from the cacao butter. You may need to adjust other oils or liquids in the recipe. Start by swapping 1:1.
Is cacao powder gluten-free?
Yes, pure cacao powder is naturally gluten-free. Always check labels to be sure no gluten ingredients have been added, especially in pre-made cocoa mixes or beverages.
The Bottom Line
Cacao powder can be part of a healthy low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet when consumed in moderation. It provides a wealth of antioxidants and unique phytonutrients that offer anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, brain, heart, and skin benefits.
Just be mindful of portion sizes and net carbs, and choose high quality raw cacao powder. Feel free to get creative with cacao to boost the nutritional value of your keto smoothies, hot drinks, sauces, and desserts.
So is cacao powder keto-friendly? Yes - when used properly, cacao can be a delicious part of a ketogenic lifestyle.
Key Takeaway: Cacao powder is relatively low carb and rich in antioxidants, making it a smart addition to a keto diet when used sparingly. Prioritize quality over quantity with cacao powder.