Imagine forgoing your morning coffee and starting each day instead with a mug of cacao. To a coffee lover, this sounds almost sacrilegious. Most of us think of chocolate in the context of something that’s forbidden; an indulgence that leads to weight gain. Likewise, cacao lacks that kick of caffeine that we all love in coffee.
However, not only does cacao compare in taste to coffee, but there is also mounting research that shows it just might be a healthier choice. Before we explain why, let’s first look at the difference between cacao and cocoa powder, the primary ingredient in chocolate.
What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?
Cacao and cocoa sound similar but the two terms refer to different substances. Basically, cacao is the raw material that can become cocoa.
Cacao trees originated in the jungles of Central America, and the fleshy, oval pods that grow on their trunks are harvested for the cacao they contain. This raw material—the cacao—is served unadulterated. Even the name “cacao” (pronounced kah-KOW) remains unchanged from its ancient Mayan name.
Alternatively, cocoa and chocolate are byproducts of cacao that are created through the addition of heat, milk, sugar, and other flavoring agents. This sweetens the taste but in the process compromises many of cacao’s natural benefits. In other words, when you consume anything with chocolate, you’re taking in a small fraction of the health benefits of cacao, with the additional drawback of added fats and sweeteners.
What Are the Benefits of Cacao?
Hard as it might be to consider starting your day without coffee, cacao offers many health benefits worth learning about.
Cacao Is Rich in Nutrients
If you’re interested in giving your body a nutritional boost in the mornings, then cacao is hard to beat. Jessica Rosen, a certified Holistic Health Coach and co-founder of Raw Generation, shared some expert insight.
“Cacao is an especially mineral-rich food, with high amounts of iron, copper, manganese, and zinc. It’s an excellent source of magnesium, a mineral that is essential to most of the body’s important biological processes.”
Cacao Helps You Stay Alert Without Crashing
While cacao contains little to no caffeine, it has plenty of theobromine, a compound that’s closely related and acts as a gentle stimulant. Theobromine can provide a similar feeling of euphoria and contentment, and it gives you a smoother, crash-free boost of energy. This means drinking cacao won’t leave you feeling nervous or jittery.
Likewise, maintaining your magnesium levels through cacao can keep your energy levels up. Says Rosen, “Insignificant magnesium in your diet can make you feel fatigued, cranky, weak, and cause muscle spasms and digestive issues. Get more cacao into your life and load your body up with the magnesium it needs!”
Despite the lower caffeine content, many people report that they love the boost drinking cacao gives them. “I have been drinking whole bean cacao in place of coffee for four years now,” Makenzie Marzluff, the co-founder of cacao-brand KAKAO told us. “I can't express enough how much it has changed my life: It is energy that lasts, without the crash, it is very calming to the nervous system, and it brings a prolonged focus no matter what I am working on.”
Cacao Is Believed to Boost Your Mood
There are other benefits to cacao besides boosting your alertness. 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 strengthens these neural pathways, encouraging the body to produce chemicals like serotonin itself.
“Just a small serving of raw cacao triggers the brain to release feel-good endorphins and increases blood flow to the brain,” Rosen told us. “It doses you with naturally occurring mood-enhancing compounds that have been shown to improve focus, mood, and energy.”
Cacao is even being explored as an alternative to both euphoria-inducing party drugs and antidepressants since it doesn’t weaken or block the body’s neural pathways or lead to dependence.
What About Cacao Side Effects?
While cacao is known for its health benefits, there are a few downsides worth noting. First off, the beverage contains just a fraction of the caffeine found in coffee (some estimates say 1/50th) meaning that you might not feel alert when drinking it. For that reason, you might be better off keeping both drinks in your routine.
“I would recommend a person drink their cup of Joe in the morning for a bit of a caffeine boost and then grab a cup of cacao in the afternoon to get the benefits of all nutrients in both drinks,” says Allie Greg, a licensed dietician.
Likewise, it’s essential to understand that you will compromise cacao’s benefits if you don’t consume it in its natural form. “One other thing many people run into when they hear about Cacao is they run out and buy cocoa powder which is made from roasted cocoa beans,” supplement expert John Frigo told us. “The roasting destroys most of the nutrients while raw cacao keeps them intact and provides a good source of fiber, energy and enhances your mood.”
Saying this, we didn’t unearth many negative side effects from drinking cacao. Those with sensitive stomachs might struggle with the acid content, but if you can comfortably drink coffee, you likely won’t experience any complications from cacao.
Are There Health Concerns with Coffee?
Despite its enduring popularity, there are reasons to consider limiting your daily coffee intake.
Coffee Triggers Physical Stress Responses
The caffeine in coffee increases catecholamines—a neurotransmitter that signals the release of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as insulin. As a result, inflammation increases which can make you feel less-than-stellar and lead to aging skin.
Caffeine Can Cause Sleep Problems
Any coffee drinker knows that caffeine can make it harder to fall asleep come evening. The Mayo Clinic shows that a chronic lack of sleep can also worsen depression. Likewise, anxiety and depression often occur together, and caffeine can worsen anxiety.
Coffee Is Associated with Numerous Health Problems
Chronic low-dose exposure to caffeine is known to reduce your risk of developing certain cancers. However, the precise mechanisms by which it does so isn’t fully understood yet.
There are several 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
How to Replace Your Morning Coffee With Cacao
Now that you know cacao makes for a smart morning beverage, what’s the best way to purchase and prepare it?
While cacao is packed with health benefits, there are some tricks for maximizing its impact on your health. For example, research indicates that adding milk to cacao might inhibit the absorption of the antioxidants we just discussed.
If you’d like to try cacao as a replacement for coffee, the first step is sourcing your cacao powder or tablet. Cacao is available in various health food stores, on Amazon, and many other online retailers.
In an article she wrote for Mother Nature Network, Jaymi Heimbuch recommends some additional 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.
Seek out a higher fat content. That’s not a misprint. If you opt for high-quality cacao with lots of flavor, which is naturally more satisfying so you need less, it has as much as 24 percent more fat than the cheap stuff.
Go for natural. Make sure you're getting unsweetened cocoa powder, and not something that has sugars mixed in.
Avoid packages labeled “ground chocolate.” They essentially contain powdered chocolate bars and contain significant amounts of added sugars, fats, and other ingredients you are trying to avoid in the first place. Make sure the only ingredient is cacao.
Once you’re stocked up, follow this traditional recipe for drinking cacao. You will need:
- 2–3 tablespoons of cacao powder
- 1 cup of water
To make, 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 and half-fill each cup before whisking the remaining chocolate until frothy. Finally, add the remaining foamed chocolate to each cup.
Your homemade cacao can be spiced up by adding any of the following ingredients during the heating phase: vanilla beans or extract, orange or lime zest, honey, chile pasilla, or nutmeg.
Alternatively, you can follow any hot cocoa recipe and substitute cacao powder for standard cocoa. Mother Nature Network offers 5 Healthy Hot Cocoa Recipes that let you swap in cacao and enjoy 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 offers five alternatives to sipping to help you mix more cacao into your diet. Another option is to consider adding cacao to your favorite smoothie recipe for a richer flavor.
Need more convincing? While not strictly keeping with cacao, the NY Times takes an in-depth look at Why Chocolate Is Good for Us.
Bottom Line: Drink Cacao as a Healthy Coffee Alternative
Aside from boosting your mood and helping you stay alert without a crash, 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, but cacao has been shown to:
Lower insulin resistance
Help prevent nerve cells from incurring damage
Reduce your blood pressure
These same antioxidants may also help repair damage caused by free radicals and even reduce the risk of cancer
If you’re looking to make a healthy change in the mornings, consider swapping out one (or more) of your standard cups of coffee for cacao instead.
Editor’s note: This article was originally written by Autumn Yates and published on Feb 10, 2016. It has been revised and updated by Lydia Noyes on May 17, 2019.