Discover the Powerful (and Tasty) Health Benefits of Organic Raw Cacao Powder

Discover the Health Benefits of Organic Raw Cacao Powder


If you’re a chocoholic, and there’s no shortage of those around, you probably rejoiced when you first read about the health benefits of dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is rich in heart-healthy antioxidants called flavanols.


When you munch on a piece of dark chocolate these flavanols help to open up your blood vessels and lower your blood pressure. Plus, the same heart-healthy compounds in dark chocolate help to reduce inflammation, another factor that damages blood vessels and contributes to heart disease.


There’s more good news about chocolate. Did you know studies show dark chocolate has favorable effects on lipids by lowering LDL and raising HDL-cholesterol? Based on the research, we’re convinced that dark chocolate is good for the old ticker.


The active ingredients in dark chocolate may have other health benefits as well, although the evidence is less convincing than for heart disease. Some research shows dark chocolate improves insulin sensitivity. This helps with blood sugar control and lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes.


Plus, chocolate appears to increase serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter that helps lift your mood and helps you sleep better.


That’s not the only way in which dark chocolate enhances mood, it contains other chemicals, including phenylethylamine, a chemical sometimes referred to as the “love drug,” because it mimics some of the feelings that go along with being in love. No wonder dark chocolate is a popular gift on Valentine’s Day!


And there are good reasons we munch on dark chocolate when we’re stressed out. Some research suggests that chemicals in dark chocolate help lower cortisol, the stress hormone our adrenal glands release when we’re under physical or mental stress. 

Good for Your Brain and Vision? 


One of the most interesting properties of the flavanols is their effect on blood vessels. When you bite into flavanol-rich dark chocolate or sip a hot cocoa, studies show it boosts blood flow and improves the function of arteries that carry blood and oxygen.


Studies show that the flavanols in dark chocolate may modestly improve brain function. Strangely enough, this bump up in blood flow may actually benefit your vision. 


An interesting study found that participants who consumed 720 milligrams of flavanols from dark chocolate scored better on tests of visual function that lasted for up to 2 hours.


In addition, there’s some evidence that the flavanols in dark chocolate and raw cacao powder may improve exercise endurance as well. How about a cup of hot cocoa before your next workout? 


All in all, you can see that dark chocolate is more complex than you might ever imagine! 


Organic Raw Cacao Powder: A Healthier Way to Get the Benefits of Dark Chocolate?


The problem with eating dark chocolate is it’s high in calories, and you can’t substitute milk chocolate for dark chocolate if you don’t like the taste.  You won’t get the same health benefits. To get the full health advantages, you need to consume dark chocolate with a cacao content of at least 70%. White chocolate won’t cut it either – it’s devoid of antioxidants.


What’s the problem with milk chocolate? The milk in milk chocolate interferes with the activity of the flavanols. So dark chocolate it is if you want a healthy heart. Unfortunately, some people find dark chocolate with a high cacao content to be bitter.


We’ve experimented a bit ourselves and gone as high as 90% cacao. A cacao content that high takes some getting used to, especially if you’re used to eating milk chocolate. It has a distinctly bitter taste. We finally settled on a dark chocolate bar with 71% cacao. It’s sweetened with Stevia and is not as bitter as the 90% cacao bars.


If you don’t like the bitterness of dark chocolate high in cacao, there’s another way to get the health benefits of dark chocolate. Use organic cacoa powder. Raw cacao powder is made by milling raw cacao beans at a temperature low enough to protect its nutrients and antioxidants.


Dark chocolate is also a good source of magnesium, a mineral important for heart health.


Unlike chocolate, it’s lower in calories and fat. It’s not the same as the cocoa powder you buy at most grocery stores. Many of these powders are “Dutch processed.” Dutch processing destroys most of the flavanols that make cocoa powder such a healthy choice.


Processing is particularly bad when it comes to chocolate. Way too destructive to those heart-friendly antioxidant flavanols. Heart-friendly antioxidant flavonols – try to say that fast! It’s a mouthful.


There are lots of sites proclaiming organic raw cacoa powder to be a superfood that cures all manner of problems. Sounds a little hypey! We’re not ready to give it magical or superhero powers at this point but believe adding it to your diet will help you get the health benefits of dark chocolate without the calories.


Here’s a look at the nutritional information on the back of our bag of organic raw cacao powder:


Serving size: 2.5 tbsp.
Calories: 60
Total Fat: 1.5 grams
Total Carbohydrates: 9 grams
Dietary Fiber: 4 grams
Sugar: 0 grams
Protein: 3 grams


Not a bad profile, especially when you compare it to dark chocolate. So what can you do with it?


Antioxidant Power


Another way dark chocolate leads the pack is its antioxidant content. In a study published in Chemistry Central Journal, researchers compared raw cacao with powder derived from a variety of so-called superfruits. The cacao powder came out ahead in terms of total flavanols as well as antioxidant power. 

How to Enjoy the Benefits of Raw Cacao


We begin the morning with a bowl of hot cereal, usually, steel-cut oats or quinoa, prepared in a slow cooker overnight. Then we top it off with nuts and almond milk, sometimes chia seeds, and always stir in a tablespoon of organic raw cacao powder to make chocolate oatmeal (or quinoa). We usually sweeten it with Stevia.


We also use organic raw cacao powder to make a healthy, low-calorie version of hot cocoa with almond milk and Stevia. Other ideas? Make chocolate smoothies, sprinkle cacao powder on dessert or add it to baked goods for an extra dose of antioxidants.


I’ve used it to make better-for-you brownies and chocolate muffins too. Another fun thing to do with it is dip strawberries into it. Yummy! You can also stir it into a cup of yogurt but the milk in the yogurt may negate some of the health benefits.


The key to getting the health benefits of organic raw cacao powder is to use non-dairy milk with it and a natural sweetener like Stevia instead of sugar.

Check out this healthy dessert made with cacao powder:


The Bottom Line?


Dark chocolate with a high cacao content is a heart-healthy treat. If you find dark chocolate to be too bitter or simply don’t want the calories, you can get some of the benefits by adding organic raw cacao to your breakfast cereal or next homemade smoothie. It’s a different and low-calorie way to get the health benefits of dark chocolate.


When you eat three ounces of dark chocolate, you’re getting around 450 calories. Three ounces of raw cacoa powder has only about 150 calories. That’s a big difference! Not to mention cacao powder is raw and unprocessed, as long as you choose one that is.


If you eat dark chocolate instead, look for a bar that has 6 grams of sugar or less or one that’s sweetened with Stevia and don’t overdo it. In this case, healthy doesn’t mean low in calories.


Another thing to keep in mind. Dark chocolate contains a small amount of caffeine but it also contains theobromine, a chemical that hypes some people up. That’s why it’s not a good idea to eat dark chocolate around bedtime. Enjoy it in the morning instead. Great way to start the day, right?


Watch Out for Contaminants!


We don’t like to think of heavy metals being in something as luscious as dark chocolate and raw cacao, but when an independent testing firm analyzed a variety of brands of raw cacao powders, they found heavy metal contamination in a significant number. Some even contained the heavy metal cadmium, a dangerous heavy metal that your body has little capacity to eliminate. 


So, choose your cacao powder wisely and don’t overdo it. It’s better to eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods rather than focusing on a few foods that you think have special health benefits. Another option is to buy cacao nibs rather than the powder. Testing found significantly lower quantities of cadmium in the nibs as opposed to the powder. 


Cacao nibs add a nice crunch to a bowl of hot oatmeal and most contain no added sugar. So, enjoy in moderation! 


References: “Dark Chocolate ‘Treats’ Vasculature, but Added Flavanols Don’t Help” “More Evidence Dark Chocolate Is Cardioprotective”
Am J Clin Nutr March 2005 vol. 81 no. 3 611-614
Psych Central. “Chocolate and Mood Disorders”
Scientific American. “Is Cocoa the Brain Drug of the Future?”
Physiol Behav. 2011 Jun 1;103(3-4):255-60.
Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013 Mar; 75(3): 716–727.
Berkeley Wellness. “Is There Cadmium in Your Cocoa?”
Chemistry Central Journal 20115:5.


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Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.