Various kinds of cacao products

6 Healthy Cacao Recipe Ideas

Chocolate's health benefits can be confusing. Many of us have heard that dark chocolate is "healthy," but you probably don't think of a brownie as health food—and as a registered dietitian, I'm happy to say that's a safe assumption! Unless of course you're making a black bean brownie version to make them more nutritious! So how can a food that is billed as good-for-you also be the starring ingredient in high-calorie and sugar-dense desserts that belong on your only-enjoy-sparingly list?

I'm happy to spill the beans about the cacao beans that are used to make chocolate…and to share six of my favorite dessert ideas that indeed are both healthier options and decadent!

What is cacao?

Cacao beans and powder which have many health benefits

Cacao beans, also called cocoa beans, are the seeds from the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree. The beans are fermented before being processed into their constitutes, which include nibs, liquor, solids, butter and powder. Cocoa liquor is what is referred to as "percent cacao" on food packaging and the proportion of cocoa liquor in the final product determines how dark the chocolate is. The higher and darker, the healthier!

Cacao powder vs. cocoa powder

So how is cacao different from the cocoa you use to make hot chocolate? Unlike cocoa powder, which is processed at very high temperatures, cacao beans destined to become cacao powder and cacao nibs are processed at low temperatures.

Due to the differences in processing, cacao has more bitterness but retains more of the bean's original nutritional value, including flavonoid antioxidants, making it a healthier alternative for recipes that call for cocoa powder. A high-quality cacao powder is a staple in any healthy pantry.

Nutrition facts about cacao

Cacao contains fiber and a variety of minerals. It also contains macronutrients such as protein, 0 g of sugar and a small amount of fat—about 1 g per one tablespoon serving. Here is a look at some of the micronutrients you can get from cacao:

  • Calcium
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium and more!

Cacao’s health benefits

Woman sitting on the floor eating chocolate mousse from a jar

All these nutrients can mean only one thing—that there is truth to the rumors that chocolate (in its cacao form) is "healthy"! Here are all the ways cacao benefits your heart, body and mind… and even your appearance!

Cacao is good for your heart

Multiple clinical studies demonstrate that cacao (or cocoa) benefits cardiovascular health. Chocolate consumption is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Researchers have identified specifically how it can be beneficial to the heart:

  • Reduction of blood pressure (BP)
  • Improvement of vascular function
  • Modulation of lipid and glucose metabolism
  • Reduction of platelet aggregation
  • Activating and increasing bioavailability of nitric oxide (NO)

According to a review of studies about cacao published in the Journal of Frontiers in Nutrition: "These potentially beneficial effects have been shown in healthy subjects as well as in patients with risk factors (arterial hypertension, diabetes and smoking) or established CVD (coronary heart disease or heart failure)." So, it's never too late to start consuming cacao!

Your brain on cacao

Studies show that cacao benefits the brain by supporting executive function and memory. A retrospective study suggested that cocoa polyphenols seem to slow the progression of mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

Need a pick-me-up? If you need your chocolate fix, it may be a good thing. Cocoa appears to have significant mood-boosting effects.

How cacao may help diabetics

Researchers investigated the role of cocoa flavonoids in people with type 2 diabetes and found that it can be beneficial for:

  • Enhancing insulin secretion
  • Improving insulin sensitivity in peripheral tissues
  • Exerting a lipid-lowering effect
  • Preventing oxidative and inflammatory damage

Before reaching for any bold conclusions like, "Chocolate bars are good for diabetes!" here is an important note from these researchers: "While it could be suggested that daily consumption of flavanols from cocoa or dark chocolate would constitute a potential preventive tool useful for the nutritional management of T2D, this recommendation should be cautious since most of commercially available soluble cocoa products or chocolates contain low amount of flavanols and are rich in sugar and calories that may aggravate glycemic control in T2D patients." So in other words, skip the KitKats and stick with cacao powder!

Smooth taste; smoother skin

According to one study, consumption of high-flavanol cocoa for 12 weeks demonstrated decreased skin roughness and scaling compared to low-flavanol cocoa.

In addition, dietary flavanols from cocoa have been shown to contribute to:

  • Endogenous photoprotection (protecting skin from the sun)
  • Improved dermal (skin) blood circulation
  • Cosmetically relevant skin surface and skin hydration

6 healthy cacao dessert recipe ideas

You can easily swap cocoa powder for cacao powder in many of your favorite dessert recipes. Just keep in mind that cacao has more naturally occurring bitterness compared to cocoa, so you might want to add a little stevia to sweeten the taste.

Ready to get cooking with cacao? Here are 6 nutritious and delicious recipe ideas that use cacao powder, cacao nibs, and dark chocolate.

1. Frozen hot chocolate

A glass of frozen hot chocolate

Ok, so maybe it's actually a glorified version of smoothie, but with a fun name that contradicts itself, frozen hot chocolate is the perfect way to make a healthier version of hot chocolate (using a homemade cacao powder mix) suitable for the summer heat. You can also use cacao powder to make a cold glass of chocolate milk! Just combine cacao with ice and your favorite milk or non-dairy beverage, then stir!

2. Acai bowl with cacao nibs

Woman eating acai bowl with cacao nibs

I love acai bowls and one of my favorite versions is topped with bananas, honey, crushed peanuts and cacao nibs for texture. The star ingredient of the base is antioxidant-rich acai berries blended with other fruits or juices.

3. Avocado chocolate mousse

Avocado chocolate mousse in a glass

Avocado is creamy due to its high fat content, including nutritious types of unsaturated fat. This makes the perfect base for chocolate mousse. Simply mash it with cacao powder, and optionally add stevia or another healthy sweetener to taste.

4. Cacao-dusted truffle balls

Cacao-dusted truffle balls in a bowl

For a rich, bite-sized treat, make truffle balls by combining dark chocolate with cream, coconut milk, or avocado and coat with cacao powder for a velvety looking finish. If you're looking for a heartier snack instead of a dessert, you can also make these into energy balls with oatmeal, dates and chopped nuts of choice!

5. Chocolate ice cream

Three scoops of chocolate ice cream in a bowl

We all scream for good old-fashioned ice cream! Use cacao powder to give yours a more nutritious edge. Check out this vegan chocolate ice cream recipe from Food & Wine.

6. Coconut cacao bars

Coconut filled cacao bars broken in half

Chocolate and coconut—talk about a decadent combination. Make a homemade candy bar for a more wholesome tropical treat.

About the Author: Holli Ryan is a food & nutrition expert, registered & licensed dietitian-nutritionist, health & wellness writer, blogger, and social media specialist. She graduated from Florida International University and is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In her free time she enjoys photography, travel, cooking, art, music, and nature.


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