What are cacao powder and cacao nibs?

Basically, chocolate. But in its simplest, healthiest and most nutritious form. It’s raw and unprocessed, making it better for you than cocoa powder.

Cacao or cocoa trees (Theobroma cacao), generally grow in South America. They fruit throughout the year. Each cacao pod contains between 30 and 50 large seeds. The pods grow directly from the trunk or on large branches of the tree and are harvested by hand several times a week using a long-handled knife. The pods are split with a machete to remove the pulp and seeds. These are then piled in heaps, placed in bins or laid out on grates to sweat for several days before being fermented and dried, often in the sun. Finally, the seeds are trodden and shuffled with bare feet and packed into jute sacks. At this point, they’re known as cacao beans.

Cacao powder is made by grinding cacao beans and extracting the cocoa butter (the fat element of the bean). It can be created from either fermented or non-fermented cacao beans. Most have been fermented as this reduces the bean’s natural bitterness and enhances the chocolate flavour.

Cacao nibs are simply peeled and chopped cacao beans.

Health benefits

The health benefits of cacao are amazing. It can improve memory, increase your happiness, reduce heart disease, help you to reduce weight, boost immunity and make you feel energised.

The Incas of South America thought of cacao as the drink of the gods, which is reflected in the botanical name of the cacao tree Theobroma cacao. In Greek, theo means god and broma means to drink.

Cacao is effective in boosting levels of serotonin in the brain and it also contains anandamide, which is a mood improver that causes a feeling of euphoria. Serotonin is a feel-good chemical that drops significantly in women suffering from PMS. No wonder we reach for the chocolate when we’re having a bad day!

Cacao contains antioxidants that are known to help reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol levels in the blood. These help to prevent hardening of the arteries, and flavanols that may reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes and improve blood circulation. And a study of 470 men showed that a small amount of cacao every evening resulted in lower blood pressure.

Other antioxidants in cacao, similar to those found in green tea and red wine, help prevent premature ageing and can also suppress your appetite.

Cacao is one of the richest natural sources of magnesium. This helps protect against osteoporosis and diabetes and lowers blood pressure. It’s also a great source of sulphur which is important for shiny hair, strong nails, a healthy liver and pancreas.

Interestingly, a study by scientists in the UK found that people who ate 20g of cacao daily for 12 weeks could stay in the sun without getting sunburnt for twice as long as people who didn’t. And German researchers found that cacao may protect against the harmful UV rays that cause cancer.

Recipes

Cacao powder is perfect for adding to smoothies, cakes, dips, spreads and for making your own chocolate. Use cacao nibs in cakes, muffins, granola and muesli and add to ice cream, puddings or porridge for extra crunch.

Always try to replace the cocoa powder with cacao powder in recipes, but don’t replace with cacao nibs as they have a completely different texture.

Energy ball recipes including cacao powder or cacao nibs: