The holidays are right around the corner, which means it’s time to start planning for those holiday parties, family gatherings, and baked goods-based gifts! For those looking for healthy and vegan-friendly alternatives this holiday season, how about raw cacao?

I’m sure you’ve heard of the stuff, maybe you’ve even tried it, or are a die-hard fan already. Possibly, you’ve tried and disregarded it due to its bitter flavor. Yet, how much do you know about raw cacao? Did you know that raw cacao is chock-full of polyphenols, a plant-based antioxidant? How about the fact that raw cacao can help you maintain a healthy weight and improve your mood?

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No matter where you stand on raw cacao experience, it’s worth it to either give it a first chance, second chance, or try it again even after dismissal!

This is especially true heading into the season of baked goods and warming meals where sugar-content generally skyrockets. While raw cacao has a natural bitter undertone, it’s also incredibly warming and can be paired with wonderful natural sweetening agents such as fruit, sweet potatoes, and even butternut squash to make a plant-based, healthy, low-sugar creation that will delight your coworkers, friends, and family. Not to mention that you’ll enjoy these concoctions as well!

Alright … you ready? Let’s dive quick and deep into the world of raw cacao!

What is Raw Cacao?

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When you’re looking for raw cacao at the grocery store, you’ll generally find it in the baking aisle, set aside with other plant-based ingredients such as coconut, stevia, and vegan baking chocolate. Oftentimes, you’ll find both a powder form and a nib form — those tiny, crunchy morsels that offer a bitter yet savory punch.

So, what exactly are you looking at?

First off, cacao nibs are excellent for many uses, but if you’re seeking for baking or cooking purposes, start out with the powder. It blends easier and is much better for measuring exact quantities.

Secondly, what is raw cacao?

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This lovely slightly browned, slightly golden powder is “made from whole, roasted cacao beans that have been ground up.” These beans grow and are harvested from the cacao tree, which provides “the pods used to make chocolate.” Raw cacao is unique due to the fact that it has “undergone minimal processing,” unlike much of the chocolate products found on the grocery store shelf. Plus, while cacao butter is chock-full of natural fats, raw cacao has had those fats removed “so the powder is relatively low in fat” content.

Nutrient Profile

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So, the natural fats are removed, what nutrients are you left with?

One tablespoon of cacao powder “has only 12 calories, a little more than 1 gram of fat, a minimal amount of sugar and 1.8 grams of dietary fiber,” along with 12 milligrams of caffeine. With that said, it’s super important to acknowledge that raw cacao is not a great “source of minerals or vitamins.” While a serving of raw cacao contains “small amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium and phosphorous, as well as members of the vitamin B complex, including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin vitamin B-6 and folate,” these are not high enough values to supplement a diet lacking in these nutrients.

The Relationship Between Raw Cacao and Mood

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Even though the holidays are filled with cheer, goodwill, and lots of fun mood-lifting events, these days also come with their draining effects. It’s colder, the days are shorter, you’re busier than usual, and, most likely, you’re consuming a bit more carbohydrates and sugars than you normally would.

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This is yet another reason why integrating more raw cacao into your holiday menu regimen is a great idea.

Along with providing a source of antioxidants, blood sugar-regulating flavonols, anti-cancer properties, antibacterial and immune-stimulating characteristics, raw cacao has been shown to help elevate and boost your mood, while also helping to combat depression. While there are many factors that may play into this — including those just listed — research has identified the main factors to be raw cacao’s flavonol and caffeine content, as well as its ability to convert “tryptophan to the natural mood stabilizer serotonin,” and the plain old fact that consuming chocolatey items is a pleasurable experience.

Three specific studies have shown a mood-raw cacao relationship including one showing a decrease in stress in pregnant women and an improved infant mood, another showing “improved calmness and contentment,” and a third study discovering that senior men who consumed chocolate showed “improved overall health and better psychological well-being.”

While more research is necessary to truly understand this connection, it’s safe to say that raw cacao consumption may help boost those holiday blues!

Raw Cacao-Rich Holiday Recipes

Raw Hazelnut, Praline, and Caramel Cheesecake/One Green Planet

Now that we know all about raw cacao, how about getting it into your kitchen and into your meals? With the holidays in mind, here are five traditional recipes that opt for more raw cacao over sugar. Yes, the holidays are a time for merriments and splurging — as I will definitely be partaking in — these recipes may help you balance out those splurges with healthy alternatives.

Cherry Ripe Brownies

Brownies are a staple dessert during the holiday season. The base is super simple and yet you can get as creative as you want by adding fruit, nuts, and spices. This Cherry Ripe Brownies recipe by Buffy-Ellen Gill is a wonderful take on traditional brownies. With a vegan base of coconut sugar, vanilla extract, desiccated coconut, dates, and macadamia nuts, these brownies are also cacao-infused with 3/4 cup of raw cacao powder and 4 tablespoons of cacao butter. Plus, these dates rely mostly on naturally sweet dates with only a few tablespoons of coconut sugar, a more nutrient-dense option.

6-Ingredient Banana Chocolate Mud Cake With Peanut Butter Frosting

Looking for that ultimate unique recipe for your upcoming Thanksgiving work party? Try this 6-Ingredient Banana Chocolate Mud Cake With Peanut Butter Frosting recipe by Talida Voinea. Super decadent, yet incredibly simple to make! For the cake itself, you only need six ingredients — ripe banana, almond butter, gluten-free oats, cacao powder, baking powder, and vanilla extract — and the frosting is even simpler with only three ingredients — peanut butter, maple syrup, and vanilla extract — with an optional added dash o’ cinnamon! Plus, this cake relies mostly on raw cacao, healthy fats, and naturally sweet fruit over sugar-filled ingredients.

Raw Chocolate Easter Truffles

When it comes to Christmas treats for the office, truffles are a wonderful little delight that can be packaged beautifully and provide pleasure all around. These Raw Chocolate Easter Truffles by Karen Kitto may be created as an Easter recipe, but I’m all about making the most out of good recipes. Why is this one so special? First off, it uses a decent amount of raw cacao in the form of raw cacao paste and cacao butter. Secondly, they’re relatively low in sugar content for truffles, using naturally sweet dates and dried coconut for the filling and your choice of light agave, dark agave, or coconut sugar for the coating.

Caramelized Pecan Chocolate Chip Cookies

Don’t forget about the cookies! These are my personal favorite treats, not only for the holidays but year-round. As it’s super easy to go threw an entire tray of skillfully baked cookies, I try my best to find those that offer just as many health benefits as they do sugar content. These Caramelized Pecan Chocolate Chip Cookies by Stephanie McKinnie are a great go-to when you’re hankering for a sweet treat. They are not only chock-full of raw cacao powder, but McKinnie infuses these cookies with healthy alternatives such as heart-healthy buckwheat flour, protein-rich chia seeds, and healthy fat-rich cacao butter. Plus, it doesn’t get better than caramelized pecans!

Raw Macaroons Four Ways

Macaroons are simple, cute, and easy to make earning them one of the top five holiday treats! These Raw Macaroons Four  Ways by Katrine van Wyk are great because they’re low in sugar, yet offer a variety of super simple ways to create macaroons. If you’re looking to get your dose of raw cacao, try the brown version. The base uses shredded coconut, almond flour, Himalayan salt, maple syrup or coconut nectar, coconut oil, and vanilla extract, which is then infused with raw cacao powder, maca, cacao nibs, and optional melted chocolate.

We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

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