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Spotlight on Cacao

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In the words of Jon Snow, winter is coming….or it’s already here, depending on your capacity for cold. After 8 years in London I would expect my tolerance to be a little higher than your average Capetonian (the coldest people in the world, don’t you know?), but in the year and a half that I’ve been back my resilience has gone from tank tops in 15 degrees to fleece lined, Antarctic-ready parkas in temperatures of 10.

The worst part about winter is the constant desire to eat comfort food. Raw vegans drool enviously over thick, meaty stews; Bantingers sigh in defeat and admit that life without warm gooey puddings is probably not worth the pain. It takes real commitment to stick with your healthy lifestyle when the temperature drops.

Since some of my most enjoyable times in the kitchen are spent creating healthy versions of guilty pleasures, I look at winter eating as a challenge. My most essential ingredient therefore has to be cacao, or raw chocolate in in its purest form. Think chocolate brownies, melty chocolate pudding, chocolate peanut butter cups…basically comfort food at its finest must contain chocolate or it can leg it, in my humble opinion.

But what’s the difference between cocoa and cacao, besides one being your bad imitation of a birdcall and a suspected spelling mistake?

raw-chocolate-3The cacao bean is the source of both cacao and cocoa powders, and refers to the raw form of chocolate. The bean contains approximately 50% fat (cocoa butter), 35% carbs and 15% protein. It also contains a bucket load of minerals including iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc and manganese. Finally, it is has high quantities of something called flavonoids, which are rich in antioxidants.

This is chocolate in its purest, nutritionally dense form.

Raw cacao is made by cold pressing unroasted cocoa beans, a process which removes most of the fat (cocoa butter) but retains the enzyme content. Cocoa powder, used in baking and the manufacturing of chocolate bars, is raw cacao that has been roasted at high temperatures.  This roasting process destroys most of the enzymes and changing the structure of the bean, so it becomes nutritionally sparse. Many cocoa powders also contain additional additives such as sweeteners.

Here are your burning questions answered…

So is cacao fattening?

Yes it is – don’t be fooled by the props that its got. Just because something has healthy properties doesn’t mean you can eat it by the shovelful. As with all good fats, like avo, coconut oil and hummus for example, moderation is key.

If I’m baking with raw cacao I’m heating it in some way, so doesn’t this destroy the enzymes the same as in the roasting process?

Excellent question, well done for asking. Unfortunately there is no science about whether heating raw cacao destroys its antioxidant level, making it similar to its heated and processed cousin cocoa. BUT, I reckon if you start off with a product in its purest form, you stand the chance of benefitting more than if you start with an already heated and processed equivalent.

What about sugar?

Cacao contains next to no sugar but supermarket cocoa powder often has sugar or other sweeteners added, so if you are going to buy it, check the label.

Play devil’s advocate.

Ok if I must. As with any new food trend, cacao has its detractors. A self-described ‘health watchman’ called Paul Nison has multiple posts dedicated to the toxicity of cacao and how people have been led astray with regards to its health benefits. One nutritionist says this: “Chocolate addicts, like all addicts, are always looking for a way to justify the usage or consumption of their drug of choice. Just like alcoholics love to hear that a beer a day or a glass of wine has some health benefits, when we all really know better. No matter how you cut it, eating chocolate, or raw cacao, on a regular basis is not healthy.” In addition to minerals and flavoids, raw chocolate has many naturally occurring chemicals that opponents say can be harmful to us.

Ok, now I’m just confused.

I said it before and I’ll say it again – EVERYTHING IN MODERATION. If you use the health industry’s food trends as an excuse to eat as much of a particular food as you like, you’re doing it wrong and you will experience negative side effects. Research is good, but a balanced outlook and rational decision making process is even better.

Now go forth and enjoy your chocolate!

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