Do you also love chocolates? I love the dark ones, especially those which are at least 80%! Yum!
I remember we used to have a cacao tree in our home when I was a child. We picked their fruits and ate them as our afternoon snack.
Have you ever wondered what cacao is: how it is processed, its health benefits, its different by-products, how to best use it, and what you want to become aware of in consuming it? This article is your ultimate guide to know more.
What is Cacao?
Cacao refers to the Theobroma Cacao tree. Theobroma means “food for the Gods,” from the Greek words theo (god) and broma (food) – a god-given gift to earth. It is the term used when referring to unprocessed versions of the cacao bean, and is primarily used for the production of chocolate and cocoa by processing its beans.
Its taste, which is generally very bitter, depends on the variety of the plant, and its soil, temperature, sunlight, topography, and rainfall received during the growing process. The same variety could taste different when grown in a different region, as the soil will differ based on other crops in the area. All these factors play a role in the resulting character of the chocolate.
Our Local Cacao
Cacao was introduced to the Philippines by Spanish colonizers, who brought the seeds of the cacao variety criollo from Central America and Northern America to each of their colonies four centuries ago. Our country became an identical cultivation ground for cacao due to our tropical rainforest climate.
The current key production areas of Cacao in the country are Batangas, Cebu, and Davao, with Davao referred to as “The Cacao Capital of the Philippines” accounting for 81% of the annual production according to the Philippines Statistic Authority.
In terms of location and climate, the Philippines has all the essentials for the optimum development of cacao trees. Our average rainfall is about 2,000mm/6.5 feet per year which is within the 1,500mm-2,000mm rainfall requirement. Also, our average humidity is 75% which is preferred by cacao trees. We are located within the cacao belt, which is the narrow 20-degree ban on both sides of the equator.
The tropical, earthy, nutty and sweet flavor that the Philippine cacao is known for around the world is because it is grown in proximity to an array of local produce such as coconut, calamansi, durian, mangoes, banana, papaya, pineapple, and our other tropical fruits.
Cacao vs Cocoa: What is the Difference
Have you been confused between cacao and cocoa? Can we interchange these two in our recipes? Which is healthier?
These two products share the same origin which is the cacao bean. Their main differences are the way they are processed and the heat which results in differences in terms of taste, nutritional benefits, and quality.
Both cocoa and cacao start from cacao beans which are fermented to develop flavor and texture. The next processes are their differences.
- Cacao is made from fermented beans that have not been roasted, and are processed at low temperatures. The result is a bitter flavor and higher nutritional content.
- Cocoa, on the other hand, is made from beans that are both fermented and roasted, and then processed at a much higher temperature. The result is a less and slightly darker powder that has lost some of its nutritional value. It is milder and less bitter. Regular cocoa powders may have been chemically processed and roasted as well.
Thus, if available and workable as your ingredient, cacao is the healthier choice. You can substitute cocoa powder with cacao powder in recipes but you’ll probably want to use less of it because it tastes stronger and more bitter. Cacao powder is also more absorbent, so you might increase all liquid ingredients you’re using. But, do so carefully until you achieve your desired consistency.
Cacao Products: Powder, Tablea and Nibs
Let’s get to know each of these cacao products.
Cacao Powder is the cacao that is fermented, unroasted, and then milled into a powder. It is what remains of a cacao bean once the cocoa butter has been extracted from it.
Cacao Tablea is the roasted, ground, and molded nibs of fermented pure cacao beans without added ingredients and additives. They are commonly molded into blocks, balls, discs, or tablets. This is traditionally used in the Philippines to make a hot chocolate beverage or “tsokolate” using a wooden mixing implement or stirrer.
Cacao Nibs are the small pieces of the crushed cacao beans that have been dried and fermented. They are dark brown, hard in texture, and look like smashed coffee beans.
Nutritional Value and Health Benefits of Cacao Products
Here’s a table comparing the nutritional value of each of the different cacao products covered in this article.
|Total Fat (g)
|Carbohydrates, Total (g)
|Dietary Fiber (g)
Sources: Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Philippines and US Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service
Between cacao and cocoa powder, the cacao contains more nutrients and minerals based on a gram per gram comparison. Cacao is healthier, raw, and minimally processed. So if it’s available, I recommend using it over cocoa.
1. Reduces Risk of Cardiovascular Disease by Having a Healthy Heart
Cacao is rich in flavanols which helps maintain the elasticity of the blood vessels and arteries to supports healthy blood flow. This is particularly crucial to our organs, bodily processes, and overall health. It also lowers LDL (bad cholesterol) and raises HDL (good cholesterol) due to its high quantities of antioxidants which protect lipoproteins from oxidizing or reacting with free radicals.
2. Improves Mood, Reduce Anxiety and Makes One Feel Good
There is a science-backed reason why (dark) chocolate makes us happy.
Cacao has a mix of beneficial natural chemical compounds including serotonin, endorphins, phenylethylamine, tryptophan, tyrosine, and anandamide. All of these compounds have been proven to naturally elevate mood, and create feelings of bliss and happiness.
3. Improves Cognitive Function and It’s Good for the Brain
Cacao is considered as food for the brain. The flavanols in cacao that influence the production of nitric oxide have been shown to relax the arteries, and increase blood flow and supply to the brain. This results in an improvement in cognitive function and ability.
Aside from these three, there still are several health benefits in consuming cacao which includes the following: it reduces inflammation, improves symptoms of diabetes, aids in weight control, helps people with asthma, improves teeth and skin, improves digestive function, gut health and bowel regularity, and it prevents premature aging.
A 2017 meta-analysis concluded that consuming chocolate in moderation which is a maximum of six servings a week, is associated with decreased risks of coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Take note that one serving was defined as 30 grams of chocolate.
The Healthiest Ways to Enjoy Cacao
Cacao Powder. This can be added to smoothies, sprinkled over fresh fruit, used to make hot chocolate, and as an ingredient to make brownies and other baked products. Here are some of the healthiest recipes you could try:
- No Bake Salted Chocolate Fudge Protein Bars – by Hummus Sapien
- Chocolate Coconut Granola– by Everyday Healthy Recipes
- Maca, Almond Butter & Cacao Overnight Oats– by Blissful Basil
Cacao Nibs. This can be used as an ingredient to muffins, ice creams, desserts, granola, and smoothies. Here are some of the healthiest recipes you could try;
- No-Bake Cacao Nib Brownies– by Humble Market
- Chunky Coco Monkey Ice Cream– by Vegu Kate
- Triple Chocolate Chia Pudding– by Choosing Chia
Tablea. Of course, we use the tablea for our tsokolate, our local version of hot chocolate. The traditional way of preparing it uses only the tablea and water, and with whisking. Milk and sugar may be added. Here are some recipes you could try:
- Tsokolate de Batirol– by Kawaling Pinoy
- Dark Chocolate Gelato– by Fully Freely Lesley
- Forbidden Rice Champorado– by Sinfully Sabrina
Remember: take everything in moderation. This is a nutrition and diet rule which also applies to consuming cacao products. When eaten in large quantities and frequently, it may cause potential side effects.
Cacao contains stimulants: caffeine and theobromine. Caffeine, which is also in coffee, can negatively affect sleep. So, make sure to consume cacao during the earlier part of the day, especially if you are sensitive to caffeine. On the other hand, theobromine, together with caffeine, can cause sleeplessness, anxiety, an abnormal heart rhythm and heartburn. No need to worry about this if you’re consuming cacao in normal amounts.
Those who have chocolate allergies must avoid cacao or any of its by-products.
Small quantities are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
It is best to consult with your doctor, nutritionist, or any health professional if you feel any side effects in consuming cacao or if you have any health conditions.
Cacao is a healthy food that you can add to your diet. It is our local product, a plant food, and is packed with nutrients, natural chemical compounds, and antioxidants which results in so many health benefits for our body. However, just like most of the foods, consume in moderation and with precaution.
If ever possible, choose cacao over cocoa. It’s healthier and you’ll get more of the nutrients of cacao beans because it is less processed and containes a higher nutritional content than cocoa.
Consume cacao in its different forms: nibs, powder, tablea, and butter. It’s interesting to know that there are so many different ways to enjoy them beyond our traditional tsokolate or hot chocolate, and my personal favorite: super dark chocolates.
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