Is Raw Cacao Good for Your Health? (2024)

Cacao is made from the beans of the Theobroma cacao evergreen tree. The tree belongs to the Malvaceae family, and the beans can be used to make edible products, such as powders, butter, and nibs. Cacao is often confused with cocoa because they are derived from the cacao tree beans. However, cacao is made from raw beans, and cocoa is made from roasted beans.

Cacao has many health properties because of plant compounds, known as flavonoids, and can aid in blood pressure regulation, blood flow, and the prevention of blood clots. This article discusses the health benefits of cacao, its nutrient profile, and ways to prepare it.

Is Raw Cacao Good for Your Health? (1)

Where Does Raw Cacao Come From?

Raw cacao comes from the beans of the Theobroma cacao tree. The beans, technically seeds, grow within pods in the Baba part of the plant. The Baba is a fleshy white pulp. Most of the world’s cacao supply comes from Africa, but it can thrive in warmer climates, so it is also grown in Central and South America and the Canary Islands in Spain. The tree has been used for food and medicine in Central America since the times of the Mayans and Aztecs.

Cacao vs. Cocoa

Cacao is raw, whereas cocoa is not. The main difference between the two is the processing. That said, the health benefits can also differ because of how each is harvested and processed.

6 Cacao Health Benefits

Cacao beans contain plant compounds that can aid in various aspects of health. The health benefits of eating raw cacao include:

Heart Health

Cacao beans and powders contain high levels of potassium. Potassium is an essential nutrient that can help to maintain blood pressure levels. Sustained hypertension (high blood pressure) can lead to serious adverse health effects over time, such as heart disease, chest pain, and a decrease in blood flow to the heart. Therefore, adequate potassium intake in cacao can help reduce blood pressure while lessening the risk of adverse heart events or disease.

Is Too Much Potassium a Bad Thing?

While the body needs potassium, overdoing it can lead to dangerous health consequences, such as a heart attack. It’s best to get your potassium from food, such as cacao, and only supplement if a healthcare provider directs you to.

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Metabolic Health

Cacao contains high levels of flavonoids, which are plant pigments that have medicinal benefits in the human body.

Because of these compounds, it’s thought that eating cacao can aid in metabolic health, which is how the body uses food for energy. Research shows that getting enough flavonoids can help to support metabolic health, especially in terms of diabetes, by:

  • Regulating how the body digests carbohydrates
  • Aiding in the signaling and secretion of insulin, which helps to keep sugar levels balanced in the blood
  • Improving fat deposits in the body

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Antioxidant-Rich to Fight Oxidative Stress

Oxidative stress is a form of imbalance within the body. It occurs when too many free radicals, or unstable molecules, exist within the system. When those unstable molecules are in overabundance, they can cause damage to cells, leading to widespread inflammation.

Antioxidants are the corrective substances that can counteract the damage by stabilizing free radicals. However, they can only do their job if there are enough of them to balance out the number of free radicals in the body. Cacao contains high levels of antioxidants, including catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins.

Antioxidants vs. Flavonoids

Many things can act as antioxidants in the body, including flavonoids and nutrients, such as vitamins C and E.

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Mental Health

Cacao has been shown to help improve mental health because of its ability to lower stress levels and encourage feelings of relaxation. The compound, an amino acid known as tryptophan, found in cacao is what leads to reduced stress because tryptophan is used by the body to create serotonin, one of the “feel good” chemicals in the brain. Tryptophan can also improve sleep in some, which positively affects mood disorders.

Brain Health

Research has examined how the intake of cacao can improve cognitive function and found that, because of its flavonoids, people who consume it can experience improved cognition, such as memory and critical thinking abilities.

It’s thought that flavonoids help to increase blood flow and oxygen flow to the brain and increase the level of neurotrophins, which are proteins that aid in the survival and function of brain cells (neurons).

Cacao and Cognitive Decline in Older Adults

Older adults at a heightened risk of cognitive-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s can also benefit from consuming cacao. Research has shown it helps trigger neuro-protective effects in people with these neurodegenerative diseases.

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High Source of Iron

Raw cacao beans contain high levels of iron. Iron is a mineral the body uses to produce a protein for red blood cells known as hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is tasked with carrying oxygen throughout the body from the lungs. Iron is also used to help produce hormones.

Cacao has so much iron that it is often considered one of the best sources for people who don’t eat meat or animal products. It was also used in ancient medicine to treat anemia, a condition marked by a reduced number of healthy red blood cells, often caused by iron deficiency.

How Much Iron Is Found in Cacao?

The iron profile will vary depending on the type of cacao product you use. Typically, 100 grams (g) contains as much as 77% of your daily iron requirements for unsweetened powder in high-quality products.

Cacao Nutrition Profile

Eating cacao can provide many benefits because of its nutrient profile.

Nutrient Profile of Cacao/100 gramsGrams/% of Daily Value
Carbohydrates57.9 g
Fiber33.2 g
Sugar1.8 g
Fat13.7 g
Saturated Fat8.1 g
Monosaturated Fat4.6 g
Polyunsaturated Fat0.4 g
Protein19.6 g
Vitamin B66%
Vitamin K3%
Pantothenic Acid3%
Vitamin E1%

Side Effects of Cacao

While there are many health benefits when adding cacao to your diet, it’s important to note the side effects that can occur if you eat too much of it.

Because of certain compounds, such as caffeine, the plant-based food can lead to related issues for people who are sensitive to caffeine or consume too much cacao in one day. Symptoms associated with caffeine overdose include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Changes in alertness
  • Hallucinations, confusion, or agitation
  • Gastrointestinal distress, including nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting
  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Muscle twitching

Cacao is also higher in calories and fat, which in the long run, could aid in the onset of overweight or obesity.

Cacao and Your Pets

Cacao contains a compound known as theobromine that is toxic to both dogs and cats. Eating any level of cacao powder can be potentially fatal for your pet.

What Are the Signs of Caffeine Overdose?

Common Ways to Prepare Cacao

The most common use for cacao is powder. The powder can be used in baked goods recipes to substitute the sweeter or more heavily processed cocoa powder. However, the powder can also be used in various other ways, including:

  • A topping for snacks, such as yogurt
  • Blended in smoothies
  • Mixed with fruit bowls
  • Mixed with other ingredients, such as nuts or peanut butter, for raw snack balls

In some cases, as with cacao nibs or dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao, they can be eaten on their own as a tasty treat.

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What to Know About Cacao Sourcing

Finding quality cacao isn’t always easy, but knowing where to look can make all the difference. When looking at dark chocolate brands, you want to go with one that is the most trusted to you and contains the highest level of cacao. Typically, many dark chocolates will have 70%, which is a good baseline.

Health food stores and sections at your local grocer may also carry raw cacao powder or nibs. There are many brands out there that state theirs is the best, but to be sure of what you’re getting, you want to look for the following:

  • Ingredients: The ingredients list should only have cacao. Any other additives are not necessary.
  • Organic: Organic products go through a less rigorous process from farm to table. They are also protected against any added chemicals. Organic products may be better if you’re buying from a health standpoint.
  • Shop Around: You don’t have to choose the first cacao powder you see. You can shop around, ask for reviews, and ask others what they think. Giving yourself options can help to weed out the not-so-great versions on the market.
  • Ask a Nutritionist: Nutritionists are up to date on all the good products and those that only appear good. If you want to know which brands to look for, a nutritionist can help.

Is Cacao a Superfood?

Cacao is often considered a superfood because of how high in nutrients it is. A superfood is “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.”


Cacao is the raw form of cacao beans and can be consumed in various delicious ways. It is not to be confused with the more processed form of the beans used to make cocoa, but it does contain many of the same health benefits. In fact, it could retain more nutrients because it goes through less processing. Eating cacao has many health benefits, such as aiding in heart, brain, and mental health and reducing inflammation within the body due to its antioxidant properties.

Consuming raw cacao is typically safe. However, people sensitive to caffeinated products may want to limit their consumption to see how it affects them first. If you're looking for the best products, it's best to research before buying or talking to a professional nutritionist. They can help find which one will suit you best if you want to consume it for its health benefits alone.

20 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

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  2. Kew Gardens. Cacao tree.

  3. High Potassium Foods. Chocolate and cocoa.

  4. Filippini T, Naska A, Kasdagli MI, et al. Potassium intake and blood pressure: a dose-response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Am Heart Assoc. 2020;9(12):e015719. doi:10.1161/JAHA.119.015719

  5. Ullah A, Munir S, Badshah SL, et al. Important flavonoids and their role as a therapeutic agent. Molecules. 2020;25(22):5243. doi:10.3390/molecules25225243

  6. Al-Ishaq RK, Abotaleb M, Kubatka P, Kajo K, Büsselberg D. Flavonoids and their anti-diabetic effects: cellular mechanisms and effects to improve blood sugar levels. Biomolecules. 2019;9(9):430. doi:10.3390/biom9090430

  7. Yoo H, Kim HS. Cacao powder supplementation attenuates oxidative stress, cholinergic impairment, and apoptosis in D-galactose-induced aging rat brain. Sci Rep. 2021;11(1):17914. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-96800-y

  8. Katz DL, Doughty K, Ali A. Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2011;15(10):2779-811. doi:10.1089/ars.2010.3697

  9. Baynham R, Veldhuijzen van Zanten JCS, Johns PW, Pham QS, Rendeiro C. Cocoa flavanols improve vascular responses to acute mental stress in young healthy adults. Nutrients. 2021;13(4):1103. doi:10.3390/nu13041103

  10. Nehlig A. The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance: Cocoa flavanol and cognition.Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013;75(3):716-727. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.x

  11. Jenkins TA, Nguyen JC, Polglaze KE, Bertrand PP. Influence of tryptophan and serotonin on mood and cognition with a possible role of the gut-brain axis. Nutrients. 2016;8(1):56. doi:10.3390/nu8010056

  12. Huang EJ, Reichardt LF. Neurotrophins: roles in neuronal development and function.Annu Rev Neurosci. 2001;24(1):677-736. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.24.1.677

  13. Martín MA, Goya L, de Pascual-Teresa S. Effect of cocoa and cocoa products on cognitive performance in young adults. Nutrients. 2020;12(12):3691. doi:10.3390/nu12123691

  14. Cimini A, Gentile R, D'Angelo B. Cocoa powder triggers neuroprotective and preventive effects in a human Alzheimer's disease model by modulating BDNF signaling pathway. J Cell Biochem. 2013;114(10):2209-20. doi:10.1002/jcb.24548

  15. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cocoa, dry powder, unsweetened.

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Is Raw Cacao Good for Your Health? (2)

By Angelica Bottaro
Angelica Bottaro is a professional freelance writer with over 5 years of experience. She has been educated in both psychology and journalism, and her dual education has given her the research and writing skills needed to deliver sound and engaging content in the health space.

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I'm Angelica Bottaro, a seasoned writer with over five years of experience, specializing in health and wellness topics. My expertise is grounded in a dual education in psychology and journalism, providing me with the research and writing skills necessary to deliver accurate and engaging content. I have contributed to various reputable sources, and my commitment to factual, reliable information is reflected in my work.

Now, diving into the article on cacao, let me elaborate on the concepts discussed:

Cacao Origins and Processing

Theobroma Cacao: Cacao is derived from the beans of the Theobroma cacao evergreen tree, belonging to the Malvaceae family. The beans are found within pods in the Baba part of the plant, surrounded by fleshy white pulp.

Geographical Sources: While the majority of the world's cacao supply comes from Africa, it can also thrive in warmer climates. Consequently, cacao is grown in Central and South America and the Canary Islands in Spain.

Cacao vs. Cocoa: Cacao is made from raw beans, while cocoa is made from roasted beans. The processing methods impact their flavor and nutritional profiles.

Health Benefits of Cacao

  1. Heart Health: Cacao is rich in potassium, an essential nutrient that helps regulate blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart disease.

  2. Metabolic Health: High flavonoid content in cacao aids in metabolic health, regulating carbohydrate digestion, insulin signaling, and improving fat deposits, especially beneficial for diabetes.

  3. Antioxidant-Rich: Cacao contains antioxidants like catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins, combating oxidative stress and inflammation caused by free radicals.

  4. Mental Health: The amino acid tryptophan in cacao contributes to reduced stress levels by promoting serotonin production, positively impacting mood disorders and sleep.

  5. Brain Health: Flavonoids in cacao enhance cognitive function, improving memory and critical thinking abilities by increasing blood and oxygen flow to the brain.

  6. High Source of Iron: Cacao is a potent source of iron, crucial for hemoglobin production and oxygen transport in the body, making it beneficial for those with iron deficiency.

Cacao Nutrition Profile

Cacao boasts a rich nutrient profile, including carbohydrates, fiber, fats, proteins, and various vitamins and minerals like potassium, magnesium, and iron.

Side Effects of Cacao

Excessive consumption of cacao, due to compounds like caffeine, can lead to issues such as trouble breathing, irregular heartbeat, and gastrointestinal distress. Additionally, it is toxic to pets, particularly due to theobromine content.

Common Ways to Prepare Cacao

Cacao is commonly used in powder form, substituting cocoa in recipes. It can also be used as a topping, blended in smoothies, mixed with nuts, or consumed as nibs or high-percentage dark chocolate.

Cacao Sourcing

Quality cacao sourcing involves choosing trusted dark chocolate brands with high cacao content. Considerations include organic options and checking for additives, while nutritionists can provide valuable insights.

Is Cacao a Superfood?

Cacao is often considered a superfood due to its nutrient density, offering various health benefits.

In summary, incorporating raw cacao into your diet can contribute to overall well-being, but it's crucial to be mindful of sourcing, potential side effects, and moderation, especially for those sensitive to caffeine. Always seek advice from professionals, such as nutritionists, for personalized recommendations.

Is Raw Cacao Good for Your Health? (2024)
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