Sometimes the best afternoon pick-me-up is a soothing, warm drink. Sure, coffee and tea are mainstays, but we were especially excited to learn about another drink we can add to the rotation: cacao coffee. Cacao coffee is a brewed cacao beverage that’s similar to hot chocolate and coffee, yet has a distinct flavor all its own that’s more nutty and a touch bitter (in a good way!). It’s also offers impressive health benefits and is infinitely customizable. Keep reading to learn more about this tasty treat, why experts say it’s good for you and how you can make it at home.
What is cacao?
“Cacao is a tropical native plant to Central and South America,” explains Kathryn Piper, RDN, LD, NBC-HWC. “The plant is known as Theobroma Cacao, which means ‘food of the gods’ in Greek.” It was given this name by Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus for its immense significance to its original cultivators: the ancient Mayans, who lived in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala roughly 3,000 years ago. They consumed it as a drink both for nutrition and enjoyment, and they used the hard seeds (known as beans) as currency, regarding them as more valuable than gold.
Cacao itself is a hard, pod-like fruit that grows on trees. Inside, it has beans surrounded by white fleshy fruit. Both the fruit and the beans are edible. Cacao fruit tastes tropical and slightly acidic, but the beans are the real star since they are the main ingredient of chocolate.
Cacao vs. cocoa
You’ve likely seen both of these words on chocolate products, but they’re not interchangeable. Cacao (pronounced “ka-KOW”) beans are the basis of all authentic chocolate. “Cacao” refers to the bean itself, and it can be bought dried (as “nibs”) or ground. Because it’s kept raw, cacao is bitter, but it’s packed with health benefits. Dark chocolate is high in cacao. (Click through for more on how much caffeine is in chocolate.)
“Cocoa” (pronounced “ko-ko”) is one end result of processed cacao. When cacao beans are processed, the nibs are turned into a nonalcoholic liquor. This liquor is pressed to remove fat (cocoa butter), dried and ground to create cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is milder in taste and is commonly used for baking, though it’s lower in vitamins in minerals than cacao due to processing.
Health benefits of cacao
Like tea and coffee, cacao is celebrated for its flavor as well as for its health benefits. Keep reading to see how a hot cup of cacao is good for your body and mind.
1. Stronger immunity
Cacao is packed with antioxidants. In fact, a study conducted at Yale University found that cacao has more antioxidant-rich plant compounds than most other foods. Studies have shown that a diet rich in antioxidants is associated with lower risk of chronic disease and health-related death of all causes.
2. Improved mood
If you feel happier after a cup of brewed cacao, it isn’t just because it tastes good. Cacao is rich in a plant compound called theobromine. “The theobromine content of cacao affects the body’s neurotransmitters, which can contribute to better mood,” says Catherine Gervacio, BHSc, RND and certified exercise nutrition coach at National Coalition on Health Care. It’s a stimulant that widens arteries, which boosts blood flow, increases focus and has antidepressant effects.
3. Healthier heart and bones + better sleep
Gervacio notes that cacao is packed with magnesium — about 27 grams per tablespoon, according to the USDA. Magnesium is good for your heart: It aids in regulating blood pressure and maintaining a healthy rhythm. It’s also crucial in bone formation and density, which is especially important as we age. Plus, the mineral helps regulate the nervous system, which is vital for sleep. Magnesium deficiency is common, especially among women over 50: In fact, a study in the BMJ journal Open Heart reveals that fewer than half of Americans get the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of magnesium, which is 400 to 420 mg for men and 310 to 320 mg for women. The mineral deficiency can result in symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, anxiety and muscle cramps. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, a cup of cacao might ease your discomfort. (Click through to whether magnesium citrate or glycinate is better to take as a supplement to dietary magnesium.)
Does cacao have caffeine?
Cacao has some caffeine but not very much — it’s not a swap for your morning coffee. “A tablespoon of cacao powder has about 12 mg of caffeine, which is a typical serving for an 8-ounce cacao drink,” says Piper. “A cup of coffee has on average about 100 mg of caffeine per 8-ounce cup.”
Cacao coffee: the basics
While it has similarities to coffee and hot chocolate, brewed cacao, or “cacao coffee,” is a distinct drink all of its own. It’s not a replacement for either drink, but a warming and satisfying addition to your hot beverage rotation.
Where to find cacao
Cacao is widely available in health food or grocery stores, including Walmart, Kroger and Publix. You can also find it at online retailers, like Amazon. Cacao is typically sold ground as a powder (buy from Amazon, $8.87) or as nibs (buy from Amazon, $8.99).
How to make cacao coffee
It’s easy to make brewed cacao at home. In fact, the process is similar to making tea or coffee. “Simply mix 1-2 tablespoons of cacao powder or nibs with hot water or your preferred milk,” says Norah Clark, chef and editor in chief of Boyd Hampers Magazine. You can then strain out the grounds or nibs (or leave them in — they’re completely edible), and add any sweeteners or flavorings of choice. You can also use a French press — just put two tablespoons of cacao in along with a cup of boiling water, stir and steep for 6 minutes and press. (Click through for a recipe for cacao hot chocolate.)
What brewed cacao tastes like
Though it’s often called cacao coffee, the brew tastes more chocolatey and nutty than regular java. That said, it’s less like hot chocolate and has more of the bitterness and strong flavor of a dark chocolate. Like coffee, brewed cacao can be tailored to suit your tastes. “For a delightful twist, try adding a pinch of sea salt, a dash of cinnamon, or a drop of vanilla extract to your brewed cacao,” recommends Clark. “Some enjoy a touch of cayenne for a spicy kick.” (Click through to discover how adding hot sauce to coffee can speed weight loss.)
Treat yourself to a Cacao Latte
You can even combine cacao and coffee for a delicious, indulgent pick-me-up full of flavor. It’s like a healthy riff on a mocha! Check out Piper’s recipe for a cacao latte:
Makes 1 serving.
- 1 cup milk of choice
- 1 Tbs. cacao powder
- 2 tbsp. hot water
- 1 tsp. sweetener or choice
- 1-2 shots espresso or strong brewed coffee
- Combine cacao and sweetener of choice in a small bowl.
- Add hot water and whisk until smooth.
- Brew coffee or espresso.
- Heat milk in a saucepan over medium until hot, but not boiling, stirring frequently. Whisk vigorously or use milk frother for frothy consistency.
- Pour coffee, stir in cacao mixture, and top with hot milk.
Click through to learn about more coffee drinks that are good for you:
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