It’s official: chocolate is a superfood. But let’s be specific here: it’s the cacao – the main raw ingredient that makes chocolate – that’s the true superfood, providing nutrients and antioxidants that are thought to have multiple benefits for our health. The more other ingredients are added to your chocolate bar – especially sugar! – the less ‘super’ it becomes.
So what is cacao and what can it do for us… apart from tasting delicious?
Cacao and cocoa both refer to the beans of the Theobroma cacao plant, and the substances (e.g. cocoa powder) made from them. But the word ‘cocoa’ usually refers to the roasted beans, whereas ‘cacao’ means the raw, unroasted beans. From the beans we get cacao/cocoa powder and cacao nibs – which are both made from the dark solids – and cocoa butter. The solids and the cocoa butter are usually combined back together when making chocolate.
You’re probably most familiar with cocoa, as that’s what’s used in most chocolate bars, and sold in tubs at the supermarket for baking or making hot chocolate. But raw cacao is becoming more and more popular as we’re realising its potentially greater health benefits.
So what’s so special about cacao? Cacao in its pure form is actually a good source of many nutrients and antioxidants. It can be especially rich in minerals, including magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc and manganese. It’s high in plant compounds called flavonols, including a sub-type called catechins – the same ones that are found in green tea and thought to be responsible for its health-boosting effects.
Cocoa inits roasted, processed form can still contain all of these substances, but they may be much lower compared to raw cacao – especially the flavonols.
Both cacao and cocoa are also very low in sugar, containing as little as 2%. So there’s very little reason to consider either of them an unhealthy food!
Here are some of the specific health benefits we may get from eating cacao.
Cacao for a healthy heart
It’s the flavonols in raw cacao that are thought to be particularly heart-friendly. They’ve been linked with lowering blood pressure, as well as increasing vasodilation (dilating blood vessels to improve blood flow), reducing the ‘stickiness’ of the blood, reducing inflammation and preventing free radical damage. Studies have found that higher intake of flavonol-rich foods, such as cacao is associated with lower risk of ‘cardiovascular events’ including heart attack and stroke. [2, 3]
Another reason for cacao’s proposed heart-health benefits could be the potassium and magnesium it contains. Potassium is key for keeping blood pressure down. And magnesium is vital for energy metabolism and muscle function – our heart is a muscle, and it requires a lot of energy!
Cacao for the brain
The flavonols in cacao have been found to get into the brain, and may have a protective effect and even improve our brain power! They may work via an antioxidant effect, by helping to generate new nerves, or by improving blood flow in the brain. 
Cacao for mood
Most people know they feel better when they eat chocolate! In a standard sugary chocolate bar, this is likely to be at least partly down to the sugar content. But raw cacao in its pure form also contains specific substances that may boost mood.
One of these compounds is phenylethylamine, or PEA for short. PEA is a natural substance that’s made in the brain. It’s associated with pleasure and good mood and is said to be made in higher amounts in the brain when we’re in love! Another substance that may affect mood is theobromine. Theobromine is a mild stimulant in the same family as caffeine, but with a gentler effect. 
Another reason cacao may be beneficial for mood is due to the minerals it contains. Zinc in particular is vital for making feel-good serotonin in the brain; and magnesium plays a role too. But it’s also possible that the main reason chocolate (even very dark chocolate) makes us feel good is that it’s really tasty! Highly palatable foods release endorphins  – natural mood-boosting chemicals – in the brain.
Cacao for energy
Cacao contains small amounts of caffeine, as well as theobromine, which, as explained earlier, is also a mild stimulant. Magnesium – found in abundance in cacao – is also vital for energy production in our cells. So dark chocolate and cacao can be a good pick-me-up. Of course, this also means that for some people, it’s best limit consumption to the first half of the day so it doesn’t affect sleep.
Choose your chocolate wisely
So we’ve said that the typical sugar-filled chocolate bar is not the best way to make the most of cacao. Too much sugar in your chocolate can easily cancel out any health benefits it provides!
If you’re buying chocolate made with standard cocoa rather than raw cacao, we’d suggest choosing a dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa – preferably 85% or above. That way you get minimum sugar, and maximum flavour and nutrient content.
Alternatively, go for a raw chocolate bar (i.e. made with raw cacao), for the extra health-boosting flavonols. Raw chocolate can also be a better choice because makers tend to use unrefined sugars such as coconut sugar. Coconut sugar has a lower glycaemic index than white sugar, so provides more slow-releasing energy.
Even better, try raw cacao powder or cacao nibs (these are like little ‘nuggets’ of crunchy cacao). You can add them to homemade smoothies, or use them to make healthy energy balls or brownies, or even your own homemade raw chocolate. The nibs are fantastic in homemade muesli (with whole oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruit), or stir them into natural yoghurt with goji berries.
- “Cocoa, Dry Powder, Unsweetened Nutrition Facts & Calories”. Nutritiondata.self.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 2 Aug. 2016.
- Jumar A, Schmieder RE. Cocoa Flavanol Cardiovascular Effects Beyond Blood Pressure Reduction. J Clin Hypertens (Greenwich). 2016 Apr;18(4):352-8.
- Arranz S et al. Cardioprotective effects of cocoa: clinical evidence from randomized clinical intervention trials in humans. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2013 Jun;57(6):936-47.
- Sokolov AN et al. Chocolate and the brain: neurobiological impact of cocoa flavanols on cognition and behavior. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013 Dec;37(10 Pt 2):2445-53.
- Baggott MJ et al. Psychopharmacology of theobromine in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2013 Jul;228(1):109-18.
- Benton D, Donohoe RT. The effects of nutrients on mood. Public Health Nutr. 1999 Sep;2(3A):403-9.