Imagine starting each morning, not with a carefully pressed cup of your favorite Arabica blend, but a piping hot mug of cacao.
To a coffee lover like myself, it sounds sacrilegious. After all, we’re raised to think of chocolate as naughty—an indulgence that leads to weight gain. Plus, how could it possibly compete with my favorite liquid kick?
Not only can cacao compare in taste, but mounting research shows that it just might be a healthier choice than caffeine-heavy coffee. Before we explain why, first you should understand the difference between cacao and chocolate.
Cacao vs. Cocoa
Cacao and cocoa sound deceptively similar—like a regional difference in pronunciation a friend might sneak in to win a game of Scrabble.
It wasn’t until relocating to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where the indigenous local’s Mayan heritage is celebrated on par with Cancun’s picturesque beaches, that I learned about the difference between cacao and cocoa.
Basically, cacao is the raw material. Originating in the jungles of Central America, cacao is harvested from the fleshy, oval pods that grow on the trunks of cacao trees, just as it has been for over 3,000 years.
And, much like it’s more healthful uses, the word “cacao” (pronounced kah-KOW) is unadulterated—unchanged from the name ancient Mayans and Olmecs gave the wrinkly, brown bean that their legends states was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl to form a bridge between heaven and earth.
Alternatively, cocoa and chocolate are byproducts of cacao. And, altered by heat, milk, and sugar, they lose many of cacao’s natural benefits.
Why Replace Your Coffee With Cacao?
Chocolate and coffee seem to go together perfectly. Think of a double-shot mocha at the corner coffee shop. However, there are some distinctive differences in how each affects your bod.
Cacao Helps You Stay Alert Without Crashing
Contrary to what some people believe, cacao contains little to no caffeine. Instead, it has theobromine, a natural and gentle stimulant relative to caffeine.
Unlike caffeine—which is harsh with a spike and following crash—theobromine works with your body, not against it. The chemical stimulates feelings of euphoria and contentment that result in a mild, long-lasting lift instead of making you feel nervous or jittery.
Cacao Is Also Believed To Help You Be Happier
Alertness isn’t the only feeling brought about by cacao. Sipping a cacao brew or nibbling nibs triggers a cascade of amino acids and neurotransmitters, including monoamine oxidase enzyme inhibitors.
These allow serotonin and other neurotransmitters to circulate in the brain, as well as phenylethylamine, the chemical we produce when we fall in love.
Cacao is even being explored as an alternative to both euphoria-inducing party drugs and antidepressants. This is because synthetic drugs—including antidepressants—weaken or block the body’s neural pathways, creating dependence.
Alternatively, cacao strengthens these neural pathways, encouraging the body to produce chemicals like serotonin itself.
While Caffeine Can Make You Feel (and Look) Stressed
The caffeine in coffee increases catecholamines—your stress hormones. The stress response elicits cortisol and increases insulin. Insulin then increases inflammation, which not only makes you feel lousy, but can lead to prematurely aging skin.
See Also: 19 Cardinal Rules For Wrinkle Prevention
And, that’s not the only way caffeine can muck up your happy. Caffeine can cause sleep problems that affect your mood.
Any coffee drinker knows that caffeine can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep come evening. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, that lack of sleep can worsen depression. Also, anxiety and depression often occur together, and caffeine can worsen anxiety.
Your Coffee Habit Might Be Adversely Affecting More Than Your Mood
It’s true, chronic low-dose exposure to caffeine is known to reduce risk of certain cancers. However, the mechanism by which is does so isn’t something scientists yet understand.
However, there are a few additionally negative effects of caffeine intake that are fully backed up by data:
- The diuretic effect of coffee can worsen osteoporosis
- When mixed with acetaminophen (paracetamol / tylenol), caffeine is known to cause liver damage
- Another compound in coffee, cafestol, is known to increase blood cholesterol levels
Bottom Line: Cacao Promotes Head-To-Toe Health
Aside from helping you stay alert without a crash and boosting your mood, multiple studies have shown that incorporating cacao into your diet can help keep you healthy.
Not only is it rich in minerals such as magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper and manganese, cacao has been shown to:
- Lower insulin resistance
- Protect your nervous system: Cacao is high in resveratrol, a potent antioxidant also found in red wine, known for its ability to cross your blood-brain barrier to help protect your nervous system
- Shield nerve cells from damage
- Reduce your risk of stroke
- Reduce your blood pressure
- Reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease: The antioxidants found in cacao help to maintain healthy levels of nitric oxide (NO) in the body. Although NO has heart-benefiting qualities, such as relaxing blood vessels and reducing blood pressure, it also produces toxins. The antioxidants in cacao neutralize these toxins, protecting your heart and preventing disease.
- Guards against toxins: As a potent antioxidant, cacao can repair the damage caused by free radicals and may reduce the risk of certain cancers. In fact, cacao contains far more antioxidants per 100g than acai, goji berries, and blueberries. Antioxidants are responsible for 10% of the weight of raw cacao.
Replacing Your Morning Coffee With Cacao
While cacao is packed with health benefits, there are some tricks to getting the most out of it. For example, research shows that adding milk inhibits the absorption of antioxidants from cacao.
If you’d like to try cacao as a replacement for coffee, the first step is sourcing your cacao powder or tablet: It’s available in various health food stores, on Amazon, or online from my favorite local producer, Ah Cacao.
Here are some tips for buying cacao powder:
- Look for certified fair trade. There are many great brands to choose from, and you're helping to ensure workers get a living wage.
- Look for a higher fat content. Yep, you read that right. The really good cacao with lots of flavor (and therefore is more satisfying and you won't need to use as much) has as much as 24 percent more fat than the cheap stuff.
- Make sure you're getting unsweetened cocoa powder, and not something that has sugars mixed in.
- Avoid packages labeled "ground chocolate" as this is basically powdered chocolate bars with added stuff we're trying to avoid in the first place. Make sure the only ingredient is cacao.
Once you’re stocked up follow this traditional recipe:
2-3 tablespoons of cacao powder
1 cup of water
Heat the milk or water in a pan until the first bubble pops. Remove from heat. Using a whisk, beat in the chocolate until completely dissolved. Heat again until a froth begins to rise. Remove from the heat and beat a second time. Half-fill each cup then beat the remaining chocolate until frothy. Add the remaining foamed chocolate to each cup.
Drinking chocolate can be spiced up by adding any of the following ingredients during the heating phase: Vanilla extract or beans, orange or lime zest, honey, chile pasilla, or nutmeg.
Alternatively, follow any hot cocoa recipe and substitute the sweet stuff for cacao powder. Mother Nature Network offers 5 Healthy Hot Cocoa Recipes that allow you to easily swap in cacao with their vegan and sugar-free options.
If you’d like to do more with your cacao, Ah Cacao provides a great mix of recipes; however, many are on the sweet side. This article provides five alternatives to sipping to help you mix more cacao into your diet.
Need more convincing? While not strictly keeping with cacao, the NY Times takes an in-depth look at Why Chocolate Is Good For Us. Or, if you’re looking for reasons to travel, consider A Chocolate Tour of the Caribbean.
READ NEXT: 9 Simple Ways to Improve Your Sleep
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