Health enthusiasts looove the chance to redeem a “junk food” (just look at Cheez Whiz), so it’s not surprising that raw cacao beans are having a serious moment right now. Raw cacao is chocolate’s healthier, grown-up cousin. It’s far less processed, not sweet at all, and it's actually good for you.

Raw cacao beans are rich in antioxidants, as are other raw cacao products like nibs and powder. Raw cacao is easy to incorporate into your diet—come on, it's delicious! However, the terminology around cacao, cocoa, and chocolate can be really confusing, and it’s important to know what you’re getting.

What are raw cacao beans?

“Cacao” refers to the beans and pods of the cacao tree that are used to make chocolate. Cacao beans are typically fermented, dried, and roasted in order to develop their signature chocolatey flavor. Then they’re crushed into nibs and ground into a nonalcoholic liquor, which is turned into products like cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and chocolate bars.

Raw cacao beans are cacao beans that have not been roasted. They’re not “raw” in the truest sense—they still go through a process that includes fermentation and heat. Raw cacao beans can still be turned into nibs, powder, and chocolate bars, just like regular cacao beans.

On one hand, unroasted cacao beans don't quite have the flavor profile associated with chocolate. On the other hand, less heat has been applied to these beans, so they’re richer in anti-oxidants. And speaking of anti-oxidants…

Raw cacao has health benefits

Let’s be honest—most people eat chocolate primarily for the taste, and many chocolate products are far from healthy. However, cacao does have health benefits, especially when enjoyed in moderation.

Cacao is a rich source of anti-oxidants that have been linked to reduced inflammation, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and improved blood sugar levels. Cacao is also full of easily absorbed iron, and it contains tryptophan, which helps the brain relax.

All forms of cacao and cocoa feature these health benefits, not just “raw” or unroasted cacao, but as with many plant foods, less-processed cacao is more nutritious.

Raw cacao comes in several forms

You can buy raw cacao in the form of raw cacao beans, nibs, powder, or chocolate products. Raw cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been crushed with the shells removed. Raw cacao powder consists of powdered nibs with the fat (cocoa butter) removed.

You’ll also find a lot of chocolate products that contain raw cacao, like chocolate bars and hot chocolate. Keep in mind that there are no regulations for the use of “raw,” “cacao,” and “cocoa” on food labels, and the terms are used inconsistently by different brands. Don’t evaluate a product by the name alone.

The shelf life of raw cacao

Raw cacao beans will last from six months to a year if stored properly. They should be stored in an air-tight container away from heat, light, and moisture. Roasted cacao beans will last for about a month before starting to lose their flavor.

The shelf life of cacao or cocoa powder is much longer than the beans. The powder will last for two to three years if stored in a cool, dry area (even if the expiration date says otherwise).

How to eat raw cacao

If you buy raw cacao beans, you can crush them into nibs yourself, with or without roasting them first. If you roast them, use the leftover shells for cacao tea. Bonus: Your house will smell divine.

Raw cacao nibs are great for adding to smoothies or blending into other desserts. The nibs can easily become homemade chocolate if you grind them up and add a bit of sweetener. You can even make your own cacao butter by grinding the nibs and straining the paste through cheesecloth.

If you buy raw cacao powder, you have some other options. The consistency is smoother and less gritty than ground cacao nibs. Use raw cacao powder for smoothies, baked goods, Mayan hot chocolate, or any other recipe that needs an extra boost of bitter chocolate flavor.

Like chocolate, you shouldn't go too wild on raw cacao and eat it at every meal, but it makes for the perfect healthy, luxurious snack.

About the Author

Kim Wong-Shing

Kim Wong-Shing is a writer, lipstick junkie, and plant mama in New Orleans. She grew up in Philadelphia and went to Brown University. She's previously written about wellness, beauty, pop culture and other topics for LittleThings, NaturallyCurly, Lifehacker, HelloGiggles, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and other publications.