The cacao tree has given us a lot of good things: cocoa butter, chocolate liqueur, cocoa nibs, and cocoa powder, just to name a few. If you're a chocolate lover, there's some good news because the health benefits of cocoa powder and other cocoa products are finally being documented.
Chocolate has gone in and out of favor with health experts for years. The amount of sugar in many chocolate products keeps your standard candy bar from being healthy, but raw cocoa powder and nibs are a different story.
Here's more about the different types of cocoa (or cacao), the top benefits of cocoa powder and nibs, and how to pick the right kind of chocolate.
All About Cocoa Powder, Nibs, and More
All cocoa products come from a tree with the botanical name of Theobroma cacao. More specifically, the different forms of cocoa and chocolate come from the beans (technically the seeds/fruit) of the tree.
The end product is determined by how the cocoa beans are processed and which part of the fruit is extracted. After being harvested, the beans are dried and fermented before processing begins. The fat in the beans is extracted as cocoa butter, which leaves nonfat solids that can be processed a few different ways.
Nibs are made when the nonfat portion is simply broken into smaller pieces. Cocoa powder is often a much more processed version of the nonfat solids. The beans are usually roasted before being dried again and ground into a powder.
More of the health benefits of cocoa powder can be kept intact by cold-pressing the beans instead of roasting them. This powder is usually referred to as "cacao" powder rather than "cocoa" to indicate that it is the raw version.
Cocoa liqueur is yet another possible end product of processing cocoa beans. It's a paste that contains both the high fat cocoa butter and the nonfat solids. Most chocolate is make with cocoa liqueur, milk, and sugar. The higher the amount of liqueur or cocoa solids, the darker the chocolate is. (1)
Health Benefits of Cocoa Powder & Cocoa Nibs
Full of Powerful Antioxidants
Antioxidants play a major role in keeping you healthy as you get older. They help to neutralize free radicals and protect your cells from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress plays a big role in the development of serious chronic diseases, including cancer. Free radical damage also has an impact on your skin, causing signs of aging to appear. (2)
Both cocoa powder and cocoa nibs contain plant compounds called polyphenols that act as antioxidants. In fact, cocoa is a better source of phenolic antioxidants than almost any other food. (3)
The antioxidants in cocoa have demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce inflammation in your whole body. The only catch is that heat and processing can destroy antioxidants, so the less processed your cocoa (or chocolate) is, the better. (4)
Nourishing & Mineral-Rich
Dark chocolate, cocoa nibs, and cocoa powder are all rich sources of several important minerals. They each contain a good amount of manganese, magnesium, copper, iron, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. Cocoa nibs also have a decent amount of fiber. (5)
Cocoa and dark chocolate are at the top of the list of magnesium-rich foods. Magnesium plays a lot of important roles in your body. It's essential for the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone) and for proper nerve and muscle function. Unfortunately, as much as half the U.S. population is deficient in magnesium. (6)(7)
Dark chocolate is also a good source of iron, especially if you are vegetarian and don't get any iron from meat. If you know your iron levels need boosted, eat a healthy amount of chocolate each day and try this Iron Tonic tea.
Supports Heart Health
There are several benefits of cocoa powder and nibs for your heart's health. To start with, cocoa powder and dark chocolate can moderately lower your blood pressure. The effect seems to be greater for those who already have high blood pressure. (8)
Studies have also shown that cocoa can reduce both total and bad LDL cholesterol levels. It improves blood flow as well and can have a blood thinning effect, which reduces the risk of blood clots. These all contribute to lowering your risk of having heart problems or a stroke. (9)(10)(11)
One study even found a correlation between regularly eating chocolate and having an overall lower risk of developing heart problems. (12)
Boosts Brain Function
Regularly consuming antioxidant-rich foods is linked to better cognitive function (brain power). More specifically, the flavonoids in cocoa can improve overall mental performance, including learning and memory. (13)(14)
Research indicates that this most likely happens because flavonoids improve blood flow to your brain. This boosts brain function and may have applications for treating or preventing certain diseases like Alzheimer's. (15)(16)
Improves Your Mood
Chocolate has become somewhat infamous for being a food people turn to when stressed. However, there may actually be a reason you seek out chocolate on a bad day.
The flavonoids in cocoa that can increase blood flow to your brain and improve cognitive function also have a positive impact on your mood. (17)
Several interesting studies have been conducted on chocolate, stress, and mood. So far, they've found that drinking cocoa can increase feelings of calm and contentment, eating chocolate can improve well-being and optimism in older adults, and consuming chocolate during pregnancy may have a positive impact on your baby's mood. (18)(19)
May Improve Skin Health
For a long time, chocolate was thought to be one of the major culprits responsible for causing acne and other skin problems. However, dark chocolate and cocoa can actually benefit your skin's health because of the antioxidants they contain.
One study indicated that regular cocoa consumption could improve skin roughness and hydration and protect against damage from the sun, among other things. (20)
Keep in mind that the amount of sugar found in many chocolate bars is not necessarily good for skin health. Choose unsweetened cocoa powder, cocoa nibs, or dark chocolate to get the lowest amount of sugar.
Cocoa vs. Cacao
If you pay attention to labels, you've likely noticed that there are two different spellings for very similar products: cocoa and cacao.
In most ways, the two are interchangeable and can be used in exactly the same way in recipes. They usually taste and look the same. "Cocoa" is thought by some to actually be a misspelling of "cacao" that happened many years ago and stuck.
The biggest difference is that most manufacturers refer to raw products as "cacao" and processed ones as "cocoa." So if you're looking for raw and unprocessed, go with cacao powder or nibs. Raw means that most of the beneficial nutrients are kept intact.
Processed cocoa powder does lose some nutrients due to the heat used during processing. However, it still keeps a good amount of antioxidants and minerals intact and is more affordable.
Using Cocoa Powder for Health Benefits
There are so many ways to use cocoa powder that it's usually not difficult to incorporate into your diet. In fact, most people would have no problem eating more chocolate!
The biggest factor to pay attention to is what kind of chocolate or cocoa you're using.
Dark chocolate is the hands down winner for health benefits when compared to milk or white chocolate. It has less sugar and more beneficial antioxidants and nutrients. Using cocoa powder or nibs is also great for your health, and both are sugar-free.
The highest amount of nutrients can be found in raw cacao powder and nibs. Your next best choice is a naturally processed cocoa powder.
The one option you want to avoid is Dutch-process cocoa. This type has been treated with an alkalizing agent to make it better for certain baking applications. Unfortunately, this process also removes a lot of the good benefits of cocoa powder, including many antioxidants.
There aren't really any precautions or side effects to list when it comes to cocoa powder. Just remember that even dark chocolate can have other ingredients in it that may not be good for your health.
Cocoa powder does contain caffeine, and large amounts of it can make you restless or cause sleep disturbances. Rarely, cocoa can cause allergic reactions and/or upset stomach.
Enjoy More Cocoa Powder
If you're a chocolate lover, you can rejoice in the discovery of the many benefits of cocoa products! Minimally processed cocoa and dark chocolate are good for your overall health and especially for your heart and brain. They can both lift your mood and reduce stress, something you might have already known.
Enjoy cocoa powder in smoothies, pudding, hot drinks, granola, sprinkled on cereal, etc. Or get your daily chocolate dose in something like this Coconut Chocolate Truffle tea or your favorite dark chocolate bar.
It's always good news when something that tastes great is good for you as well!