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This article answers questions such as: what is cocoa powder, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, cocoa beans, cocoa nibs, cocoa liquor, what are the health benefits and health promoting components of cocoa solids and why cocoa butter has no health benefits. It also explains the difference between cocoa and cacao definitions.
What is cocoa? Cocoa vs Cacao
There is a lot of confusion regarding the words cocoa and cacao. The following are the origins of these two terms: (1)
- Theobroma cacao is a tree native to America. The tree bears cacao pods with between 20 and 60 seeds, known as beans;
- The word “Theobroma” comes from Greek language and means “food of the gods”;
- The word “cacao” was adopted by Spanish colonisers from indigenous Mesoamerican languages of American Indian cultures. It sounded like Kakaw/Kagaw/Cacahuatl depending on the culture;
- The word “cacao” continues to be used in Spanish language;
- The word “cocoa” is a common name for cacao and is used mostly in English speaking countries;
- Currently in English speaking countries both words “cocoa” and “cacao” are used intermittently;
- Recently the word cacao was adopted by certain groups to distinguish raw cocoa from roasted cocoa products.
The difference between cocoa and cacao
Scientists and non-scientists in English speaking countries use both terms intermittently to refer to the same: tree, beans, powder, liquor, butter etc.
Recently, many chocolate producers and various groups, such as raw vegans or paleo enthusiasts, adopted their own meaning mainly to distinguish between raw, unprocessed beans and processed beans (e.g. roasted).
Since the differences of these terms are not officially agreed on, the meaning depends on the context and author.
Please note that the “Cocoa %” or “Cacao %” information that appears on some chocolate packaging refers to the “Cocoa Liquor”, which is a combination of non-fat cocoa solids and cocoa butter. (8)
- “Cacao” derives from ancient pre-Colombian languages and is used in Spanish language
- “Cocoa” derives from the word cacao and is currently used intermittently in English speaking countries.
- The term cacao has been recently adopted by some groups to describe raw cacao beans or their constituents and the term cocoa to describe processed cacao beans and products resulting from further processing.
- There is no common agreement and the meaning of the terms depend on the context and author.
What is cocoa powder?
Cocoa powder contains:
- Not less than 20% of cocoa butter of the dry matter weight (fat-reduced cocoa contains less than 20%);
- No more than 9% of water;
- Approximately 82% of non-fat cocoa solids (11);
Note: there are also variations of cocoa powder, such as powdered chocolate, drinking chocolate and fat-reduced drinking chocolate, that contain sugar and other ingredients.
The production of this product often involves an alkalization process, called Dutching, where cocoa nibs are treated with an alkaline solution. This process significantly destroys antioxidants.
It also alters the flavor and color of the product, making the chocolate appear darker, or of red/brown color.
- Cocoa powder is made by roasting and partially removing cocoa butter from the shelled beans
- Cocoa powder must have more than 20% of cocoa butter and maximum 9% of water
What are cocoa solids?
The definition of cocoa solids differs between some countries and various scientific sources.
Cocoa solids may refer to the dried cocoa beans (moisture-free) that either contain cocoa butter or have it removed.
The most unambiguous way of naming this product is used in Europe. In Europe, cocoa solids with most cocoa butter removed are called “Dry non-fat cocoa solids”, while cocoa solids with cocoa butter are called with either generic “Cocoa solids” or more specific “Total dry cocoa solids”. (9)
This website uses the specific name “dry non-fat cocoa solids” for clarity.
Cocoa solids can be contained in cocoa mass, cocoa, cocoa butter, cocoa liquor, cocoa nibs. (12)
- The meaning of cocoa solids depends on the country – it may mean dried (moisture free and with or without cocoa butter)
- To know what cocoa solids refers to, check the source origins for definition
What are cocoa nibs?
The first cocoa nibs as a snack that appeared on the market were made from roasted and fermented cocoa beans. Now, you can buy them raw, roasted, fermented or non-fermented.
Some sources distinguish raw cocoa nibs by calling them “cacao nibs”.
- Cocoa nibs are shelled, dried bits of cocoa beans. They can be raw, roasted, fermented or non-fermented.
What is cocoa liquor?
Cocoa liquor/ mass is the paste that is obtained by grinding shelled, dried, fermented, and roasted cocoa beans (or nibs).
It is used as a basis of the chocolate. Repeating the grinding process makes the final product smoother and finer.
Grinding cocoa beans yields approximately equal proportions of non-fat cocoa solids and cocoa butter (about 50-50).
Nevertheless, cocoa liquor can contain extra cocoa butter, which manufacturers add to increase the smoothness of the chocolate.
- Cocoa liquor is a paste made from roasted and fermented cocoa beans
What is cocoa butter?
Cocoa butter has an ivory color and can be stored for up to one year when solid, up to 6 months after refining, or up to 1 month in its liquid form, because liquid butter oxidizes quickly.
Extra cocoa butter is usually added to the cocoa liquor/mass during the chocolate production for a smoother texture and a less bitter taste.
- Cocoa butter is fat extracted from cocoa beans
Cocoa benefits and health-promoting components of cocoa solids
Non-fat cocoa solids are devoid of water, and are usually obtained by separating the cocoa butter from the cocoa seeds that have been previously shelled, dried, fermented and crushed.
These components are responsible for most of the health properties of dark chocolate.
There are roughly 380 known chemicals in cocoa solids. The following is a list of the main health promoting elements of non-fat cocoa solids and their function in human health:
Polyphenols and antioxidants in cocoa
- Proanthocyanidins (58%)
- Catechin (37%), most of which are epicatechins
- Anthocyanidins (4%)
In dark chocolate, polyphenols are mainly found in non-fat cocoa solids. (11)
The highest polyphenol and antioxidant concentrations are in the raw, unprocessed cocoa beans. However, they are not pleasant to eat due to their astringent taste (23).
Out of the processed cocoa products, the concentration of polyphenols and antioxidants depend on the proportion of non-fat cocoa solids in the product.
The following is a list of processed cocoa products listed from the highest to the lowest concentration of polyphenols and ORAC. Non-fat cocoa solids proportions are included in the brackets (11):
- Cocoa powder (82%)
- Baking chocolate (47%)
- Dark chocolate (23.5%)
- Semisweet chocolate chips (16.9%)
- Milk chocolate (6.2%)
- Chocolate syrup (6.2%)
For comparison, cocoa powder has approximately 4 times more non-fat cocoa solids, polyphenols, and antioxidant capacity than dark chocolate. (24)
- are antioxidant
- are anti-inflammatory
- induce vasodilation
- reduce platelet adhesion
- reduce blood pressure
- reduce insulin resistance
- improve fat metabolism
- are protective for skin health
- protect from oxidative stress
- may play an important role in strengthening the immune system and preventing cancer
- may have neuroprotective properties
Although chocolate is very rich in flavonoids, other foods which are consumed more than chocolate, contribute on average to more flavonoid intake: for instance, the proportion of flavonoids from tea is 26%, apples 17% and chocolate only 2%. (31)
Cocoa butter has only a small amount of the total polyphenol contents of chocolate. (32)
- Highest polyphenol and antioxidant concentrations are in the raw, unprocessed non-fat cocoa solids.
- Cocoa powder has the highest concentration of polyphenols of all cocoa products.
Fiber in cocoa
A 50g piece of dark chocolate (70-85%) contains 5.5g of fiber. (34).
Fiber has an important function in cardiovascular health. It is associated with reducing inflammation, improving the LDL:HDL ratio, lowering blood glucose and insulin, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and aiding in weight loss.
Fiber contains potassium and magnesium which help in decreasing blood pressure. (35)
- Cocoa is rich in insoluble fiber found mostly in non-fat cocoa solids
Caffeine in cocoa
On the other hand, for fast caffeine metabolizers (moderate to high coffee drinkers) about 400mg of caffeine is associated with an optimal cardiovascular health.
If you consume caffeinated foods and drinks regularly, it would be useful to add up all the caffeine consumed on a daily basis for optimal health.
- There is a small amount of caffeine in cocoa which may have negative effects on slow caffeine metabolizers, and positive effects on cardiovascular health of fast caffeine metabolizers
Theobromine in cocoa
Its chemical structure is similar to caffeine, but it does not cause some of the undesirable effects of caffeine.
Although not as much as caffeine, theobromine enhances mood and state of alertness, by inhibiting phosphodiesterases and blocking the adenosine receptors.
It may also have anti-tumoral, anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular protecting properties. This component also relaxes and smooths the muscles, and the contraction of the heart muscles.
However, more studies are needed that prove that eating theobromine rich chocolate has these effects. (36)
Effects on Cough – studies on 300mg extracts of theobromine have shown that they reduce cough in cases of acute bronchitis. Nevertheless, more studies are necessary to determine whether eating dark chocolate has a similar effect.
On the other hand, theobromine also may alleviate cough caused by capsaicin (spicy irritant in chilies). (36)
- Cocoa has high amounts of theobromine, a caffeine-like substance but without the undesirable effects.
- Theobromine is associated with anti-tumoral, anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular protective properties.
Mineral and vitamin contents in cocoa
Dark chocolate is a major source of six important minerals. These are displayed in the following list, ordered from the highest to the lowest recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for men and for women. (39)
- Copper – (0.9mg) 75% RDA for women, 53% RDA for men.
Copper is essential in production of energy in cells, building strong bones, tissues such as connective tissue, brain, heart, and is used in red blood cells production.
- Magnesium – (114mg) 36% RDA for women, 27% for men.
Magnesium is essential for energy production, protein and DNA formation and repair, contraction and relaxation of muscles and regulation of neurotransmitters.
- Iron – (6mg) 33% RDA for women, 75% RDA for men.
Iron is essential in the transport of oxygen in the blood, storing oxygen in muscles, is part of many enzymes involved in energy production and strengthening the immune system.
- Zinc – (1.7mg) 21% RDA for women, 12% RDA for men.
Zinc is necessary for the body’s immune system, plays a role in cell division, cell growth, carbohydrate metabolism, enhances the action of insulin, is essential in men’s reproductive health and is used in the healing of wounds.
- Manganese – (1mg) 20% RDA for women, 18% RDA for men
Manganese is used in bone and connective tissue formation, is essential in brain and nerve function, production of sex hormones, is used in metabolism of fat and carbohydrates and in blood sugar regulation.
- Phosphorus – (154mg) 15% RDA for both women and men.
Phosphorus is essential in bone and teeth formation and health, and plays an important role in how the body uses fats and carbohydrates. It is used in the repair of the tissues and growth, maintenance and repair of cells.
- Cocoa is a excellent source of six important minerals: copper, magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese and phosphorus
- Cocoa is generally low in vitamins
Beneficial components of cocoa butter
Eating cocoa butter doesn’t have a significant effect on health. Cocoa butter is mostly composed of three fatty acids, each weighing about 30% of the total fat content.
These fatty acids are:
- Oleic acid– monounsaturated fatty acids (as in olive oil) (34)
- Palmitic acid – saturated fatty acids
- Stearic acid – an unusual type of saturated fatty acid that has no significant impact on cholesterol and is not associated with plaque formation
This combination of fatty acids has little or no effect on the cardiovascular health. (42)
The process of making chocolate doesn’t involve high temperatures, so it retains the fatty acids found in raw cocoa beans.
- Cocoa butter is predominantly composed of fatty acids, with no significant health effects.
NUTRITION FACTS VS NUTRITION MYTHS
You will find a summary of the most common nutrition myths and evidence-based nutrition facts here.