I’m writing this post knowing it could end up being wildly unpopular amongst a growing fan-base of all things cacao. But please, before you curse me and vow never to look at this blog again, keep reading.
I often have clients ask me about the difference between cocoa and cacao, as the terms are frequently used interchangeably. That question is invariably followed by the next: “Because cacao is good for you, I can have it every day right?”
Let’s tackle the first question first. The term cocoa refers to the plant and the powder from the tree known as Theobroma Cacao. The product “cocoa powder” comes from the roasted cocoa bean (which, just to confound us more, isn’t actually a bean, but a seed), while cacao powder is marketed as the raw powder product. My research suggests that even some of the experts haven’t been able to draw distinctive lines between the two products. For that reason, from here on out, I’m just going to refer to cacao as raw chocolate, because we all love that right? And quite frankly, it’s just easier to pronounce.
Now, on to the second question. It’s true more than 300 nutrients and phytochemicals are found in raw chocolate. In fact, cacao seeds have a higher antioxidant score than blueberries, cranberries and acai and we all know how good antioxidants are for us. Raw chocolate has high levels of magnesium and sulphur, both of which are important in overall health. The touted nutritional and health benefits of raw chocolate range from improved cardiovascular health to easing depression to improving blood sugar regulation, with some of these backed by scientific studies on the individual compounds.
But here’s the thing, raw chocolate also contains a few things that could wreak havoc on your system. One such substance (and probably the one that has created the most stir amongst foodies on both sides of the debate) is theobromine, something that acts a lot like caffeine in the body. In a nutshell, theobromine is a mild stimulant with diuretic effects. It can dilate blood vessels, which is where the heart health benefit comes from. Raw chocolate also contains chemicals that act like neurotransmitters that make us feel good, focused and alert. That all sounds good, right?
Nutritional information sometimes changes as fast as fashion, so keeping up on the latest can be difficult. Cacao has been cornering the “chocolate market” for a while now and with that comes more research and more information. Some tests have shown cacao might be every bit as addictive as caffeine and other “stimulants” and can cause mood swings and withdrawal symptoms if not consumed regularly. It may also affect kidney and liver function negatively. The theobromine content may cause anxiety, elevated heart rates and a myriad of adverse reactions in some individuals.
So does all this mean that you should give up your love for raw chocolate? Not at all. I certainly don’t plan to. But what it does mean is that raw chocolate should be treated as a treat, not something that you consume in copious amounts on a daily basis. Occasional treats give us that feeling of decadence, of enjoyment…of appreciation. Have a square or two of raw chocolate (like the Loving Earth brand above), even a sprinkle of cacao powder on your yoghurt on occasion. And while nutritional information changes quickly, the general rule of thumb remains the same: “Everything in moderation.”