Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is the basis of original, natural chocolate. Cacao beans, or rather cacao seeds, are the fruit of the cacao tree. Cacao trees grow abundantly in the tropical regions of South and Central America. The cacao seeds have been consumed for over 3,000 years by cultures such as the prehistoric Mayans for their wide range of health benefits (1).
Documented records of the medicinal use of cacao in the New World date back to the mid-1500s (2).
Documents reveal over 100 different medicinal uses such as the treatment of anemia, poor appetite, mental fatigue, constipation, and many others (3).
Organic, raw cacao is a superfood that is full of phytonutrients, containing high amounts of iron, magnesium, sulfur and many more. Cacao is a powerful antioxidant, with more antioxidant activity than blueberries or goji berries.
1Cacao may improve cardiovascular health. Several studies demonstrated that following a diet abundant in phytonutrient-rich plant foods may reduce the development of diseases such as cardiovascular disease and even cancer (4, 5).
Research indicates that dietary phytonutrients reduce the development of cardiovascular disease by reducing oxidative stress and endothelial inflammation (6).
Cacao, thanks to its high phytonutrient content, is considered one of the most antioxidant-rich foods in the world (7).
Regular cacao intake was also associated with a 45% to 50% lower cardiovascular and all-cause death.
2Cacao can lower blood pressure. Cacao has been shown to have a beneficial effect on vascular function, insulin resistance, blood pressure and more (8).
In a 2006 study that included 470 elderly men and followed over 5 years, authors found that the regular consumption of cacao was related to lower blood pressures (9).
3Cacao fights off aging. One 2014 investigated the effects of cacao on skin premature skin aging. The twelve-week double-blind clinical trial showed that patients who consumed the higher flavanol cacao powder reported firmer skin and less sun damage, versus the placebo group (12).
4Cacao may help prevent anemia (iron deficiency). Iron is necessary for our red blood cells to carry nutrients and oxygen to our cells. Due to various contributing factors, iron deficiency is one of the most common forms of malnutrition. Globally, 50% of anemia cases are attributable to iron deficiency (13).
Iron deficiency can be prevented, and low serum iron levels can be corrected by increasing the consumption of iron-rich foods. Cacao, a rich source of dietary iron could, therefore, be helpful in preventing the deficiency (14).
1 ounce of dark chocolate contains about 20% of the RDA of iron, making it an excellent source. Raw cacao has even more (15).
There is another factor to take into consideration with iron, and that is absorption. Plants contain nonheme iron, which is not as easily absorbed as heme iron from animal sources. To enhance iron absorption, it is recommended to combine it with Vitamin C-containing foods. Luckily, raw cacao naturally contains Vitamin C, improving iron absorption (16).
5Cacao can fight off chronic fatigue. The theobromine and phenylethylamine (PEA) in cacao are natural stimulants that can stimulate your body and mind to fight off tiredness. A 2010 study involving 24 healthy participants showed that cacao helped increase 24-hour ambulatory systolic blood pressure while lowering central systolic blood pressure (17).
Another 2014 study gave 42 healthy people a dose of cacao ranging from 300 to 1,000 mg. Five hours later, it showed that participants felt more alert and active due to a slight increase in heart rate (18).
6Cacao can help to restore and create radiant skin. A 2014 double-blind study published in the Nutrition Journal showed that daily use of cacao decreased the appearance of sunspots and improved the skin’s elasticity and hydration levels (19).
The reason is that cacao is filled with a high amount of cellular repairing agents such as magnesium, fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamin C to rejuvenate your skin.
7Cacao may help you lose weight. Growing research suggests the benefit of cacao in supporting weight loss. In a study published in 2005, cacao was found to prevent high-fat, diet-induced obesity. This weight loss-enhancing benefit of cacao was associated with its ability to positively influence lipid metabolism and decrease fatty acid synthesis (20).
A 2007 study published in the Journal of Discovery and Innovation showed similar results. In this 28-day rat study, scientists wanted to determine whether the theobromine component of cacao bean had an effect on weight loss. Results showed a significant and rapid weight loss along with improved blood cholesterol levels on day 28 (21).
8Cacao can prevent sunburns. One London study published in the Nutrition Journal showed that subjects who consumed 20 grams of cacao were able to double their time in the sun without getting sunburnt (22).
9Cacao has anti-cancer activity. It has been confirmed scientifically that cacao beans are rich in antioxidants, such as flavonoids, catechins, epicatechins and proanthocyanidins, and beta-sitosterol (23).
In an in vitro study researchers tested the potential cancer-protective effects of different flavonoids present in cacao beans on human prostate cancer cells. Study results revealed that cacao polyphenols inhibit the growth of cancer cells, without affecting the growth of normal cells (24).
In a 2009 review article cacao was found to reduce oxidative stress and thereby reduce the risk for cancer and other chronic conditions (25).
10Cacao fights tooth decay. A 2013 study published in Oral Health and Preventative Dentistry set out to investigate the tooth strengthening of theobromine. The results showed that theobromine helped strengthen tooth enamel and thus protect your teeth from cavities and decay (26).
11Cacao may improve cognitive function. A 2010 study with 30 healthy adults investigated the ability of cocoa flavonols to improve cognition. In this randomized, controlled, double-blind study, participants consumed 520 mg or 994 mg cocoa flavonol containing drinks over three different periods. The results showed an improvement in cognitive performance and a reduction in mental fatigue (27).
12Cacao enhances your libido. Phenethylamine is an endorphin-releasing compound found in Cacao. A 2006 study involving 163 women showed that house who consumed cacao in the form of chocolate had a higher libido than those who didn’t (28).
13Cacao may help prevent diabetes. Polyphenolic compounds, such as flavanols offer proven health benefits with no toxicity and low cost. Cacao, red wine and tea are all rich sources of flavanols. In a 2017 review article, researchers found that all three, cacao, tea and wine, may reduce diabetes risks (29).
In another study, cocoa compounds have shown to improve blood glucose homeostasis. Compounds found in cocoa exerted their anti-diabetic effects by stimulating glycogen synthesis and glucose uptake (30)
14Cacao enhances mood. Chocolate, made from cacao beans, induces positive effects on mood. This mood-enhancing ability may explain why chocolate is often consumed under emotional stress (31).
Even though several clinical studies have confirmed this effect, the mechanism of action through which cacao enhances cognition and mood isn’t fully understood (32).
One study suggests that cacao’s rich antioxidant molecule content may be partially responsible for the beneficial actions in the brain (33).
One rat study evaluated the anti-depressant effects of cocoa polyphenolic extract. It is speculated that the improved mood is due to the high polyphenol content (34).
Another theory is that cacao raises the levels of different neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain that affect our mood. Phenylethylamine (PEA) for example, is one of those chemicals that influences dopamine and serotonin production. PEA is naturally present in cacao bean, potentially contributing to its positive effect on mood (35).
1Cacao may hamper sleep. Since cacao contains caffeine, eating too much of it may cause caffeine-related adverse effects, such rapid heartbeat, restlessness, difficulty sleeping.
2Cacao can cause IBS like symptoms. Cacao may cause GI disturbances such as constipation, nausea, gas, stomach pain (36).
3Cacao may trigger a migraine in some individuals (37).
4Commercial cacao may lead to weight gain. While cocoa has many health benefits, commercial chocolate and its products contain high amounts of sugar, fat, and additives, which are far from being healthy.
A normal dosage of theobromine ranges from 50 to ~1,000 mg, depending on the product. Dosages of 500 mg (2/3 a standard 70% dark chocolate bar) have the greatest benefits with little to no negative side effects (40).
However, there is no set standard dosage for cacao, and there are too many biological factors that interact with how it is metabolized in the body. The upper limit has been reported as 10kgs of chocolate in a single day, but again that number will vary based on your metabolism and size.
It’s more important to be aware of any pets consuming chocolate as they have a difficult time metabolizing theobromine and thus can be poisoned at much lower levels.
Is cacao and cocoa the same thing? Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing un-roasted cacao beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cacao and removes the fat (cacao butter). Cocoa may appear to be the same, but it’s not. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures.
Is cacao really good for you? Cacao is full of health benefits and is a healthy option when it comes to indulgence, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Raw, powdered cacao is full of flavonoids, which act as natural antioxidants. Antioxidants protect the body from aging and disease caused by free radicals.
Is cacao powder good for weight loss? Evidence shows that cacao can help you lose weight and improve your blood lipid and glucose levels. But don’t forget that weight loss will only occur if you are in a calorie deficit – you burn off more than you put in your body. As an occasional treat, dark chocolate, cocoa powder or raw cacao are all fantastic.
Do cacao and cocoa taste the same? No, the alkalizing process used for cocoa production results in a balanced natural acidity, thus it tends to be a bit more mellow. In contrast, cacao retains more of the natural cacao bean taste.
Is cacao dangerous? In general no, cacao is not dangerous to humans. However, eating raw cacao in extreme excess could be dangerous. Theobromine poisoning has been reported to cause heart failure, seizures, acute kidney damage, and dehydration. It is much more dangerous to animals who have a very tough time processing theobromine and thus are more susceptible to theobromine overdose.
What are the side effects of cacao powder? Eating large amounts might cause caffeine-related side effects such as nervousness, increased urination, sleeplessness, and a fast heartbeat.
Is cacao good for skin? Studies show applying raw cacao offers a lot of the same benefits as eating it. The high levels of antioxidants protect and repair the skin from damage and premature aging. Also, it acts as a potent anti-inflammatory, soothing redness and blemishes while improving the skin’s complexion.
Is cacao good for cholesterol? Yes, science shows that cacao may boost good cholesterol.
What is the difference between cacao and cocoa butter? Raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cocoa and removes the cacao butter, which is the fat.
Can cacao keep you awake? Much like coffee, raw cacao contains caffeine, which acts as a stimulant. Caffeine can negatively affect sleep and may affect your kidneys. Cacao also contains theobromine, another stimulant.
Does cacao burn fat? Cacao or cocoa powder is said to improve fat metabolism and increase energy, and hence, can be consumed for quicker weight loss. If you wish to use cocoa powder to burn fat, then make sure you buy a good quality, organic brand, which has no sugar in it.
Why can’t animals eat cacao? Dogs cannot metabolize theobromine and caffeine as well as humans can. The substances accumulate in the animal’s body in an amount that can be toxic or even fatal.
Cacao is one of the healthiest superfoods on the planet helping fight off obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure. However, the typical method of consuming cacao, via chocolate, can be more damaging than healthy, as it is still loaded with calories and refined sugar.
High-quality dark chocolate (usually 70% or more) is your best option as it has the highest cacao content and the lowest amount of refined ingredients.