Nutrition Diva

Cocoa vs cacao: which is healthier?

Episode Summary

The health benefits attributed to chocolate stem mostly from compounds known as cocoa flavanols—antioxidants that are unique and specific to the cacao bean.

Episode Notes

You’ll pay a lot more for powdered cacao than for cocoa powder. Is it worth it? 

Nutrition Diva is hosted by Monica Reinagel. A transcript is available at Simplecast.

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Episode Transcription

Hello and welcome to the Nutrition Diva podcast. I’m your host, Monica Reinagel, and today’s topic is a tasty one, suggested by Jane. She writes: 

“With colder weather approaching in the Northeast, I make a lot of hot chocolate (from scratch). I would like to know if powdered cacao has more antioxidants than cocoa powder. There is a big difference in price. Is it worth paying extra for powdered cacao?”

The health benefits attributed to chocolate stem mostly from compounds known as cocoa flavanols—antioxidants that are unique and specific to the cacao bean. 

These flavanols have been linked to reduced blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation. They can increase your insulin sensitivity, which improves your body’s ability to regulate your blood sugar and can help prevent Type 2 diabetes, and may also improve blood flow to the brain, which may help protect cognitive function as we age. There’s also research to suggest that regular intake of these flavanols can improve the texture and structure of your skin! And if all of that weren’t enough, chocolate contains compounds that make you feel happier. 

The only potential fly in the cocoa butter is that most people get their cocoa flavanols primarily in the form of chocolate, which also contains a fair amount of sugar, fat, and calories along with those health-promoting antioxidants. Cocoa powder and powdered cacao, on the other hand, are both quite low in sugar and fat. And the difference between them lies in how they are processed. 

Cacao requires a lot of processing. The first step is to remove the cacao beans from the fleshy pods that they grow in. This pulp is also edible, by the way, but it tastes more fruity than chocolatey. 

At this point in the processing, the cacao beans are quite astringent. In order to render them edible, they need to first be fermented and dried. The beans are then cracked and shelled, leaving the cacao nibs, which are roasted to reduce the bitterness and deepen the flavor.  

The final step is to separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids, which are then ground into cocoa powder. A further processing step involved treating the cocoa powder with an alkalizing agent. Alkalized cocoa is often referred to as “Dutch” cocoa, after the Dutchman who invented the process.  

Raw cacao is not truly raw (that would be inedible) but it is processed at very low temperatures. That preserves more of the cocoa flavanols, but also affects the flavor profile. Raw cacao powder will be more bitter and less “chocolatey” in flavor than cocoa powder made from roasted beans. The Dutching process removes even more of those bitter compounds. 

However, the roasting and alkalizing processes destroy some of the antioxidant content as well.  Raw cacao will be highest in antioxidants, Dutch cocoa is the lowest, and regular cocoa powder is somewhere in between. 

These three ingredients are not interchangeable. You may really enjoy the flavor of raw cacao. But if you’re using recipes that call for cocoa powder, be aware that substituting raw cacao is going to give you a much different result. By the same token, if your recipe calls for Dutch cocoa, substituting regular cocoa powder will also affect the end product. 

For making homemade hot chocolate, I personally think you’ll get the best balance of flavor and health benefits from regular (not Dutch) cocoa powder, rather than powdered cacao. Many (if not most) of the health benefits that have been observed with the consumption of chocolate did not involve raw cacao powder. Even if some antioxidants are destroyed, there are evidently enough left to provide a lot of benefits.

It’s similar to the situation with vegetables. Yes, cooking can reduce the amount of certain nutrients in fresh vegetables. (For that matter, so can freezing, drying, washing, or even just storing fresh vegetables.) But there are still plenty of nutrients left! So, instead of worrying about nutrient losses, I suggest that you prepare your vegetables however you (and your family) enjoy them most. That’s likely to result in eating more vegetables, which is ultimately going to have a bigger impact on your nutrient intake than how they are prepared.

Most people rarely use cocoa powder for anything besides making hot chocolate, brownies, or chocolate frosting. But there are a lot more ways to incorporate this healthy ingredient into your meal plans—in ways that don’t increase your sugar intake.

I’d like to suggest moving your cocoa powder from the shelf where you keep your baking ingredients and putting it where you keep your spices instead. Thinking of cocoa powder as a spice opens up a whole new world of uses. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. Cocoa + chile peppers. Central American cuisine often combines unsweetened chocolate with hot chili peppers. This is the basis for a classic mole sauce. But you can also just throw a spoonful of unsweetened cocoa powder into your favorite chili recipe. 

2. Cocoa spice rubs. Dry spice rubs offer an alternative to wet marinades for meat. They add flavor and also help prevent the formation of harmful compounds when meat is grilled. Try combining cocoa powder, black pepper, kosher salt, and freshly ground coffee beans for a dark and complex spice rub for a pork or beef tenderloin. 

3. Cocoa + beans. Try adding a spoonful of cocoa powder to black bean soup for an unexpected treat. This works equally well with soup out of the can or homemade. You can also stir cocoa powder into bean dip or refried beans to excellent effect.

4. Cocoa + balsamic. The bitterness of cocoa powder pairs brilliantly with the sweetness of balsamic vinegar. Try whisking some cocoa powder into a good aged balsamic and then drizzling in some walnut oil for a homemade vinaigrette. It’s especially good over a roasted beet salad—or (dare I say it?) over vanilla ice cream.

5. Cocoa + curry. Curry powder typically includes turmeric, cumin, ginger, and other assertive flavors. Cocoa’s slightly bitter astringency fits right in and adds an unexpected twist. Try mixing a little cocoa powder into your curry powder. It would be particularly good in a curried eggplant dish.

And finally, if you do choose to get some of your flavanols from good old-fashioned chocolate, here’s a tip: Most people assume that the higher the cacao percentage of the chocolate, the better it is for you. Not necessarily! As with gourmet coffee, you can now buy gourmet dark chocolate with a pedigree that specifies where the beans were grown. On average, cocoa beans grown in Ecuador, Colombia, and on the Ivory Coast have almost twice the flavanol content of beans from the Dominican Republic or Peru.

If you have a question you'd like me to answer, you can email me at You can also leave me a message at 443-961-6206

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Nutrition Diva is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. It's audio-engineered by Nathan Semmes with script editing by Adam Cecil. Thanks also to Morgan Christianson, Holly Hutchings,  Davina Tomlin, and Kamryn Lacy.