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Crazy For Cacao

You know, I’ve written before about the whole raw cacao craze, but for those of you who might have missed it, I thought I would give you some more details about raw cacao and my feelings on it.

The cacao tree is a small evergreen tree that grows mainly in Mexico, South America and the West Indies. The tree bears a fruit that’s got a white, sweet pulp with a number of reddish-brown seeds about 1 inch long. These seeds are what are referred to as raw cacao beans. If the seeds are dried, roasted and then ground, you end up with cocoa, the basic ingredient in chocolate. However, it’s the raw and dried cacao seeds that some of the raw foodists are touting these days.

If you want to get technical, the name of the plant is Theobroma cacao, and theobromine is a chemical related to caffeine. So, even though the raw seeds or ground cacao made into a drink is not as strong as coffee, it’s still a stimulant. And it’s bitter. As I’ve said before, cacao beans are not really food. If you found them in nature, you wouldn’t eat the seeds. You would eat the fruit, which is apparently delicious, and throw away the seeds. Even if you wanted to eat the seeds, they would not taste like chocolate. In order for the cacao seeds to taste like chocolate and become the cacao beans that we know, they have to be fermented and processed first.

Raw cacao beans or “nibs” are now being sold at exorbitant prices by different raw-food companies as the latest “superfood” by saying that they have magical properties. I still disagree. First of all, as I said, they are bitter, indicating the presence of a poison. And when I say a “poison,” I’m not making this up. Theobromine may act as a diuretic too, and never mind that much of the supply out there of these raw beans is found to have a microbe contamination!

Now, I’m not going to say that I haven’t tried it and even used it for fun very sparingly in some recipes. However, I’ve never considered it to be a health food. Even though some will say that cacao contains many chemicals that enhance physical and mental well-being, such as magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron, copper and potassium and that it contains a lot of antioxidants, there are healthy, safer ways to get these minerals and benefits.

That’s why I still prefer to use carob powder in my recipes. Carob powder is made from the pods of carob trees. There are hundreds of varieties of these trees growing all over the world, including the United States, but the evergreen type in Mediterranean countries produces the most flavorful product and provides much of the commercial carob products. The pods of these trees are harvested and then the pulp of the seedcases is broken into pieces called “kibbles.” The kibbles are roasted and finely ground. It is naturally sweet and reminds of chocolate. Instead of being a stimulant, carob is a mineral rich food and has a calming effect. Carob is high in fiber and rich in polyphenols that have strong antiviral and antiseptic properties, making it effective when given to treat bacterial-induced diarrhea. Carob is a wonderful substitute for cocoa because it contains fewer calories, is naturally sweet, and, unlike cocoa or sweet chocolate, is caffeine-free and non addictive and has no theobromine or oxalic acid. In addition, it is usually cheaper. It’s also low in fat and sodium, calcium-rich and a good source of potassium, while, unlike cacao and chocolate, it does not interfere with the body’s ability to assimilate calcium. Now, carob truly is a health food!

Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.