Going Cuckoo for Cacao


I’m not really one for chocolate (I know, crazy), but every so often I get an intense craving for a chocolate milkshake. Of course, I’m also lactose-intolerant … and lactose-free or dairy-free milkshakes are a bit difficult for me to find. So what’s a girl to do? Make them herself. In a blender, I mix almond or lactose-free milk (a good source of protein), a banana (rich in potassium, fiber, and a burst of a vitamins and minerals), vanilla extract, some honey, and of course, some chocolate. Or in my case, cacao powder.

What’s cacao, you ask? Well, cacao is made from cocoa beans. Chocolate and cacao powder are produced by heating chocolate beans and removing the outer shells from the beans, leaving the cocoa nibs. It then goes through a process of alkalization (i.e., increasing the pH, which makes it more amenable to processing), which involves adding an alkalinizing agent such as potassium carbonate to the cocoa nibs, developing the color and flavor. The nibs are then milled, or crushed and ground to the point of liquefying, becoming a mix of cocoa solids and butter called “cocoa liquor.” The liquor is then pressed to separate the cocoa butter from the solids, which ends up being the cocoa powder. The butter is what is sold in stores after milk, sugar, and other ingredients are added. For more information on the process, check out this article.

In regard to using the word “cocoa” vs. “cacao,” they’re about as different as juice and cold-pressed juice. The word “cacao” is used when the process doesn’t involve heat. It is cold-Raw cacaopressed, which instead of heat uses a hydraulic press to put thousands of pounds of pressure on the cocoa nibs to create the cocoa liquor. The belief is that using heat to separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa powder makes it “less pure” and decreases the nutritional value and antioxidants. But this isn’t true. While the process is different, the nutritional value is actually the same.  So if you can’t find cacao powder at the store, then cocoa powder will do fine. And if you can’t find cocoa powder, don’t fret—you can even buy some dark chocolate, which has similar benefits.

Phew! That was a lot of explaining, so what does this mean in terms of your health?

First, cacao powder doesn’t have nearly as many calories. In fact, ½ cup of cacao powder contains only 98 calories, so my milkshakes can be extra chocolatey, minus the extra calories. Cacao powder has a ton of vitamins and minerals like magnesium and phosphorous, two minerals that are required for bone mineral metabolism, helping to strengthen bones and prevent osteoporosis.  It also contains potassium, an electrolyte that helps keep the body’s cells functioning. There is strong evidence that it can even lower blood pressure.

Cacao powder also has a lit bit of fiber and calcium. But what makes it so amazing is its flavonoid content. Flavonoids, a group of antioxidants, are bioactive compounds that have been shown to promote cardiovascular, cognitive, and total health. It’s a win-win situation for your taste buds and your nutrition.

So enjoy cacao powder! It’s easy to incorporate into your diet: Sprinkle it in some yogurt, oatmeal, or on fruit. Or add it to smoothies or granola bars. And yes, you can even use it to make milkshakes.