Brewed cacao is a delicious way to enjoy the health benefits of chocolate without the sugar, fat, caffeine, or calories that usually come along with it.
Cacao is a rich source of flavanoids, antioxidant compounds that promote cardiovascular health and appear to protect against Type 2 diabetes and cognitive decline. Cacao also contains chemicals that can enhance your mood.
Of course, most people consume cacao in the form of chocolate, which also tends to contain a fair amount of sugar, fat, and calories. Brewed cacao, on the other hand, delivers all of these beneficial compounds without any sugar or fat and virtually no calories (about 10 calories per cup).
The following table shows how brewed cacao compares to unsweetened cocoa powder and dark chocolate in terms of some of the more important flavonoids. As you can see, brewed cacao is significantly more potent than either form of chocolate.
What Are the Benefits of Theobromine?
Brewed cacao contains very little caffeine, about 15 mg per cup. However it is quite rich in a related compound called theobromine. Chocolate is the primary source of theobromine in our diets. Like caffeine, theobromine stimulates the central nervous system. However, theobromine is more slowly absorbed into the blood stream and its effects are milder.
Some people describe feeling focused but calm when they ingest theobromine—but these are very subjective experiences and have so far been difficult to verify in scientific trials. The evidence that theobromine acts as an appetite suppressant appears to be similarly anecdotal.
As much as I enjoyed brewed cacao and appreciated having a lower-caffeine option to drink late in the day, I must admit I did not feel a difference in my ability to focus—or my appetite. You might. (And even if you’re just imagining things, who gets hurt there?)
A cup of brewed cacao contains about 300 mg of theobromine and that's about twice what you'd get from an ounce of dark chocolate, a tablespoon of cocoa powder, or a cup of hot cocoa.
As with just about anything else, it is possible to overdo it with theobromine. High intakes of theobromine might make you feel jittery, irritable, nauseous, or give you a headache. Because the theobromine levels in brewed cacao are quite high and the chemical stays in your blood stream for some time, I’d suggest enjoying no more than 3 cups a day.
How to Enjoy Brewed Cacao
Just like coffee, cacao beans are available from different regions and in a variety of roasts. I sampled a French Roast from Ghana and a Light roast from Ecuador. You can make it in a regular drip coffee maker or in a French press coffee pot (which is what I would recommend). To extract maximum flavor, use boiling water instead of the slightly cooler water that you would use to make coffee. You can also make cold brew and iced beverages.
You can combine ground coffee and ground cacao for a reduced-caffeine mocha-type beverage. As much as I liked the idea of this, I didn't actually enjoy it that much. I found that the coffee overwhelmed the flavor of the cacao, resulting in a slightly muddy tasting brew. You might like it, though.
There are a few brands out there. If you do an internet search for brewed cacao, you'll quickly see your options. The above information on the antioxidant content of brewed cacao is for the brand called Crio Bru, who kindly shared the results of their lab analyses with me. Gourmet coffee drinkers may also be pleasantly surprised by the price: High-quality fair-trade roasted cacao is not as expensive as high quality fair trade coffee beans.
If you decide to try, let me know what you think! Post your thoughts below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.
Image courtesy of Crio Bru.