Cacao is a magical fruit from which we make a range of Cacao and chocolate products. The quality and the taste of the chocolate can vary enormously, and so can the health benefits. This article aims to give you everything you need to understand the fundamentals of choosing quality Cacao and chocolate.

If you are a lover of Cacao but wanted to learn more about the benefits of this healthy food, then read on. This article is an introduction to different varieties and properties of Cacao. We describe the health benefits of Cacao and show how to use it in some recipes.

The Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa

To learn more about the difference between Cacao and Cocoa, you can reference this article:

Why People Love Cacao

You probably have read that dark chocolate is good for your heart and has a positive effect on moods. This is down to the key active ingredient in Cacao – phenylethylamine which improves mood and sustains energy.

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The effect is one reason why many people have a love affair with chocolate bars, drinks, and baking with organic cocoa powder. Chocolate addiction might be real, as some studies have found evidence to support this.

Cacao’s Popularity is Growing

Its growing popularity now means it’s possible to try a variety of cacao products in coffee shops and restaurants. The awareness of speciality coffee has paved the way for the same growth in speciality cacao. Many of us now also choose single-origin Cacao to use in recipes at home for baking and drinking.

As a restaurant owner myself, the possibility for pushing a speciality cacao recipe is attractive. An excellent hot chocolate/Cacao drink is universally loved, and making it a house special sets us apart from others in our market.

Many of us do not think about Cacao coming from different plant varieties, but it’s worth considering the type, origin and processing of the plants used in the production of the Cacao you buy. When you become aware of the range and number of variables, you are suddenly awake to the possibility of thousands of different flavour combinations.

The Health Benefits of Cacao

Besides tasting good, you may have already chosen to use Cacao instead of cocoa powder because of the expected health benefits, but did you know that most cacao and cocoa powders have different nutrient profiles? Cocoa powder – which is more heavily processed than Cacao can still retain some of these health properties, but the process of roasting the bean inevitably reduces the levels of nutrients.

Using higher quality products certainly helps to some extent. Still, a 2018 study “Effect of traditional and oven roasting on the physicochemical properties of fermented cocoa beans” shows that traditional roasting significantly reduced the beneficial active ingredients and nutrients such as phenylethylamine mentioned earlier, as well as antioxidants such the key flavonoid, Epicatechin.

Epicatechin in Cacao and its Cardiovascular Effects

In a study performed on mice, dosing epicatechin at 1mg/kg of body weight resulted in increases in nitric oxide and endurance that persisted even in the absence of exercise. In other words, epicatechin supplementation offers athletes the potential for better muscle development and endurance even when they are not training.

Cacao beans in their raw form are healthy and contain high levels of antioxidants, minerals, amino acids, and vitamins. But this is only the beginning of the story behind Cacao’s health benefits. The truth is that research has not been conclusive in all areas, however, Cacao has been shown in tests to reduce memory loss and improve hearing, as well as lowering blood sugar, and other ailments. While some results look positive, not all agreed, and others have not found any benefit, so more research is needed.

Study Shows Drinking Cacao Helped People with Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD)

In February 2020, The respected American Heart Association released the findings to a study into people with Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD) which can result in crippling cramps and loss of feeling to the calves, legs and feet.

In the study announced in Science News, they gave patients a flavanol-rich cocoa drink 3 times a day over 6 months. Compared to a Placebo group, cocoa drinking patients enjoyed significant improvements in their ability to walk.

The researches were excited to find an effective treatment in Cocoa, which they point out is easily available and comparatively inexpensive.

Cacao and Health – the Science and the Facts

A study conducted on males of an average age of 40 showed that approximately 170mg of epicatechin per day, dosed at 2mg per kg of body weight, resulted in almost a 50% increase in follistatin and a 16.6% decrease in myostatin, alongside a strength increase of 7%. In a second study, researchers provided participants with 50-200mg of epicatechin a day and were amazed to find that their follistatin levels were 250% higher after just 5 days!

Cacao Beans are high in beneficial ingredients

Does Cacao have Caffeine?

If you review cooking sites that use Cacao, you’ll often hear the question ‘Do Cacao nibs have caffeine’? In my cafe, when we serve varieties of hot cacao drinks, I’m often asked ‘does cacao powder have caffeine’. While a small amount of Caffeine can be a good thing, some people are serious about minimising their levels.

Fortunately, the amount of Caffeine in Cacao is minimal – about 1/50th the amount of an Americano. 1 oz of cacao nibs might contain 22mg of Caffeine, although the exact amount depends on the Cacao used.

People can get confused because of the boost they get from a good cacao drink, but this comes from Theobromine (the origin of this word means ‘food of the gods‘!), which is an alkaline stimulant similar to Caffeine, but unlike Caffeine does not have the adverse effects. The Greeks also called Ambrosia the ‘food of the gods’, but I think we can assume if you were a god, it might feel good to have some variety in your diet.

From Where Does Cacao Originate?

To understand cacao powder, we first look at where it has come from and the varieties available.

Cacao must grow in a hot and humid environment, so it favours regions within 20 degrees from the equator. It’s a fussy plant, requiring a consistent temperature of 25-27°C (77-81°F), and is unable to withstand long wet or dry periods. The amount of rainfall it receives is also important and needs to be a regular 1250 and 2500 mm per year.

Originally from the Amazon and famously used by the Aztecs in ceremonies, it now is grown predominantly in West Africa, with Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire accounting for roughly two-thirds of global production. South American countries like Peru, Brazil and Venezuela also have many small farms and producers.

A quality cacao manufacturer, like any maker of good wine or coffee, pays attention to the raw materials which they use. Not surprisingly, greater than 83 -85 % of the world’s chocolate is from a variety of bean called “Forastero”, which is a higher yield and therefore cheaper and easier to grow. West Africa grows Forastero mostly because this was the variety originally imported from Brazil.

Understanding which cacao powder you buy or which chocolate you eat is part of the joy of learning and developing your taste preferences.

Once you have experienced the difference between high-quality cacao powder, chocolate, or cacao drink, it’s hard to go back to a lower quality product.

What Makes Quality Cacao

Although there are more than 10 varieties of cacao beans, the most popular and frequently discussed are:

  • Forastero
  • Criollo
  • Trinitario

Criolo is the “grand cru” of chocolates as it provides a delicate flavour with a rich aroma leaves many secondary notes and is only mildly bitter. While Criollo is said to be the best quality, this is a subjective matter. Where Forastero is bitter, Criollo is smooth and has complex aromas of nuts, fruit and even tobacco. However, Forastero has a fuller body, which can be beneficial when creating a product, and which some people prefer.

Cacao beans come in different varieties and shapes

Trinitario originated in Trinidad – hence the name – and was the result of crossbreeding Amelonado, which is a subspecies of Forastero, with Criollo. This new crop was planted in the late 19th century after disease devastated the Criollo crop. Trinidad now has 11 commercial varieties of this bean. As you’d expect, the flavour profile reflects a range of characteristics from both parent types and crucially inherits the robustness of the Forastero plant. They have a strong base cocoa flavour with additional fruit and floral notes.

The beans themselves have different colours and properties. You may have thought “They are all the same inside, brown or black.” However, some beans have a strongly marked purple shade and fruity aftertaste when eaten raw. This distinction carries through and vividly affects the taste of Cacao in a chocolate bar or drink.

Chocolate as a Healthy Food?

Cacao is an excellent addition to a healthy diet in moderation. If you’re looking for some inspiration on recipes, this site is an excellent resource for ideas on making Cacao based drinks.

So why is Cacao a super healthy food? A 2017 study found that consumption of Cacao lowers blood pressure. Cacao contains the flavonoid epicatechin, which may help regulate blood sugar levels as well as the recently discovered cardiovascular benefits mentioned earlier. The same study pointed to the findings of several small studies, which suggest that Cacao may help slow the progression of type 2 diabetes and reduce insulin resistance.

It shows that the higher the concentration of flavanols, the greater the effect of cocoa on reducing blood pressure. Of course, if you consume dark chocolate or quality cacao powder. A diet rich in flavonoids (from dark chocolate, red apple, and green tea) as an add-on to blood pressure-lowering medication further improved blood pressure and other heart disease risk parameters.

The polyphenols in cocoa are antioxidants which prevent free radicals from damaging cells during the cell replication known as mitosis. Cacao has a higher potential antioxidant capacity than red wine, green, and black tea. Cacao polyphenols, especially from dark chocolate, improved glucose breakdown, reduced blood pressure, and improved insulin resistance.

Significantly, Cacao contains a high amount of flavonoids. Flavanol may aid in maintaining a healthy brain which may have favourable effects on learning and memory functions. The improvements in the state of mind are credited to increased serotonin and endorphin levels

Cacao in Reducing Risk of Illness

Cacao is rich in magnesium. Magnesium is essential for maintaining a healthy heartbeat, and also plays a role in regulating muscle contractions. Just like in the heart, magnesium acts as a natural calcium blocker to help muscles relax.

Cacao Benefits to the Skin

The high-flavanols in Cacao reduced the skin sensitivity to UV-induced redness. Cacao flavanols increased blood circulation and the essential oxygen concentration in the skin.

Dark Chocolate Reduces Stress!

Each one of us has their happy food. When you are feeling happy, you tend to feel less stressed. New research shows that people who rated themselves as highly stressed had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after eating quality chocolate or cacao products every day for a few weeks. No need for any other excuse!

Quality Chocolate is the Healthy Choice

Much of the Cacao and chocolate readily available from shops are not good quality and contain large quantities of sugar and additives. The beans may be low quality or poorly processed, so it doesn’t have a powerful effect. Attention to the variety and quality of Cacao or chocolate you buy impacts the potential benefits you can derive.

What Makes Quality Chocolate?

The best quality chocolate uses fewer ingredients than inferior versions, and if you pay attention to the way it melts in your mouth, quality Cacao or chocolate must melt easily in the mouth – that’s because cheap chocolate contains cheaper ingredients instead of cocoa butter (which is one of the most expensive fats).

Pumatiy is a small Peru based chocolate maker we met at Chocoa 2020

Texture can also be a factor, but there are high-quality chocolates nowadays that present some slightly grainy texture, not because they’re bad, but a deliberate decision common among bean to bar, low batch, artisan production.

It’s worth point out that not all sweets or products with a chocolate flavour are regarded as real chocolate, based upon bewildering FDA guidelines and regulations. Some items make use of active ingredients besides the cocoa bean in order to save on costs or to have greater control over the manufacturing process. Chocolate-like products usually have an inferior taste and quality when compared to genuine chocolate.

Details on how the FDA defines the rules around different chocolates are in links in the table below.

If the product is a genuine chocolate item, the label supply’s numerous hints to help you figure this out, take a look at the components list, and you’ll see that premium chocolate makes use of cocoa as the main ingredient. Some confectionary lists chocolate liquor on the label, while others break down the two elements – cocoa butter and cocoa powder, individually. In order to certify as ‘chocolate’ under FDA standards, the product has to include a minimum amount of chocolate liquor. Products not fulfilling those minimum requirements could instead be labelled as chocolate-flavoured or chocolaty. They can be referred to as ‘compound chocolate’.

You might need a translator however when buying exotic artisan chocolate!

Compound chocolate still makes use of cocoa powder for the chocolate flavouring, but the fat originates from a source other than cocoa butter – normally vegetable oil. You may see hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils such as cottonseed, palm or soybean oil listed on the product packaging. Seeing any of these components should sound a warning about the quality of the chocolate-flavoured item. Quality chocolate needs abundant cocoa butter on its ingredients list to produce that melt-in-your-mouth texture chocolate enthusiasts expect.

So why do chocolate makers employ vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter? It typically comes down to cost and how simple it is to work with. Vegetable oil is more affordable than cocoa butter and is much less temperamental during manufacturing.

Cocoa percentages also are a consideration when determining the taste of chocolate. This is especially true for dark chocolate.

The cocoa percentage in chocolate determines the overall quantity of cocoa between the chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and cocoa powder. Do not consider the cocoa percentage in isolation as the sole determination of quality, however. A high percentage of cocoa doesn’t immediately translate into quality.

A bar of chocolate with a lower level of cocoa might be better quality than a higher Cocoa alternative when taking into account other factors, including the components utilised and the production process.

The cocoa percentage of specific chocolate does influence the taste, however. As the cocoa percentage increases, the chocolate taste intensity and darkness also increase, while the sweetness decreases due to lower quantities of sugar added to the chocolate. Quality dark chocolate should have at least 60% cocoa. Chocolate with 80% Cocoa has a bitter taste and might be a better choice for baking than for eating directly.

I ate this chocolate with 67% Cocoa content from MaRussia and happy to report it was tasty

Chocolate with a higher cocoa percentage likewise has more flavonoids, which contribute to the pigment and offer prospective health perks.

Quality Chocolate How You Can Tell the Difference

You can get an indication of what kind of quality to expect from chocolate without touching or tasting it – although where’s the fun in that?

A premium product must smell strongly of chocolate. A quality item will have a rich smell of chocolate and not of spices, vanilla or other aromas. The stronger the fragrance of chocolate, the higher the possibility that you are about to enjoy something that has been thoughtfully produced.

Second, top quality chocolate made with real cocoa butter feels smooth and silky in your mouth. Because cocoa butter melts at or just below body temperature level, quality chocolate melts easily in your mouth or just sitting for a short time in the palm of your hand.

The best way to taste chocolate is to let a small piece melt on your tongue to experience the complete depth. Take note of the texture and how the chocolate feels as it melts in your mouth. There should exist, a lasting taste of chocolate, and a lasting smile.

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