Chocolate fanatics may already be familiar with cacao, little, crunchy chocolate flavored beans. You can find cacao in granola or even cookies at many grocery stores. The ingredient is widespread in the chocolate market now, but it's difficult to understand what it is until you try it!
Cacao is actually the unprocessed bean from which chocolate is created. Chocolate is made by roasting, grinding, and processing the cacao beans. Some manufacturers call them cocoa beans. Cacao beans are found inside cacao pods. The pods grow on cacao trees and look like a grooved, elongated fruit with leathery skin. Pods are usually 6 to 12 inches long and are yellow or orange in color. Beneath an inch of skin and pulp are 20-60 cacao beans that are slightly soft and have a whitish color. Once these beans are dried, they turn brown and a papery skin is removed before processing or consumption.
Cacao trees are native to the Americas around what is now Colombia and Venezuela. South America and West Africa are the biggest growers of cacao trees now because they grow in a very limited climate zone. Cacao trees and cacao products were very important to pre-Colombian Mesoamerica. It is said that Aztec leader Montezuma II drank a version of hot cocoa every day!
Chocolate lovers tout the antioxidant benefits of cacao beans. Raw cacao beans, those that have been dried at a low temperature instead of roasted, contain flavenoids, a type of antioxidant that promotes general health and may lower your risk of certain diseases. Antioxidants destroy damaging free-radicals in your body thereby protecting the health of your cells. Cacao has similar antioxidant properties and benefits to black tea and red wine!
Cacao can be found in specialty grocery or health food stores as whole beans, nibs, which are small broken pieces of cacao, or powder. The nibs or beans can be added to granola or cookies instead of chocolate chips. Also, try a small spoonful of cacao powder in your morning smoothie or protein drink for impactful chocolate flavor. There are many recipe ideas using cacao products, many of which are specialized for vegan or use cacao in healthy desserts.
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Take note: there are some differences between cacao and chocolate products. Be warned that cacao nibs have a bitter chocolate flavor and do not have the same sweetness or texture as chocolate chips! Also, cacao powder is raw, not roasted, and has a reddish-brown color. Jarred or canned cocoa powder from the grocery store is roasted and processed cacao beans. Cocoa powder has a very dark brown color and often contains additives such as sugar or cocoa butter. However, unsweetened cocoa powder has a very similar flavor to cacao powder and may be used similarly!