Things are moving quickly with my mission to bring Peruvian Superfoods to the United States. It's such an exciting time, and I am so incredibly happy to be on this path. Along with the superfoods I will be bringing to the United States, I will also be bringing cacao in different forms. While I was in Peru touring the facility that will be processing the maca powder I am bringing here, I also had the opportunity to see how cacao is prepared.
When I entered the portion of the processing facility where cacao is prepared and processed, it is like walking into a chocolate dream. Anybody who knows me knows how much I love chocolate. It is absolutely heavenly, and so for me to be able to also bring cacao to this country is an absolute dream come true!
As I have learned more about healthy foods, it has changed the way I eat and the way I feed my body. Before I would just pick up any kind of chocolate since I just love it so much but now I understand the difference and how raw cacao makes more sense for me indulge on and it is much more beneficial for my health. Eating for me not only has to be enjoyable but I now see it as an additional healing mechanism to nourish my body.
Striking the Right Balance
What I have learned is there is something to be said for balance. There is a healthy way to be able to indulge without guilt. I try to always eat mindfully, but to allow for a bit of indulgence every now and again and without guilt. One of my favorite indulgences is--you guessed it--chocolate! I love to indulge in a Hu chocolate bar from time to time and enjoy the mindfulness of thoroughly enjoying a food that not only tastes amazing, but also has incredible health benefits. Which is why cacao is one of the foods I am so excited to bring to the united states. Hu is different from, say, a Hershey bar in that it is made with dark chocolate and fair trade cacao. And it is positively delightful.
One of the questions that frequently arises when talking about cacao is this: is cacao the same thing as cocoa? The short answer is not really, no. The long answer? It starts from the same place, and it all has to do with processing. Everything we know as chocolate starts off in the same place--it starts with the Theobroma cacao tree. The tree is native to South America, and grows throughout places in Mexico, along the Amazon, and of course in my native Peru.
Most people are very familiar with cocoa powder. It is a staple in kitchen pantries and is used for baking. Cocoa powder is the base for hot cocoa, chocolate cake, even chocolate milk. It is typically roasted, ground, and then infused with other ingredients for preservation and to extend the shelf-life. Cocoa powder can live for a long time in your pantry without any off-flavors or issues.
Cocoa powder is heat-processed in order to produce the flavor profile most of us are looking for when we bake or use cocoa products. The cacao beans are roasted at higher temperatures for longer periods of time. This not only changes the taste, but actually changes the beans on a molecular level. A lot of the health benefits, then, are lost through the roasting process.
Benefits of Cocoa Powder
Many of the antioxidant benefits of cacao is lost during this process. That's not to say that cocoa powder is inherently bad. Some cocoa powders are better than others. For example, Dutch processed cocoa is further processed to remove some of the acidity from the product. With Dutch processed cocoa, you lose even more of the health benefits of the raw product. Natural cocoa is slightly less processed, though it is slightly more acidic. Many recipes that calling for natural cocoa powder have added baking soda to neutralize the acidity of the finished product. Additionally, cocoa powder will often contain other additives such as hydrogenated oils, dairy products, and even refined sugars.
If choosing to use cocoa powder, there are certainly still health benefits to using it. Cocoa powder does offer some antioxidative benefits as discussed in this 2013 review of literature. Researchers discovered that cocoa powder can be used in the treatment and prevention of allergies, cancers, oxidative injuries, inflammatory conditions, anxiety, hyperglycemia, and insulin resistance. Not a bad list of benefits!
Cacao powder is derived from minimally processed cacao beans. It is essentially the purest form of chocolate you can consume. Cacao powder contains more fiber and calories than standard cocoa powder, but it is also loaded with antioxidants and flavanoids. The health benefits of cacao powder have been very thoroughly studied and are well documented. One of the key ingredients, theobromine, is noted for the ability to help focus, weight loss, and reducing cell oxidation. It's quite extraordinary that a food we see as indulgent can have such incredible benefits to our overall health and wellness!
Processing cacao beans into cacao powder involves a lower-temperature roasting process than for traditional cocoa powder. A 2011 study has found cacao seeds to be a "super fruit" in part because of this minimal processing. By limiting exposure to high temperatures, the healthiest parts of the cacao seeds are left intact. The resulting product is one that is incredibly high in fiber, phytonutrients, magnesium, antioxidants, and is incredibly good for you.
Benefits of Cacao Powder
Cacao offers some additional benefits over cocoa, and much of the benefit is a result of less heat. The heat that treats cocoa beans for regular cocoa breaks down some of the molecules that make it a superfood. We see that once the cocoa beans have been exposed to high temperatures, it loses some of its phytonutrients as well as some of the magnesium and fiber.
So how does cacao get turned into a powder? Just like cocoa, it starts with the beans. The cacao beans are either lightly roasted or left wholly unroasted. The beans are then pressed to remove the fattiest parts (we see the by-product of cacao butter) and then the beans are crushed into smaller pieces (nibs) or ground into a powder (cacao powder). In the coming months, I will be bringing all of these cacao products into the United States as well!
Substituting Cocoa for Cacao
If you're looking for healthier options that are indulgent and better for you, you can absolutely substitute cocoa powder for cacao powder. The finished product will be similar in texture and taste, but have greater health benefits for you along the way. That means you can indulge without the guilt. While raw cacao may be slightly less versatile in bean form than processed cocoa, its health benefits are far greater. When working specifically with cocoa powder versus cacao powder, you can do a simple swap to make your chocolate dishes healthier and more guilt-free!
If I could consume chocolate for every meal every single day, I would. It is one of the most indulgent and decadent foods on the planet. The smell alone is enough to set my mouth to watering. That's part of why I am so excited about introducing my own organic raw cacao products to the United States. I know this product is not only ethically sourced, but it is minimally processed. It is part of a vision that I believe in with all my heart. The product will originate in my home country and is a nod to my roots. It is also a wonderful way of bringing one of my absolute favorite foods to this country in way that is both indulgent and healthy at the same time. With this superfood, you can go ahead and enjoy it without any of the guilt.