What is Cacao?
Cacao is also known as the cocoa bean or the cacao bean. In spite of their identical origins and confusingly similar names, cacao and cocoa are two different products. Cacao is produced by cold pressing the dried cacao beans, so it is considered a "raw" product, while cocoa production involves roasting and crushing the beans. Like cocoa, cacao has a delicious flavour and has a number of culinary uses, but it has also gained a lot of recent interest for its health benefits.
Where Does Cacao Come From?
Cacao beans are found in the pods of a tree called Theobroma cacao, which is thought to be native to Central and South America, and the Caribbean. The seeds of this plant have been used to prepare food and drink for thousands of years. Today, the majority of the world's cacao and cocoa is grown in Western Africa and South America.
Cacao is produced by first harvesting ripened pods from the trees. Pods are cut open, and the cocoa beans and pulp are removed and left to sit for a few days, during which time the pulp ferments and liquefies, leaving the beans behind. The beans are then collected and fermented, with regular stirring, for anywhere between one day and one week, with raw cacao often subject to a shorter fermentation time (1-2 days) than beans that are destined for cocoa production (4-7 days). The fermented beans are then dried, either by the sun, or by using machinery. Cacao is made by grinding the beans at this stage.
There have been a number of health benefits attributed to cacao. Many of these benefits are common to both cacao and cocoa (raw and roasted cocoa beans).
Both cacao and cocoa are considered to be rich sources of antioxidants including resveratrol and epicatechin (1). Antioxidants protect the body from oxidative stress, and the antioxidants in cocoa and cacao have been implicated in cardiovascular health, reduction in cholesterol levels, and improvement in overall health outcomes (2).
The flavonoids in cocoa and cacao have been implicated in improvements in cognitive function (3), the prevention of insulin resistance (4), protection against inflammation, and they may offer support to the immune system (5).
Ironically, cacao and cocoa are thought to play a role in weight loss by increasing the number of energy-burning mitochondria in the cells. Cacao is a good source of many minerals, including magnesium, and as many people are aware, it is considered a natural mood booster (6).
Many people believe that the fact that cacao is a raw product gives it greater benefits than cocoa, including higher antioxidant content, better availability of minerals, and the presence of enzymes, which it is thought are deactivated by the heat required to manufacture cocoa.
Cacao Benefits for Bodybuilding
Because strenuous exercise generates free radicals, bodybuilders are regularly placing their bodies under oxidative stress. As a rich source of antioxidants, cacao can counteract these potentially damaging effects, speeding up recovery, and optimising muscle gains.
Increasing the number of mitochondria in the cells is not only beneficial for weight loss, but it also allows greater generation of energy within the muscles, which can promote greater strength and muscular endurance. Cacao is a rich source of magnesium, which is known as the 'muscle mineral' because it is a vital cofactor in a number of energy generating reactions, and the mood and mind boosting effects are a clear advantage during training.
Maintaining a healthy body is a prerequisite to bodybuilding success, and the many general health benefits of eating cacao are beneficial to everyone, including bodybuilders.
Cacao Negatives, Cons & Side Effects
While there is no doubt that cacao and cocoa are both beneficial foods, there is significant evidence that the benefits of consuming cacao in raw form have been overstated, and evidence that suggests roasted cocoa may even have greater benefits than raw cacao. Many people consider higher antioxidant levels to be the biggest endorsement for cacao over cocoa, but this claim has been contradicted by research suggesting that roasting enhances the free-radical scavenging ability of the cocoa bean polyphenols (7). In addition, the longer fermentation time used for cocoa beans is thought to play a role in the breakdown of antinutrients, which are chemicals that can inhibit the availability and absorption of beneficial nutrients in food. This means that many of the nutrients in cocoa are more usable by the body than those in cacao (8). On top of this, there is no scientific evidence for the presence of beneficial enzymes, which is often claimed as a health benefit of cacao and other raw foods.
Raw food crusader Jeremy Safron, who is credited with introducing cacao to the raw food movement, has since retracted his endorsement due to his beliefs that regular cacao consumption can cause mood swings and organ damage, although this has not been investigated scientifically.
Cacao is generally well received and has few side effects when eaten in moderate amounts. Cacao contains a small amount of caffeine, which means that when eaten in large amounts, it may cause effects including insomnia and agitation.
Cacao Dosage & Timing
A functional serving of cacao flavanols is considered to be between 500-1000mg per day. Because cacao is a natural product, the amount present in each extract can vary considerably, and because it is most often consumed as a food, there is no real 'official dosage'. People who use cacao typically consume 1-2 tablespoons per day, and it can be consumed at any time.
Cacao is becoming an increasingly popular ingredient, and it is commonly found in three main types of supplement – Superfood supplements, for its antioxidant properties, fat burners, for its weight loss potential, and pre-workouts, as a mild stimulant and mood enhancer. Cacao is also widely available as a standalone supplement/food item.
Cacao is popularly combined with other superfood ingredients. Recent research has shown that antioxidants may be more effective when stacked together. Due to its mode of action in facilitating weight loss by increasing mitochondrial numbers, it may be effective when stacked with L-carnitine, which transfers fatty acids to the mitochondria. Avoid taking cacao with mineral, calcium, or iron supplements, because these may competitively inhibit the absorption of magnesium.
(1)Schroeter H, Heiss C, Balzer J et al. (2006)."(-)-Epicatechin mediates beneficial effects of flavanol-rich cocoa on vascular function in humans". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 103 (4): 1024–9.
(2)Taubert D, Roesen R, Schömig E (April 2007). "Effect of cocoa and tea intake on blood pressure: a meta-analysis". Arch. Intern. Med. 167 (7): 626–34
(3)Messerli FH. "Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates". N Engl J Med 367: 1562–1564.
(4)Grassi D, Desideri G, Ferri C. Protective effects of dark chocolate on endothelial function and diabetes. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2013 Nov;16(6):662-8.
(5)Becker K, Geisler S, Ueberall F, Fuchs D, Gostner JM. Immunomodulatory properties of cacao extracts - potential consequences for medical applications. Front Pharmacol. 2013 Dec 12;4:154.
(6) Latif R. Health benefits of cocoa. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2013 Nov;16(6):669-74
(7) Carmelina Summa, Fernando Cordeiro Raposo, Josephine McCourt, Roberto Lo Scalzo, Karl-Heinz Wagner, Ibrahim Elmadfa, Elke Anklam. Effect of roasting on the radical scavenging activity of cocoa beans. European Food Research and Technology February 2006, Volume 222, Issue 3-4, pp 368-375
(8) Aremu CY, Agiang MA, Ayatse JO. Nutrient and antinutrient profiles of raw and fermented cocoa beans. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 1995 Oct;48(3):217-23.