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Is Cacao Powder Bad For You?

Also Known As: Cocoa powder



Short answer

Cacao powder is rich in nutrients and antioxidants, offering health benefits such as improved heart health and cognitive function. However, balance and moderation are key due to its calorie, caffeine, and potential heavy metal content. It's safe for most people when consumed as part of a diverse diet but beware of the risks if you have caffeine sensitivity or are concerned about heavy metals.



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Long answer

Nutritional Profile of Cacao Powder

Cacao powder, derived from cacao beans, is a highly nutritious food ingredient known for its rich flavor and health benefits. The nutritional value of cacao powder can vary depending on the processing methods and the specific product, but generally, it is packed with an impressive range of nutrients. Understanding the nutritional profile of cacao powder allows us to appreciate its potential benefits for our health.

Cacao is particularly renowned for its antioxidant content, including flavonoids and polyphenols, which contribute to reducing oxidative stress in the body. It is important to note that cacao refers to the minimally processed form of the cacao bean, which maintains a higher level of phytonutrients compared to more processed forms such as cocoa powder.

Here's a breakdown of the nutrients commonly found in one ounce (28 grams) of raw cacao powder:

  • Calories: 130-140 kcal
  • Fat: 1.5-2.5 grams, primarily consisting of healthy fats such as oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat.
  • Fiber: 6-9 grams, which aids in digestion and satiety.
  • Sugars: Generally low in sugar, often less than 1 gram.
  • Protein: 5-6 grams, including essential amino acids.
  • Iron: Approximately 3.6 mg or about 20% of the Daily Value (DV), making it a good plant-based source of this essential mineral.
  • Magnesium: Roughly 136 mg or about 34% of the DV, important for many bodily processes including nerve function and muscle relaxation.
  • Zinc: Close to 2 mg or around 13-18% of the DV, crucial for immune function and metabolism.
  • Phosphorus: About 123 mg or 12% of the DV, which plays a role in bone health and energy metabolism.
  • Flavanols: High concentrations are found in cacao powder, which are associated with cardiovascular health benefits.
  • Caffeine: Contains a small amount, roughly 12-25 mg, which can stimulate the central nervous system.
  • Theobromine: Typically in the range of 80-300 mg, a compound that has a mild stimulant effect and may help to widen blood vessels.

Additionally, cacao powder is a good source of certain vitamins, such as vitamin K, which plays a role in blood clotting, and B vitamins, which are essential for energy metabolism.

It's worth noting that these values can change based on the brand and the process of fermentation and drying the cacao beans undergo. Darker, less processed cacao powders tend to retain more nutrients and antioxidants. However, even with these healthful components, moderation is key due to the calorie and caffeine content.

Recent studies have indicated that cacao's flavonoids may exert a protective effect on heart health and improve cerebral blood flow, which can enhance cognitive function. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Nutrition concluded that flavanol-rich cacao consumption is associated with improvements in specific markers and biomarkers of cardiometabolic health.

Consumption of cacao powder should be thought of as part of a balanced diet. While it contains beneficial nutrients and antioxidants, it should not replace other nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

Antioxidants in Cacao: Health Benefits and Hype

The discussion of cacao as a health food often centers on its high antioxidant content. Antioxidants are vital compounds that protect the body from damage by free radicals, which can lead to cell damage and contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Cacao is particularly rich in flavonoids, a group of antioxidant phytonutrients that have been extensively studied for their health benefits.

In analyzing the benefits of cacao's antioxidants, several studies have shown promising results. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition highlights that the flavonoids in cacao can improve vascular function and lower blood pressure. Moreover, these antioxidants have been linked to a reduction in "bad" LDL cholesterol, potential protection against neurodegenerative diseases, and could have antidiabetic effects as indicated by research in the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

However, it's not all hype-free sailing. The antioxidant levels can vary widely depending on how the cacao powder is processed. Natural cacao powder (less processed) retains more antioxidants compared to Dutch-processed or alkalized versions, which undergo treatment to neutralize cacao's natural acidity and often have reduced antioxidant content.

Another point to consider is bioavailability, the degree and rate at which these antioxidants are absorbed and used by the body. Not all consumed flavonoids are fully absorbed, prompting the question of how much cacao one should consume to gain the health benefits. As noted by experts in a paper for the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, bioavailability varies based on individual metabolism and the overall composition of one's diet.

Furthermore, the antioxidant capacity of cacao is often compared to other foods like blueberries and green tea. Here is a brief comparison:

Food Antioxidant Score (ORAC value)
Cacao Powder (natural) 95,500 μmol TE/100g
Blueberries 4,669 μmol TE/100g
Green Tea 1,253 μmol TE/100g

Based on the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) value, which measures the effectiveness of antioxidants in foods, cacao powder appears superior. However, there's an ongoing debate on the accuracy of ORAC in reflecting a food's health benefit, as it does not consider bioavailability and metabolism in the human body.

While the antioxidants in cacao are often associated with a myriad of health benefits, it's important to approach these claims with a nuanced understanding. Overemphasis on a single nutrient disregards the complexity of whole foods and dietary patterns. It is also essential to note that consuming cacao in its raw, powder form is different from consuming processed chocolate products, which can be high in sugar and fat. To fully reap the benefits of cacao's antioxidants without the downsides, integrating cacao powder into a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is recommended.

Potential Heavy Metal Contamination in Cacao Products

When considering the health implications of consuming cacao powder, it's important to address a concern that has been increasingly discussed in health circles: the potential for heavy metal contamination in cacao products. Heavy metals such as lead and cadmium can be present in cacao beans due to various environmental factors including soil composition, air quality, and agricultural practices.

Studies have shown that these contaminants can find their way into the final cacao products during cultivation, harvest, fermentation, drying, and other processing stages. The European Food Safety Authority has identified that cadmium contamination is of particular concern in cocoa because the cacao tree absorbs and accumulates the heavy metal from the soil in significant amounts.

An analysis of the health risks linked to heavy metal ingestion is alarming. Chronic exposure to these metals has been associated with adverse health effects including:

  • Kidney damage
  • Bone weakness (in the case of cadmium)
  • Developmental issues in children (particularly with lead)
  • Nervous system and cognitive impairments
  • Increased risk of cancer

To mitigate these risks, stringent regulations have been put in place in various countries. For instance, the European Union has established maximum levels for cadmium in cacao products. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not set specific limits for heavy metals in cacao, it does oversee and regulate levels of these contaminants in food to ensure they are safe for consumption.

Consumers are advised to:

  • Opt for cacao products from reputable brands that regularly test their products for heavy metals.
  • Limit intake of cacao products if they are concerned about heavy metal exposure, especially at-risk groups like children and pregnant women.
  • Consider diversifying the sources of cacao products to avoid overexposure from a single origin that might have high heavy metal soil content.

For those deeply concerned about this issue:

Steps for Caution Details
Investigate Brand Practices Look into the sourcing, testing, and processing practices of cacao product manufacturers.
Seek Certification Labels Some labels indicate testing for heavy metals, like the USDA Organic or Fair Trade certifications.
Consultation With Health Professionals If there’s a concern for heavy metal exposure, healthcare providers can offer testing and guidance.

While cacao itself has many health benefits due to its rich antioxidant profile, it's crucial for consumers to be aware of the potential for heavy metal contamination. Being informed about the sources and risks of heavy metals in cacao products can help individuals make safer dietary choices.

Cacao and Caffeine Sensitivity: Recognizing the Limits

Cacao powder, heralded for its rich flavor and nutritional benefits, contains naturally occurring stimulants, including caffeine and theobromine. For individuals with caffeine sensitivity, even small amounts of caffeine can cause noticeable effects, ranging from mild discomfort to more severe reactions.

Understanding Caffeine Sensitivity

Caffeine sensitivity is determined by how efficiently the body metabolizes caffeine. Those who metabolize it slower may experience prolonged effects of caffeine, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Jitters or shakiness
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Nervousness
  • Anxiety
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances

Cacao's Caffeine Content

Compared to coffee and tea, cacao powder contains a lower caffeine concentration—ranging from about 12-25 milligrams per tablespoon, according to a study published in the journal Food Chemistry. This is notably less than what you'd find in a standard cup of coffee, which typically contains 95-200 milligrams.

Theobromine and Its Impact

Aside from caffeine, cacao contains theobromine, a similar yet milder stimulant. While theobromine can increase heart rate and invoke feelings of alertness, it does not affect the central nervous system as strongly as caffeine. Nevertheless, the presence of theobromine can synergistically enhance the sensations produced by caffeine—this is particularly relevant for people with sensitivities to stimulants.

Recognizing Personal Limits

It's crucial for those with caffeine sensitivity to understand their limits and monitor their reactions when consuming cacao powder. A report from Psychopharmacology recommends observing individual thresholds to avoid negative physiological and psychological reactions.

  • Start with small amounts of cacao powder and note any adverse effects
  • Periods of abstinence may help in resetting sensitivity levels
  • Maintain a consistent intake to avoid sporadic reactions

Consulting with Health Professionals

Those concerned with their reactions to caffeine should consult with a dietitian or healthcare provider for personalized advice. A professional can also offer guidance on alternative sources for comparable health benefits without the stimulant effects.

Balancing Cacao Consumption with Caloric and Sugar Intake

When considering the addition of cacao powder to your diet, an important factor to account for is its caloric content and potential sugar intake. Cacao itself is rich in nutrients and antioxidants, but it's essential to understand how to incorporate it into a balanced diet without overconsumption of calories and sugars, which could negate its health benefits.

Here's what you need to know about balancing your intake:

  • Caloric Density: Cacao powder is relatively high in calories due to its fat content, with roughly 196 calories and 12 grams of fat per ounce. To avoid unwanted weight gain, ensure you account for these calories within your daily intake goals.
  • Natural Sugars vs. Added Sugars: Pure cacao is naturally low in sugar. However, many cacao products on the market have added sugars, which can substantially increase the total sugar content. Always check the label to differentiate between pure cacao powder and cacao products that may contain added sweeteners.
  • Serving Size Awareness: Practice portion control by measuring out serving sizes rather than estimating to prevent inadvertent overconsumption.
  • Recipe Adjustments: When using cacao powder in recipes, consider reducing the amount of added sugar since the cacao itself imparts a rich, chocolatey flavor. Experiment with natural sweeteners, such as dates or banana puree, for a healthier twist.
  • Product Choice: Select cacao powders that are unsweetened and non-alkalized (non-Dutched) to maximize the health benefits. The alkalizing process can diminish the antioxidant properties of cacao.
  • Total Daily Intake: Monitor overall chocolate and cacao consumption throughout the day, especially if you consume other chocolate products. This can help manage total caloric and sugar intake.

To illustrate how cacao powder fits into a daily dietary pattern, here's an example for better understanding:

Serving Size Calories Total Fat Sugar
1 ounce cacao powder (approx. 28g) 196 12g 1.8g

Consider this information while planning meals or snacks that include cacao powder to maintain a balanced diet. Remember, while cacao has numerous potential health benefits due to its flavonoids and antioxidant properties, the key is moderation and awareness of its place within your overall nutritional intake.

For those with specific dietary goals or restrictions, such as low-sugar or weight management plans, consulting a dietitian or healthcare provider is recommended to tailor cacao consumption to individual needs. This personalized approach ensures that the addition of cacao to your diet contributes positively to your health objectives without unintended consequences.

The Debate: Raw Cacao vs. Traditional Cocoa Processing

Embarking on the cacao versus cocoa journey, it's essential to distinguish between raw cacao and traditionally processed cocoa. These two forms stem from the same plant, Theobroma cacao, but undergo different processes that affect their nutritional profiles and health implications.

Raw Cacao: Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing unroasted cacao beans. This process preserves more of the beans' natural enzymes, antioxidants, and nutrients. Advocates for raw cacao argue that it retains a higher level of flavonoids—compounds with potent antioxidant properties—compared to its roasted counterpart. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry supports this claim, indicating that raw cacao has a greater antioxidant capacity than processed cocoa.

  • Increased Antioxidant Content: Flavonoids such as epicatechin and catechin, present in higher levels in raw cacao, may contribute to reducing inflammation and improving heart health.
  • Enzyme Preservation: The low-temperature processing helps preserve enzymes that aid in digestion and nutrient absorption.
  • Potential Health Benefits: These may include improved cardiovascular and cognitive functions and better regulation of blood sugar levels.

However, it's worth noting some concerns regarding raw cacao. Being less processed, it might contain higher levels of naturally occurring toxins such as cadmium, a heavy metal found in the soil of cacao plants, which can lead to health issues over time if consumed in excess.

Traditional Cocoa Processing: Traditional cocoa processing involves roasting the cacao beans at high temperatures, which can reduce certain nutrients and enzymes. The beans are then ground into cocoa powder, which is often alkalized, or "Dutched," to neutralize the cocoa's acidity and improve flavor.

  • Nutrient Alteration: The roasting and alkalizing processes may diminish the antioxidant flavonoid content, though some minerals and fibers remain intact.
  • Improved Taste: The Dutching process creates a milder, less bitter flavor, which is preferred in baking and hot chocolate mixes.
  • Reduced Potential Toxins: The rigorous processing can reduce the presence of natural toxins and pathogens that might be present in raw cacao.

Despite the possible reduction in health-benefiting antioxidants, processed cocoa still contains beneficial compounds. According to research from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, even traditional cocoa can have cardiovascular benefits due to its remaining flavonoid content, albeit at lower levels than raw cacao.

The raw vs. processed debate is nuanced, encompassing factors from health benefits to culinary uses. While raw cacao is touted for its higher nutritional content, concerns over toxins and contaminants are valid. Conversely, traditional cocoa offers a safer, more versatile product with still significant health properties. Ultimately, the choice between raw cacao and traditionally processed cocoa can hinge on personal health goals, taste preferences, and tolerance for potential contaminants.

Consumers should weigh these factors when considering the inclusion of cacao or cocoa in their diet, and consult a healthcare provider for personalized advice, especially if they have existing health concerns. As the science evolves, so does our understanding of these complex food products, and maintaining an open mind is key for both consumers and experts alike.

Frequently asked questions

While cacao powder is nutrient-rich, excessive consumption can lead to potential risks such as increased heavy metal intake, especially cadmium, and the adverse effects of stimulants like caffeine and theobromine. It should be consumed in moderation alongside a balanced diet to avoid these risks.

Yes, cacao powder can often be substituted for cocoa powder in recipes. Since cacao powder is less processed, it might have a more intense flavor and higher nutrient profile. Adjust the quantity to taste and consider the additional bitterness cacao powder may impart.

Cacao powder generally contains a higher concentration of antioxidants, flavonoids, and nutrients since it's less processed than dark chocolate. Dark chocolate may contain added sugar and fat, reducing its overall health benefits. However, both can contribute to a balanced diet if consumed in moderation.

Cacao powder can be suitable for a ketogenic diet as it's low in sugars and carbohydrates but offers a substantial amount of fiber and healthy fats. Always check the label for added sugars and calculate its net carbs to ensure it fits within your daily macronutrient goals.

Ask a question about Cacao Powder and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • insomnia
  • jitters or shakiness
  • racing heartbeat
  • nervousness
  • anxiety
  • gastrointestinal disturbances

Possible long-term side effects

  • kidney damage
  • bone weakness (cadmium)
  • developmental issues in children (lead)
  • nervous system and cognitive impairments
  • increased risk of cancer

Ingredients to be aware of


  • high in antioxidants
  • cardiovascular health
  • improves cerebral blood flow
  • enhances cognitive function
  • reduces oxidative stress
  • rich in essential minerals and vitamins
  • potential protection against neurodegenerative diseases
  • antidiabetic effects
  • may improve vascular function and lower blood pressure
  • lowers 'bad' ldl cholesterol

Healthier alternatives

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

Navitas Cacao Powder

  • Rich in antioxidants
  • Non-GMO certified
  • Fair Trade compliant
  • Gluten-Free product
  • Organic ingredient
Learn More!

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 03-17-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 03-17-2024

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