benefits of cocoa powder

Fact-checked by Dr. Anthony Gustin, DC, MS.

Written by Devan Ciccarelli

What are the health benefits of cocoa powder?

You probably use cocoa powder for all your chocolate-flavored keto dessert recipes, smoothies, and fat bombs, but you probably don’t know how many awesome health benefits each tablespoon dishes up.

Full of antioxidants, healthy fats, and fiber, consuming cocoa may help lower high blood pressure, aid weight loss, improve your mood, and so much more.

In this guide, learn why cocoa powder is one of the healthiest staples in low carb living by finding out:

Trust us, cocoa powder may be the tastiest ingredient you add to your diet in the name of better health — and it’s a secret people have known for hundreds of years.

Where Does Cocoa Powder Come From?

Once considered a “food of the gods”, ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations first used the benefits of cocoa to treat everything from improving their digestion to boosting their energy levels[*].

Cocoa comes from fermented cocoa beans harvested off the cacao tree (aka Theobroma cacao), which is native to tropical climates like central and South America.

The cocoa beans or seeds are cleaned and roasted to bring out their deep flavor. Then the beans are removed from their shells and you have cocoa nibs.

Cocoa nibs can be eaten on their own as a low carb snack.

But they can also be ground up to create cocoa liquor, which is a mixture of cocoa and cocoa butter. Pressing this further, you can then separate pure cocoa solids from cocoa butter.

Cocoa butter can be used as a dairy-free fat substitute for grass-fed butter, but it’s typically used to make chocolate. It’s also added to beauty products as a skin moisturizer known as cocoa butter.

When you remove cocoa butter, you’re left with a solid block of compressed cocoa. This then gets pulverized into a fine powder to create what we know as cocoa powder.

So what’s the nutritional quality like in cocoa powder?

Cocoa Powder Nutrition

The macronutrient breakdown for one tablespoon of cocoa powder is[*]:

    • Calories: 12
    • Protein: 1g
    • Carbs: 3g
    • Fiber: 2g
    • Net carbs: 1g

As you can see, 3g of carbs per one tablespoon doesn’t seem too keto-friendly until you factor in the dietary fiber. That’s what makes cacao powder just 1g of low-carb wonderful.

Cocoa powder is also rich in notable micronutrients like[*]:

  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Copper
  • Manganese

Plus, that same tablespoon of cocoa powder also has 12.42mg of caffeine[*]. To put that in perspective, one cup of coffee has around 95mg of caffeine.

So what do all these individual components do for your body when they’re combined?

13 Benefits of Cocoa Powder Hiding In All that Delicious

Science says cocoa and cocoa powder may help you:

#1. Prevent Cancer (Thanks to the Antioxidants)

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the world[*].

When free radicals from environmental pollutants and your diet damage cells, they can cause dangerous mutations leading to cancer.

But there’s one thing scientists know fights free radical damage to lower your oxidative stress and cancer risks: antioxidants[*].

These powerful plant compounds are found in dark-colored fruits and veggies like raspberries, blueberries, kale, and surprisingly enough, cocoa beans.

Cocoa actually boasts more antioxidants than other antioxidant-rich foods per serving — including green tea, black tea, and red wine[*][*][*].

Cocoa is specifically rich in antioxidants known as polyphenols and flavonoids, which experts say can[*][*]:

  • Protect your cells from damage and bacteria
  • Stop cancer cells from growing
  • Prevent existing cancer cells from spreading
  • Encourage cancerous cells to die

In animal studies, diets with cocoa or cocoa extracts showed positive correlations with lower rates of cancer, especially colon cancer[*].

One study taught researchers cocoa could stop the growth and reproduction of prostate cancer cells without affecting the growth and functioning of healthy cells too[*].

But here’s the downside: like most antioxidants, processing and heating cocoa may result in many of the antioxidant benefits weakening. This means a standard candy bar isn’t your best source for antioxidants, but unprocessed cocoa powder may be.

These antioxidants may also be why cocoa powder lowers cardiovascular disease rates as well[*].

#2. Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death for both men and women in the world[*].

But in addition to fighting off free radical damage and warding off cancer, the polyphenols and flavanols in cocoa powder are also anti-inflammatory so they may improve your heart health[*].

Flavonoids in cocoa may be able to specifically prevent blood clots and buildup from blocking blood flow in your vessels and arteries[*].

And since cocoa is a mix of healthy monounsaturated fats (like oleic acid, the same fat in olive oil) and saturated fats (like coconut oil), these fatty acids may also lead to better cardiovascular health[*].

Scientists from one review learned cocoa can reduce the risk of heart disease by not only preventing high blood pressure but also lowering blood pressure[*].

#3. Reduce Blood Pressure

Cocoa and cocoa powder may be able to lower blood pressure[*][*].

A meta-analysis of 35 trials showed those consuming the highest amounts of flavanol-rich cocoa or cocoa powder lowered their blood pressure around 2 mmHg in the short-term, which was more than those eating the least cocoa[*].

What was even better is this blood pressure-lowering effect was greatest in people who already had high blood pressure, proving cocoa may be an effective natural treatment for hypertension.

Another review showed people who consume cocoa every day have higher nitric oxide circulation in their blood.

Since nitric oxide relaxes your arteries and blood vessels, which then makes them wider to allow easier and increased blood flow, these participants also had better heart and artery function[*][*][*].

Scientists in another study compared the effect of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate with a cocoa-free control group.

They gathered 22 heart transplant recipients and took measurements before and two hours after eating their snack. Researchers then learned the cocoa-eating participants[*]:

  • Opened their blood vessels to allow better blood flow
  • Kept platelets in their blood from sticking together
  • Significantly reduced oxidative stress

But these blood pressure-reducing effects were only significant when people consumed higher concentrations of flavonols.

So dark chocolate is more beneficial than milk or white chocolate, which have less and zero flavonols, respectively[*].

Cacao has even helped people lower their cholesterol levels.

#4. Improve Cholesterol

In one review of 19 trials with over 1,000 participants, eating cocoa flavanols helped people improve their cholesterol[*].

Scientists learned both people with normal to slightly high cholesterol levels and even those most at risk for heart disease saw improved blood lipid profiles when consuming cocoa powder on a regular basis[*].

Experts believe cocoa increases HDL cholesterol concentrations, which may naturally help lower LDL cholesterol oxidation[*].

So now cacao may be able to lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and prevent heart disease.

Lowering these risk factors, it’s probably no surprise cacao may also reduce your chances of having a heart attack or stroke then too[*].

#5. Reduce Your Risks for Heart Attack and Stroke

Evidence from a total of 20,951 men and women from nine studies suggests higher chocolate intake correlates with a lower chance of future cardiovascular events.

Researchers came to this conclusion as they noticed participants eating the most cacao also had the fewest incidences of heart disease and strokes[*].

And in two cohort studies, one with 31,823 women aged 48 to 83-years old and another with 31,917 men between 45-79 years, moderate-but-regular chocolate intake was associated with a lower rate of heart failure hospitalization and death.

However, this protective nature was not observed when participants ate more than one serving of cocoa per day[*][*].

The antioxidants found in cacao not only lower inflammation for better heart health, but may even have a role to play in insulin resistance and obesity as well.

#6. Decrease Insulin Resistance

The cocoa flavanols found in dark chocolate may be able to help people with type 2 diabetes[*][*]:

That’s because cocoa polyphenols slow the digestion and absorption of carbs and sugar.

And they also help break down glucose so it’s easier managed by your body. This then balances blood sugar levels and helps improve insulin resistance[*][*][*].

In one study, scientists compared the effects of dark and white chocolate bars on glucose and insulin response in 15 healthy subjects.

Each participant randomly received either dark chocolate bars containing approximately 500 mg polyphenols, or white chocolate bars containing zero polyphenols (since they lack cocoa), for 15 days.

The data showed dark but not white chocolate improved insulin sensitivity[*].

These same cocoa flavanols also do wonders for your mental health.

#7. Prevent and Possibly Reverse Cognitive Decline

Experts believe cocoa flavanols can prevent or reduce many signs of age-related cognitive decline[*].

Polyphenols and cocoa flavonoids have been shown to improve brain function, increase blood flow to your brain, and prevent neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s as you age[*][*].

That may be because flavanols can actually cross the blood-brain barrier so they get to work their magic directly on neuron production and healthy brain cell functioning directly.

Catechin and epicatechin, two specific flavonoids in cocoa, also tend to hang out in the areas of your brain where memory and learning happen. These areas are usually where neurodegeneration first occurs, so it’s one of the best places for them to be[*].

The catechins and epicatechins in cocoa stopped brain cells from becoming toxiic and dying off in one study done on rats[*]. And they may be the reason cocoa improved working memory in healthy adults in another study[*].

Scientists also demonstrated that regularly consuming cocoa flavanols might be effective for improving cognitive function in elderly adults who are already suffering from mild cognitive impairment[*].

And they may even be able to reverse damage done to neurons caused by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases too[*][*].

All these brain health-boosting effects may also carry over to your mental outlook and moods.

#8. Better Moods, Less Fatigue, and Lower Depression

It’s no coincidence eating chocolate makes you feel happy.

Even though you probably attributed those warm and fuzzy feels to the sugar found in chocolate, cocoa itself can also enhance your mood for the better[*].

Cocoa and cocoa powder has been shown to[*][*]:

  • Promote feelings of contentment
  • Lower symptoms of depression
  • Provide aphrodisiac-like effects

Do you ever feel totally exhausted, wiped out, and stuck in a brain fog?

When you’re suffering from mental exhaustion and chronic fatigue, cocoa powder may be able to help by releasing calming neurotransmitters like serotonin[*][*].

Several reviews show cocoa polyphenols not only put you in a happier mood, but even help alleviate mental stress and chronic fatigue syndrome[*][*].

Plus, that bit of caffeine in cacao may also jolt you towards a productive second wind.

When elderly men in one study ate chocolate, they reported better overall health and greater psychological well-being[*]. Another showed participants drinking high-polyphenol cocoa became more calm and content afterwards[*].

And there’s even research showing ladies who frequently ate chocolate during their pregnancy had babies with lower stress and better moods[*]!

While cocoa powder may turn your frown upside down, it also does a world of good for your digestion.

#9. Healthy Fiber that Doesn’t Taste Gross

Americans are supposed to get between 25g and 30g of dietary fiber every day[*].

But chances are you’re not getting enough — especially if you’re not tracking what you’re eating.

This is a bad move because fiber not only helps you feel fuller so you don’t eat as much during the day or during meals, it’s also necessary for healthy bowel movements and proper digestive functioning.

Many people struggle with constipation when they first switch to a low carb diet.

But when 44 healthy participants consumed two servings of cocoa products per day, they reported[*]:

  • An increase in the number of daily bowel movements
  • Having a bowel movement once a day became more frequent
  • The time to have a bowel movement decreased
  • The feeling of constipation disappeared

When you’re in keto, you can’t load up on cocoa powder, but you can add it to other foods like chia pudding to bulk up your fiber intake and help you shed more weight.

#10. Help With Weight Loss

Would you ever believe people who consume chocolate more frequently also have lower BMIs than those who rarely indulge[*]?

It’s true; as long as you’re not getting your cocoa solely from candy bars, you may be able to use cocoa powder as part of a weight loss plan.

Cocoa has been shown to[*][*]:

  • Lower obesity-related inflammation
  • Suppress your appetite
  • Help you feel fuller longer
  • Prevent fat storage
  • Increase fat burning

Rats eating cocoa in one study had less visceral fat, or the kind that accumulates around your midsection and increases your risks for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

This helped scientists conclude cocoa may be able to prevent or decrease this harmful fat to lower the rates of these conditions[*].

And participants following a low carb diet in another experiment were allowed to eat 1.5 ounces of chocolate made with 81% cocoa (i.e., very dark chocolate with little sugar or milk solids) every day. They lost weight quicker than those dieters not allowed to eat chocolate[*].

As you can expect, dark chocolate showed the most promising results for weight loss while white and milk chocolate does not have those same waist-shrinking effects thanks to the extra added sugars.

Dark chocolate is also a great source of magnesium.

#11. Good Source of Magnesium to Balance Electrolytes

It’s very easy for keto dieters to neglect their electrolyte balance as they’re chugging a gallon of water every day.

But this is a huge mistake.

When you don’t have enough sodium, magnesium, and potassium in your body, you’ll experience symptoms like the dreaded keto flu and:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue and sluggishness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Muscle spasms
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea or constipation

Cocoa may help you meet your magnesium requirement as one tablespoon contains 6% of your recommended daily intake[*].

Rats in one study were able to increase their magnesium levels so much with cacao they improved their symptoms of magnesium deficiency[*].

Healthy cocoa flavonoids and polyphenols not only heal your body from the inside out, they may also help your skin radiate your good health.

#12. Healthy, Hydrated Skin

Cocoa polyphenols and flavanols may help your skin look healthier because those awesome antioxidants boost circulation and blood flow, and increase oxygen[*]. All these contribute to more even skin tone and a more youthful appearance.

Additionally, those antioxidants also help shield your skin from the sun’s harmful and damaging UV rays. In studies, those who added more cocoa to their diets also had softer skin and less skin dryness[*][*].

So cocoa may help you get the acne-free skin of your dreams and a healthy smile to match.

#13. Better Dental Health

Can cocoa really protect your teeth from cavities and gum disease?

Since cocoa contains antioxidants with antibacterial and immunity-enhancing effects, they may lead to better dental health and ward off gingivitis.

One review showed theobromine, which you’ll find in cocoa, may protect your tooth enamel to strengthen your teeth[*][*].

But you’ll only score these benefits when you stick to unsweetened cocoa powder instead of those containing sugar, which directly leads to cavities.

So let’s talk about how to buy the right type of cocoa powder and add it to all your keto menu planning next.

How to Add More Cocoa Powder to Your Diet

When buying cocoa powder, stay away from sweetened options used to make hot cocoa unless you want to kick yourself out of ketosis.

Look for unsweetened cocoa powder with as few ingredients as possible. Ideally, your unsweetened cacao powder should just contain pure, untreated, ground cacao beans.

Though cocoa does contain trace amounts of caffeine, it’s generally well-tolerated by most people and has few side effects.

While there’s no set daily intake amount, you can’t go too crazy if you’re sticking to less than 25g of net carbs a day because each tablespoon counts as 1g of carbs.

The best and easiest ways to add cocoa powder to your low carb diet is by using it to make:

  • Hot or cold cocoa by mixing cocoa powder with non-dairy milk
  • Smoothies and mocha keto coffees for a healthy, delicious treat
  • Keto desserts like brownies, cookies, and chocolate mousse
  • Chia pudding recipes
  • Keto fat bombs

You know what else has cacao and requires zero effort on your end?

A Perfect Keto Bar, the energy bar formulated to satiate snack cravings and boost energy levels while you’re on a ketogenic diet.

You’ll only find healthy ingredients in a Perfect Keto Bar — no added sugars, sugar alcohols, or cheap binders and fillers.

For only 3g of net carbs, you’ll score 19g of high quality fat from cacao butter and coconut oil and 10g of collagen protein from grass-fed cows.

While this nutrient-dense, on-the-go keto snack isn’t the only way you can savor all 13 benefits of cocoa powder, it’s one of the easiest ways to add more cacao to your keto life.

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