Do you know your cacao?

Sep 12, 2011 at 6:22 p.m. ET

Cacao is more than the mix you use for that belly-warming mug of hot chocolate you sip on all winter. Cacao powder is a substance that comes from cacao beans, the fruit picked from the cacao tree. The botanical name for this tropical tree is Theobroma cacao, which means "food of the gods." Here's more on cacao, including how it's made and its health benefits.

Cocoa beans nad cocoa powder

Where does cacao powder come from?

You don't get cacao powder from simply grinding cacao beans -- there is an extensive chain of events from pod to powder. Cacao beans are in large pods when they are harvested. The pods are split open and then allowed to ferment to mellow the natural bitterness of the cacao beans. Cacao beans are then roasted and hulled to uncover the cacao nibs. Nibs are ground into a thin paste, referred to as chocolate liquor. The liquor is then pressed to squeeze out the cacao butter and leave the cacao solids. The cacao solids are pressed again, dried and then ground into cacao powder.

Different types of cacao powders

If you've perused the cacao aisle, you'll find natural cacao powder and Dutch cacao. Dutch cacao powder isn't as potent in flavor as natural cacao powder. Dutch cacao is made by adding alkali to cacao powder to make it less acidic and mellow the intense flavor. (Because the pH is different between natural and Dutch, always carefully read baking recipes and use the type of cacao powder listed in the ingredients.)

Lindt dark chocolateWhere do candy bars come from?

Chocolate liquor, that thin runny paste that comes from grinding chocolate nibs, is the basis for cacao powder but also many other chocolate products, such as dark chocolate and milk chocolate bars and morsels. Chocolate manufacturers control the cacao butter percentage, added sugar and other ingredients to create a range of chocolate products. If you've picked up a dark chocolate bar lately, you may be wondering what the percentage values mean. For example, Lindt dark chocolate bars can be as high as 99% cacao, and 99% is listed on the packaging. The higher the percentage, the higher the cacao levels in the bar and the higher the health benefits.

Health benefits of chocolate

The big health buzz for the past few years has been about the health benefits chocolate can deliver. What a treat! You can eat your favorite confection guilt-free! But before you run to the candy bar aisle, keep in mind that the health benefits are derived from small portions of chocolate and the most health benefits are derived from the darkest chocolate. White chocolate doesn't count and milk chocolate has more sugar. Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure and may reduce the risk of blood clots. Essentially, dark chocolate is good for your heart. A recent study published on BMJ online last month indicates that people who frequently eat chocolate have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.

Cacoa nibsHow to enjoy your chocolate

Both cacao powder and dark chocolate deliver health benefits and that coveted chocolate taste. If you're counting calories, cacao powder may be a better choice since you can make hot cocoa with cacao powder, water and a natural sweetener like stevia, for fewer calories than a chunk of a dark chocolate bar. If you choose a chocolate bar, keep your serving size to one ounce or less. You can also get your chocolate fix with cacao nibs (we recommend Navitas Naturals Cacao Nibs), partially ground cacao beans which capture the essence of chocolate flavor. Too much chocolate in any form will put you at risk for weight gain, a factor in heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Moderation truly is key.

Recipes with cacao powder

Savory chocolate recipes
Cocoa and spice dry rub
Cocoa oatmeal

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