by Stacey Tress
Cacao (Theobroma cacao), “The drink of the gods,” and its main byproduct, chocolate, are derived from the seeds of a fleshy pod, the fruit of the cacao tree. This tree is a tropical plant, American and probably Amazonian in origin. If you’re a history buff, you may be inclined to read up on the history of cacao. I came across a great book in our personal library called The Cambridge World History of Food and it boasts a very wordy and in-depth look into the origins and history of cacao. I’ll include a few tidbits from this book as well as some additional research to inspire and educate.
So yes, this article is on chocolate, but there seems to be a general misunderstanding when it comes to the difference between the words cacao and cocoa. While cacao and cocoa start from the same place, the way they end up (and what they go through along the way) has different effects on their nutritional benefits.
I was introduced to cacao by my friend Vinoth Ramanaathan (Vino Cacao & Coaching). A few months ago I attended what’s called a Cacao Ceremony in Yorkton at Melissa’s Yoga Studio (Unwind with Melissa). After blessing and drinking the ceremonial grade cacao drink, we had the unique pleasure of experiencing Glenda Lee perform her magic sound using her crystal bowls. It was tremendous.
I’ve purchased cacao nibs (like chocolate chips without sugar) in the past and was ho-hum about using them, but after hanging around with Vinoth, I’ve had a change of heart when it comes to cacao.
What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?
Everything we know as chocolate, in all of its forms, starts at the same source: the Theobroma cacao tree. This tree, native to South America, produces seed pods. Harvesters crack them open and take out the seeds, which are called cacao beans. (They resemble coffee beans.)
You can eat cacao beans raw. Their flavour is like a very bitter form of chocolate and it varies depending on the growing conditions (soil, sunlight, etc.) of the cacao tree. Beans are usually fermented and dried before they’re processed any further. Raw cacao beans taste bitter, but they’re the healthiest when eaten this way.
What happens next determines whether the beans become cacao or cocoa. They start from the same place, but the processing makes all the difference. If you’re a chocolate lover like me, or into baking, you probably already know that cocoa and cacao are available in many forms: nibs, chips, butter, powder, and chocolate bars, to name a few.
What are Cacao Beans?
Raw (or minimally-processed) cacao beans are superfoods. Here’s a quick rundown of some of their awesome health benefits:
- Antioxidant effects. Cacao beans are absolutely packed with phenolic phytochemicals and flavonoids, which protect your cells against damage from free radicals. Oxidative damage can result in premature aging and many of the modern health conditions today.
- Boosts your mood and cognitive performance. Epicatechin, the main flavonoid in cacao, improves various aspects of cognition, preserves cognitive abilities during aging, and even puts you in a better mood (and releases serotonin).
- Lowers blood pressure. Recent studies found that flavanols lower blood pressure and increase blood vessel flexibility.
- Protects your heart. Researchers found that flavanols and procyanidins from cacao increased antioxidant capacity in the blood plasma and reduced platelet reactivity, resulting in a healthier heart.
- Regulates insulin levels. Epicatechin, a flavanol in cacao, activates key proteins and helps regulate glucose production, even among diabetics.
- Cacao beans are also rich in nutrients like magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper, and manganese. They’re actually thought to be one of the richest food sources of magnesium around!
- Cacao recipes are popping up all over Pinterest, the internet, and in cookbooks galore. You’ll find them inspiring and tasty to work with because the flavour of cacao pairs well with so many flavours and foods. From spices like cinnamon, ginger, cayenne, to foods like dates, walnuts, almonds, coconut, and superfoods like acai and goji berries, cacao’s flavour can be paired with almost anything!
What is Cocoa?
Cocoa starts the same way cacao does as harvested beans from the plant’s seed pods. During processing, however, it’s heated at much higher temperatures. This results in a slightly sweeter flavour and different health effects.
Cocoa powder is extremely popular in dessert recipes. There are actually two types available:
- Dutch-processed cocoa powder. This variety, also known as dark cocoa, undergoes additional processing with an alkalized chemical solution. This is done to make the taste of the end product richer and less acidic. Unfortunately, further processing only increases degradation of all those awesome antioxidants and nutrients.
- Natural cocoa powder. This variety is a bit more acidic and bitter than Dutch-processed powder. You’ll find it often in recipes that call for baking soda because the soda alkalizes the natural cocoa powder.
If you’re needing to purchase cocoa powder, stick to plain versions. Cocoa powder “mixes” often contain added sugar or other sweeteners.
The difference between cacao and cocoa is all in the processing. The heavier processing (heating at higher temperatures) that transforms cacao to cocoa doesn’t just affect how manufacturers label the end product. This heat actually affects the beans on a molecular level, changing their structure and degrading nutrient content. It’s not that cocoa is inherently bad for you, it’s just that cacao is more beneficial.
Oh, and this is an interesting fact: Adding dairy to chocolate limits the body’s ability to absorb the phytonutrients found in chocolate. So if you’re making a smoothie (for example) and using cacao, you’re best bet is to skip the milk and opt for something like almond milk instead to maximize the absorption of healthy goodness.
A Chat with Vinoth
1) Tell me about a cacao ceremony and why you enjoy teaching them.
Cacao ceremony is a place where people can be who they are, show up as they are, and connect to their intuition and heart. Cacao acts as a catalyst. Cacao will help to sustain the spiritual practice longer and deeper. I like to hang out with high-vibe people. Cacao brought this to me so I am slowly teaching it.
2) Why are you passionate to share cacao?
Cacao is a plant medicine. We are so focused on the logical brain side but not on the expressive and creative side. Cacao helps to connect with one heart. It helps in focusing on the creative side. I would like to be an instrument in helping people connect to themselves, and I have personally experienced and have seen people transforming their life through cacao; this makes me passionate to share.
3) Why is the cacao movement growing?
It all started with Keith, who is a Chocolate Shaman, and his efforts. The Indigenous myth says when humans lose connection with their hearts and nature, the spirit of cacao leaves the rainforest and reaches people’s hearts. This is exactly what is happening now and that’s the reason the cacao movement is growing.
4) What is your favourite brand of cacao right now?
Ruk’u’x Ulew—this cacao has an amazing energy. A women’s collective processes the cacao. The women gather as community and they peel the cacao beans by hand, slightly toast them on a wood fire, and ferment them in the sun. (Organic Guatemalan Cacao)
5) Do you drink/eat cacao every day? How do you enjoy it?
No, I do not. As you work with cacao more, you will find less is more. I drink two to three times a week and enjoy blended with some hot water, cinnamon, and cayenne.
Done 2 ways (you decide what is best for you!)
a) Store-bought “hot chocolate” -> sugar, corn syrup solids, hydrogenated vegetable oil, modified milk ingredients, cocoa, cellulose gum, salt, dipotassium phosphate, silicon dioxide, artificial flavour, mono- and diglycerides, guar gum (add hot water and stir).
b) Now how about this -> Cacao, honey and hot water; blend and enjoy (and maybe a bit of cinnamon)… can I get a high five!
Raw Superfood Chocolate (Vegan)
1/2 cup melted cacao butter
1/4 cup cacao powder
1 tbsp spirulina powder
1 tbsp maca powder
1 tsp reishi mushroom powder
1 tsp goji berry powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
Pinch of Himalayan pink crystal salt
2–3 tbsp coconut nectar or other sweetener
Whisk all the ingredients together until smooth but still liquid. If it’s too thick, add more coconut nectar or melted cacao butter.
Taste it and make sure you are in love, otherwise adjust it to your desires.
Pour into chocolate molds or onto parchment paper and set in the fridge for an hour or two until solid.
Cacao, Banana, and Avocado Smoothie
Craving something sweet? Try this recipe. It’s the ultimate sweet fix. The combination of banana, cacao, dates, avocado, almond milk, and almond butter is too incredible as each glass is just so deliciously smooth, rich, creamy, and chocolatey. And it’s so speedy to make—literally three minutes from cupboard to cup.
Makes 1 large glass
1/2 cup of almond milk
1 really ripe banana
1/2 an avocado
4 medjool dates
2 tsp of cacao
1 tsp of manuka honey
1 tsp of almond butter
a few ice cubes
Peel the banana and avocado, discarding their skins, and pit the dates.
Then simply place all of the ingredients into the blender, blend for 2 minutes until smooth.
Pour, sip, and love.
The Cambridge World History of Food, Vol. 1, edited by Kiple and Ornelas
Cacao Hot Chocolate (simple recipe by me as it’s my favourite way to enjoy it at the moment)
Raw Superfood Chocolate (Vegan) www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-recipe/raw-superfood-chocolate
Cacao, Banana and Avocado Smoothie deliciouslyella.com/2012/11/02/cacao-banana-avocado-smoothie
Stacey Tress, a Holistic Nutritional Therapist (HNT) and Young Living Essential Oil Distributor (#2282633), lives in Rhein, SK, with her husband and two daughters. She is the owner of Garden Therapy Yorkton - GT Bliss, which offers fermentation workshops, active culture kits, permaculture consulting, essential oils, and more! To learn more, call 306-641-4239, email email@example.com or Facebook “Garden Therapy Yorkton - GT Bliss.” Webpage: www.gardentherapybliss.ca. Also see the display ad on page 9 of the 24.4 November/December issue of the WHOLifE Journal.