Cacao powder is a raw plant extract that’s used to make chocolate and other cocoa products. In raw form, it’s packed with even more micronutrients, including flavanols, a category of molecule that has been heavily studied for its benefits for cognitive health, cardiovascular function, and metabolic control.
If you want to leverage the powerful health benefits of cacao powder, check out the info below: our research team has distilled the most important takeaways from health research into cacao powder supplementation.
Cacao powder benefits
1. Cacao powder has higher flavanol content than cocoa or chocolate
Cacao powder is also superior to (and ought not to be confused with) cocoa powder, which is what you get after you’ve heated and chemically treated cacao powder.
This process destroys some of the powerful flavanols that give cacao powder. So, cacao powder offers the best possible benefits from the cacao plant—tons of flavanols, zero sugar, and very little saturated fat.
2. Cacao powder could reduce your risk for heart disease
One study, published in 2015 in the scientific journal Heart by researchers in the United Kingdom examined the results from over 150,000 study participants to determine the effects of chocolate consumption on heart health (1).
The authors found that chocolate consumption was associated with a 30% decreased risk for heart disease and stroke.
This is surprising because two of the primary macronutrients found in chocolate—sugar and saturated fat—are associated with a higher risk of heart disease (2).
Thus, another explanation was needed. Cacao must contain nutrients powerful enough to counteract the negative effects of the fat and sugar content of chocolate.
3. The benefits of cacao are linked to its high antioxidant content
Cacao powder’s health benefits were reviewed by researchers at the University of California Davis, who tied the flavanol content of chocolate and cacao to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that are beneficial for heart health (3).
As a result, the higher the flavanol content of a cacao-derived product, the better the benefits.
Cacao powder, thanks to its lack of processing, has a higher flavanol content than either cocoa powder or chocolate, making it the superior choice for the health benefits of the cacao bean.
4. Cacao powder improves cognitive function
In addition to the circulatory health benefits of cacao powder, the flavanols it contains also appear to exert a powerful and beneficial effect on your brain.
A clinical trial the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tested the effects of three levels of supplemental flavanol intake on cognitive function in a group of elderly subjects with mild cognitive decline (4).
The researchers found that the flavanol supplement improved their cognitive function on tests related to executive function, memory, and attention.
These effects appeared to be mediated, or at least accompanied by, changes in insulin sensitivity as well.
5. Cacao powder can boost your mood
Another interesting effect of intake of flavanol-rich cacao products is an improvement in self-reported mood.
Research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that a flavanol-rich cacao product was able to improve self-reported mood as well as decrease self-reported cognitive fatigue during a one-hour cognitive testing battery (5).
6. Cacao powder can help control your blood pressure and blood sugar
Other research published in the journal Hypertension found that 100 grams of flavanol-rich chocolate per day was enough to improve insulin sensitivity, decrease blood pressure, and improve cholesterol levels (6).
All of these are promising indicators of decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes, and stroke.
7. Cacao powder might protect your skin from sun damage
Some fascinating new research suggests that cacao powder may be able to contribute to skin health.
The study, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology in 2016, used a mouse model to test the effects of a cacao powder on the response of skin cells to UV-B radiation (7).
The researchers used a rigorous experimental procedure to demonstrate that cacao powder substantially reduce ultraviolet light induced wrinkling in mouse skin compared to a placebo.
Moreover, the research team was able to identify 788 genes that were upregulated or downregulated by the cacao powder, providing evidence for the first time that cacao powder does more than just scavenge free radicals on its own—it actually helps activate your body’s internal self-repair systems.
Among the genes that were upregulated were several that play key roles in the formation of wrinkled skin, and others that are important for maintaining the dermal matrix, which in turn protects the structural integrity of your skin.
While this research is, so far, limited to mice, it’s a promising avenue that will in all likelihood be explored in humans in the near future.
Cacao powder side effects
Some cacao powders are too high in cadmium. As cacao beans pick up the trace elements in the soil they grow in, they have a tendency to accumulate harmful heavy metals such as cadmium.
A 2014 report by ConsumerLabs raised concern that some brands contain cadmium levels that are above regulatory levels in some countries (8).
Partially as a result, regulatory bodies such as the European Union have imposed thresholds on cadmium content in chocolate products (9).
High-quality cacao powder brands are tested for purity to avoid high cadmium levels. Given that many cacao powders are sold internationally, this should bring most brands into regulatory agreement in short order.
Barring that, you should opt for one of the highly-ranked cacao powders above, as the top brands have already been independently tested and rated for their cadmium content.
Cacao powder dosage
For optimal flavanol content, aim for 14-28 grams per day. These numbers come from calculations on the flavanol content of raw cacao material (circa 35 mg of flavanol per gram of cacao powder) and the latest clinical research.
So far, these intake levels are only what’s been used in research on cognitive function and mood as it relates to cacao powder, but these are realistic intakes that are in keeping with epidemiological research on chocolate consumption as well.
You can take cacao as part of a smoothie, shake, or by adding it to recipes. Fortunately, this is a relatively small dose and is easy to incorporate into a smoothie, protein shake, or as a topping for hot cereal. Conveniently, this works out to right around one or two standardized servings of most cacao powders.
Cacao powder benefits FAQ
Q: Is cacao really good for you?
A: Cacao powder has some pretty solid evidence for its acute effects on health: several studies have found that cacao can improve mood, boost cognitive function, and reduce feelings of mental fatigue.
On top of that, experimental evidence supports the notion that cacao powder helps improve physical health by reducing risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
Long-term studies have yet to be conducted, but there is a substantial amount of epidemiological research on the long-term health benefits associated with dark chocolate, and cacao powder contains even more antioxidants, and far less sugar and fat, than dark chocolate.
Because of this, all the evidence indicates that cacao powder is very good for your health.
Q: What is cacao powder?
A: Cacao powder is the dried and pressed powder that comes from the cacao bean, which is better known for being the source of chocolate.
The key difference is that cocoa powder (and all types of chocolate) is roasted in an oven before being pressed. The roasting process can destroy some of the antioxidants that are naturally present in the cacao beans.
Cacao powder is more bitter and has a more complex, less sweet taste than cocoa or chocolate, but has the benefit of containing all of the raw antioxidants that you won’t necessarily get in chocolate or cocoa.
Q: Where can you find cacao powder at the grocery store?
A: It can be tough to find cacao powder at the grocery store, since it’s still a niche product. Typically, it’s in the baking aisle right next to the regular cocoa powder.
It might be in a separate shelf specifically for organic and fair-trade baking products, but be careful when you get cacao powder at grocery stores—even if the bag says “cacao” on it, it may actually contain roasted cocoa powder. Check the ingredients list to be sure.
You’ll usually have a better chance at a co-op or a natural foods store, as these retailers are typically more in touch with the needs of health-conscious consumers. If you can’t find cacao powder at a local retailer, check our our rankings—all of our top picks can be ordered online.
Q: What is cacao powder good for?
A: Cacao powder is a powerful source of antioxidants that can improve both physical and mental well-being. Like many other antioxidants, cacao powder appears to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by combating systemic inflammation and insulin sensitivity.
Moreover, cacao powder is also good for improving cognitive function by improvements in memory, increasing mood, and decreasing subjective feelings of cognitive fatigue.
Q: What is the difference between raw cacao and cacao powder?
A: Cacao powder is a raw form of cacao. After being harvested, cacao beans are fermented and dried.
In the chocolate-making process, they are then usually roasted, crushed, then pressed to separate the cocoa butter (i.e. most of the fats and oils) from the solid materials.
When cacao powder is made, the roasting process is skipped, and the raw beans are crushed and pressed. This still separates the fats from the rest of the solid materials; now the solids left are called cacao powder instead of cocoa powder.
Skipping the roasting process ensures that a substantially greater amount of antioxidants are left intact in the powder. As a result of these differences in processing, cacao powder is a raw food.
Some people use the term “raw cacao” to refer only to the cacao pods and beans, but among health food enthusiasts, the important distinction is between cacao, which is raw, and cocoa, which is not.
Related: Our best cacao powder picks
Raw cacao is a great way to add flavor and superfood nutrients to your usual routine.
There’s solid scientific evidence supporting cacao powder’s benefits when it comes to blood lipids, cholesterol, and blood sugar control.
On top of that, cacao powder is great for elevating your mood, sustaining cognitive performance during difficult tasks, and maintaining cognitive health as you get older.
Thanks to its versatility and ease of incorporation into shakes, smoothies, and baking recipes, it’s one of our favorite superfoods.