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Cacao is popping up in many recipes designed to be healthier and more nutrient rich. You could be forgiven in thinking that cacao is simply cocoa misspelt. However it is not. Cocoa and cacao are pretty much the same thing in terms of where they come from. The difference is all in the processing. Here’s what I found out about the differences between cocoa and cacao.
Cocoa beans come the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao). The trees produce fruit called pods which is where the beloved cocoa bean is found. To make cocoa/cacao, these pods are hand picked and cracked open to harvest the cocoa beans. Each pod contains roughly 20 to 40 cocoa beans. The cocoa beans are then fermented, roasted and separated from their hulls. After roasting, the beans are ground to produce cocoa mass. This is then pressed to remove the cocoa butter and leave behind cocoa powder.
It’s this part of the process that is slightly different between raw cacao and cocoa powder. Cacao is pressed and roasted with lower temperatures, so to minimize any loss of nutrients and antioxidants.
Antioxidants in cacao and cocoa
Cacao/cocoa contains antioxidants known as flavonoids. These are also found in vegetables, fruit, tea and red wine. Research suggests they are beneficial for cardiovascular health and may have a role in reducing inflammation. Inflammation is a bit of a modern day baddie – western style diets that are high in processed, refined and sugary foods promote inflammation, and inflammation is involved in many diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The flavonoid content of cocoa actually varies a lot depending on different varieties of cocoa plants and also the origin of the beans. Processing also reduces the flavonoid content, especially high heat treatments.
Cacao (often sold as raw cacao) has been reported on some blogs to have higher levels of antioxidant activity than your standard cocoa powder as measured by ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity). But just because it has x times higher ORAC levels, it doesn’t mean that it is x times healthier.
The ORAC database has actually been removed because evidence suggests that the values indicating antioxidant capacity are not relevant to the effects of bioactive compounds (such as polyphenols including flavanoids) on our health. On the USDA ORAC page it states: ” We know now that antioxidant molecules in food have a wide range of functions, many of which are unrelated to the ability to absorb free radicals.” So it’s possible that non-antioxidant mechanisms may be responsible for health benefits seen in foods that contain phytonutrient/antioxidant compounds. You can read more about it here.
Even so, because heat processing reduces the flavonoid content, the less processed cocoa is, the more likely it is to retain a higher value of flavonoids which have benefits regardless of their antioxidant activity. So cacao is likely your best bet if you’re wanting to get the highest flavoniod content.
A point to note is that if you’re going to be baking, you’ll probably reduce the flavonoids levels through this heating process.
Although there’s plenty of criticism for cocoa when compared to cacao, it still contains polyphenol compounds, and like cacao, it also contains a range of minerals including calcium, magnesium and zinc. This will vary depending how the powder is processed. Some studies looking at the benefits of cocoa (usually through the consumption of dark chocolate or cocoa drinks) are using standard cocoa but others use flavonoid rich products which aren’t available commercially.
One additional processing step that reduces the flavonoid content of cocoa is a Dutch processing, or Dutching. This is when cocoa is processed with a solution to reduce it’s acidity. Not all cocoa goes through this process, and the cocoa that does it is generally labelled Dutch Cocoa. Dutch Cocoa has a flavour that is said to be smoother and more mellow.
While raw cacao powder may have a higher flavonoid levels, there’s nothing wrong with plain cocoa. If you want to pay the extra for raw cacao, then feel free, but if it’s out of your budget, a good quality natural cocoa still contains some beneficial compounds. Choose one that simply has “cocoa powder” listed on the ingredients list and that is not been dutch processed.
The big picture
In the bigger picture, eating plenty of vegetables and some fruit is the best way to increase your intake of flavonoids. Drinking tea can also boost your flavonoid intake. Cocoa is generally consumed in sweet treats (which should be an occasional food) and in small quantities, so it’s not a big contributor to everyday flavonoid intake. Focus on getting the basics right first to boost your intake of flavonoids and the choice between cacao and cocoa is yours.