Chocolate is one of those foods that provide comfort and happiness, if only for a moment. But there is a reason it lasts just for a moment. We know confectionary chocolate isn’t healthy, it’s extensively processed, full of sugar and often mixed up with a bundle of lollies or other sweet treats that for the moment tastes yummy, but soon enough leaves you feeling awfully sickly. This is where nature has come to save the day!
Cacao is a natural superfood that is the foundation for all chocolate products. The problem these days is that cacao is manufactured and transformed into unhealthy junk foods with almost zero nutritional benefit. But if you take the original product – the cacao bean itself – you will find a product bursting with nutritional benefits and health properties that can nourish your body and satisfy your sweet tooth!
So, what exactly is cacao and how can we enjoy this superfood without the sugar?
Cacao vs Cocoa
Ok! Let’s get down to chocolaty business. You may have seen these two words floating around on health food blogs or on chocolate brands that are marketed as ‘healthy’. For a clear explanation, let’s turn to writer, blogger, media consultant and best-selling author of the sugar-free book series I Quit Sugar – Sarah Wilson. On her website, Wilson explains that the term ‘cacao’ refers to any food products that are derived from the cacao bean. So what’s the difference between cacao and cocoa?
Wilson explains: “Raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cocoa and removes the fat (cacao butter). Cocoa looks the same but it’s not. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures. Sadly, roasting changes the molecular structure of the cocoa bean, reducing the enzyme content and lowering the overall nutritional value.”
So what exactly is cacao?
Cacao is a small seed, much like a coffee bean that grows on tropical trees mainly in West Africa. The bean is chocolate in its most natural, purest form – without the sugar, milk products or sweet treats we usually find it hanging out with in supermarkets!
Cacao is used to make a variety of products and has taken the health world by storm for its nutritional benefits. Some products that are made from cacao include things like cacao nibs and cacao butter.
What are cacao nibs?
Cacao nibs are basically healthy chocolate chips and are used in things like healthy granola or muffins, in replacement of normal chocolate chips. You can also purchase cacao powder, which is the most common way cacao is enjoyed. Because cacao is naturally bitter, this powder has the rich bitter taste of the natural cacao bean, the same as a high quality dark chocolate product in the supermarket, like the Lindt 90% Cocoa chocolate block.
What are the health benefits of cacao?
The reason cacao is called a superfood is because it is very high in nutritional value. The cacao bean is rich in magnesium which is required for the body to help repair muscle, support healthy bones and even help with symptoms of anxiety. In this helpful article by Body & Soul, medical herbalist Dominique Finney explains the benefits of flavonoids in cacao, and how this helps with weight loss.
Finney reports that the flavonoids work by helping to prevent fat-like substances in the blood from oxidising which can potentially clog arteries. Finney also mentions cacao’s positive impact on blood pressure: “Cacao has also been found to help regulate blood pressure and reduce cholesterol while building the immune system.”
But wait! It gets better thanks to this article from Harvard Health that explored the results of a report from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published in November 2009. It concluded that cacao “was found to increase ‘good’ HDL cholesterol levels”.
A further study by Harvard Health, explored in this article, reported on the results of a study that found “daily consumption of cocoa flavanols was associated with improved thinking skills in older adults who did have thinking problems, a condition called mild cognitive impairment”. Two studies were conducted, both concluding that “cocoa flavanols were associated with reduced blood pressure and improved insulin resistance”.
Cool cacao snacks, bars and treats
If you’d like to switch your dairy milk chocolate for a healthier chocolate choice, check out these brands and the cool cacao products they have to offer! You can also add cacao products like cacao powder to a smoothie or pancake mix, or even swap your hot chocolate powder for a tablespoon of raw cacao powder instead. With so many options, there are endless ways to enjoy the health benefits of chocolate in its natural state. Some of the most popular cacao products available from health food stores or supermarkets include:
- Emma and Tom’s Cocoa and Coffee Bean Bar
- Loving Earth Cacao Butter
- Forest Super Foods Organic Raw Cocoa Nibs
- Nature’s Way Cacao Powder
- Alter Ego Dark Cacao Block
- Amazonia Raw Cacao and Coconut Protein Powder
Healthy Cacao Superfoods Cake
Sometimes baking a cake is one of the best things you can do to not only put a smile on your face, but to brighten up the day of someone you love too. This recipe is for the most decadent, delicious and nutritious cacao superfoods cake. It packs a punch of nutrients in every scrumptious bite and is sure to leave you feeling happy and just as importantly – healthy. You can mix things up a bit by turning the recipe into a muffin mix by using a muffin tray or even try making cupcakes by using one or two smaller trays. Just be sure to keep an eye on them during baking.
- 6 small to medium sized beetroots
- ½ ripe, mashed avocado
- ½ cup coconut sugar
- 2 tbs maple syrup
- 1/2 cup cacao powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 cups coconut flour
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3 organic eggs
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup coconut oil, melted
- 1 mashed banana
- 2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 mashed, ripe avocado
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- ½ cup melted coconut oil
- Cacao nibs to decorate
- Goji berries to decorate
Steam the beetroots for about 25–30 minutes until soft. When cool, cut into chunks and place in a food processor or blender to make a puree. Put aside. Combine all dry cake ingredients in one bowl and all the wet ingredients in another bowl then mix together. Line a 9×9 cake tin and pour batter into tin. Bake at 180 degrees for about 25–35 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
Allow to cool while making the frosting. Use a food processor or blender and combine all frosting ingredients except for the cacao nibs and goji berries. When smooth, frost the cake and decorate with nibs and berries. You can even try sprinkling over some shavings of a block of cacao chocolate or toasted coconut flakes. Serve cold or warm with some fresh fruit like sliced banana, strawberries and fresh blueberries.
If you’d like to increase the superpowers of this superfoods cake, why not add in a teaspoon of spirulina or a tablespoon of LSA (linseed, sunflower seeds and almond seeds). You can buy all of these ingredients from your local health food store, supermarket or online.