Featured Food: Cacao

This Valentine’s day week, our featured food is cacao – the key ingredient in chocolate.  On its own, raw cacao is a sugar-free and nutrient packed addition to a healthy diet.

Cacao beans are the seeds of the tropical Theobrama cacao tree.  Theobrama means “food of the gods” in Greek, and Aztec legend holds that cacao was the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom.  In addition to consuming cacao (most famously in a frothy drink) the Mayas used cacao beans as currency.

Theobrama cacao trees grow many pods, each containing thirty to forty beans surrounded by a protective white pulpy coating.  Cacao nibs are made by opening a cacao pod and allowing the contained beans to ferment.  When the protective covering is removed after fermentation, the seeds break into pieces; the bean shell is then removed, and the remaining pieces are known as “nibs.” In some countries, the white pulp is used in smoothies, juices and jellies.  The fermented seeds can also be ground up to form cacao powder.  Cacao nibs and powder have a slightly bitter, dark chocolate flavor with hints of coffee.

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Health Benefits

Cacao contains flavanoids, antioxidants also found in foods like berries and tea. Antioxidants are important because they help destroy free radicals, which can contribute to disease development and speed aging.  Cacao is an excellent source of magnesium, which is important for muscle and nerve function, and iron, which is necessary for red blood cell production.  Cacao has been reported to help control blood pressure and blood glucose levels, and to help decrease the risk of heart attack or stroke.

Cacao v. Cocoa

While cacao and cocoa sound alike, there are some important differences between the two.  Cacao is pure bean in raw form and it is high in antioxidants.  Cocoa is what you get when you heat the bean to high temperatures.  Many cocoa powders found in the grocery store also contain additives like milk and sugar to add richness and sweetness – premixed hot cocoa almost always contains both of these things.  While the science is unclear on whether heating the cacao bean impacts the antioxidants or other minerals, research shows that the consumption of dairy with cacao inhibits the absorption of the antioxidants in cacao.  So if you’re going to choose cocoa, choose one without added dairy for maximum nutritional benefit.

Where they are in Thirst drinks

Cacao nibs and cacao powder are star ingredients in the Bad Monkey and Cherry Blawesome smoothies and the Peanut Butter Acai Bowl.

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How you can use cacao nibs and powder at home

Cacao products have become increasingly popular in recent years, and are frequently found in larger grocery stores; you can also purchase them at health stores and online.

Some ways that you might use cacao at home include:

  • In smoothies: Cacao powder and nibs have a slightly bitter, chocolate flavor that is a nice addition to almost any smoothie. Just remember that cacao is not the same as cocoa; on it’s own, cacao is not sweet, so be sure you add another source of sweetness if you like your smoothies sweet (consider dates, bananas, or even a little bit of agave).
  • In trail mix: Cacao nibs are a delicious addition to home-made trail mix.  Be sure your mix also includes nuts for protein and healthy fat, and dried fruit for sweetness.
  • In oatmeal: Adding cacao powder, and maybe some nut butter to oatmeal, makes for a decadent but healthy breakfast.

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