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Cocoa Butter: Nutrition, Uses, Benefits, Downsides

Cocoa Butter: Nutrition, Uses, Benefits, Downsides

Cocoa butter is a versatile product that has been popularized for its cosmetic uses and can be found in skin creams and hair conditioners. You can even purchase it as simply an unrefined block.

However, cocoa butter is also a key ingredient in many desserts and chocolate confectionaries, where it adds a creamy texture to these treats.

In this article, we take a deep dive into what cocoa butter is, including how it’s made, its benefits, downsides, and uses.

Coined “the food of the Gods” by the Mayans, the cocoa bean plant (Theobroma cacao) has been used since ancient times to prepare “chocolate,” which at that time was a cocoa drink made with hot water (1, 2).

Cocoa butter is a triglyceride — a type of fat that’s naturally found in cocoa beans and other sources (3, 4).

It’s extracted from the cocoa bean via a fermentation process and is used as raw material in the production of various cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and chocolate products (3, 4).

In fact, cocoa butter is responsible for the melting properties of chocolate — a feature that not only defines the quality and palatability of chocolate but also influences how it must be stored (3, 5).

Cocoa butter can be found as an ingredient in:

  • milk, dark, and white chocolate (2)
  • gianduja chocolate, a cocoa and hazelnut product (2)
  • cakes, cookies, ice cream, and chocolate bars
  • beverages, including lattes and hot chocolate

Summary

Cocoa butter is a type of fat extracted from the cocoa beans of the Theobroma cacao plant, and it’s used as raw material in the production of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and chocolate products, including cakes, bars, and lattes.

The cocoa bean contains approximately 40 to 50% of fat, in the form of cocoa butter (2).

The beans undergo a series of transformations and processing to create different types of cocoa ingredients, including cocoa butter and cocoa powder (2).

First, the cocoa beans are cleaned and shelled. Then, they may be roasted or fermented (2, 3).

Fermenting is likely a better processing method. It preserves more of the cocoa butter’s stability during manufacturing and aids with development of its aroma (6).

The beans are processed into cocoa nibs and cocoa liquor, which is pressed to extract cocoa butter. The cocoa butter is then used to manufacture chocolate (2).

Other end products of cocoa processing include cocoa cake and cocoa powder (2).

Summary

Cocoa beans may be roasted or fermented. They’re processed into cocoa nibs and cocoa liquor, which can be pressed to extract cocoa butter.

Polyphenol

Polyphenols are antioxidant, health-promoting compounds found in plants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, tea, cocoa, and coffee (7).

Cocoa bean is one of the richest sources of polyphenols in the human diet and has the highest flavonoid content per-weight than any other food — suggesting that it may benefit heart health (2, 8, 9).

The high polyphenol content in unprocessed cocoa bean is what makes it unpalatable. It’s practically inedible due to its high astringency and bitterness (2, 8).

However, the polyphenol content in cocoa bean may be quite different from that found in finished, processed, tasty products, such as cocoa butter (10).

In fact, the non-fat portions of the processed bean — the cocoa powder — is highest in polyphenol (72–87%), while the high-fat parts, such as cocoa butter, can have as little as 5% (10).

That means that cocoa butter itself is not a good source of polyphenols.

To increase the polyphenol content of a chocolate product that contains cocoa butter, cocoa powder must be added. The more cocoa powder, the higher the polyphenol content and potential health benefits (10).

Fatty acids

Cocoa butter consists of a combination of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids.

It contains approximately 60% saturated fat (palmitic, stearic, lauric, and myristic acids), 35% monounsaturated fat (oleic acid), and 1% polyunsaturated fat (linoleic acid) (3).

The fatty acid profile gives rise to three types of triglyceride fats in cocoa butter that contribute significantly to cocoa butter’s features (3, 4, 11).

The unique properties of cocoa butter are in high demand, compared with common vegetable oils — leading to a global shortage of cocoa butter, high manufacturing costs, and an expensive end product (3).

Efforts to reduce production costs of cocoa products have led to the development of cocoa butter equivalent (CBE) oils — oils made from other plant sources — that are used to partially or completely replace cocoa butter in some food products (3).

However, the triglyceride in cocoa butter that is most responsible for its unique properties — 1, 3-distearoyl-2-oleoyl-glycerol, or SOS for short — is found in low quantities in vegetable oils, making it difficult to produce cocoa butter with CBEs (3, 4, 11).

Other nutrients

Cocoa butter is high in vitamin D2, a precursor to the active form of vitamin D in the body (12).

Cocoa butter is also rich in these minerals (2):

  • Potassium, which helps lower blood pressure
  • Phosphorus, which supports bone health
  • Copper, which supports brain health
  • Iron, which supports red blood cell activity
  • Zinc, which supports immune health
  • Magnesium, which supports muscle and nerve health

Summary

Cocoa butter is high in vitamin D2, a precursor to the active form of vitamin D in the body. It’s also rich in minerals, such as potassium, phosphorus, iron, copper, and magnesium, but it’s low in health-promoting polyphenols.

The consumption of cocoa and chocolate has been associated with cardiovascular and metabolic health.

Here are a few potential health benefits.

Good source of vitamin D

Vitamin D enhances the absorption of calcium in the gut, and it supports bone health, immunity, and heart health (13, 14).

Cocoa butter is a rich source of vitamin D. Other sources of vitamin D include eggs, fortified beverages, and exposure to sunlight (13).

Vitamin D deficiency is a global public health challenge, and the regular consumption of vitamin D-containing foods is encouraged (14).

Heart-friendly in certain forms

The polyphenol content of cocoa has been shown to be heart-friendly. It may reduce some risk factors for heart disease by lowering blood pressure and improving the health of the blood vessels (2, 8, 15).

There’s some evidence that suggests cocoa products, like dark chocolate, may improve blood vessel health by reducing deposits of fats and inflammatory markers that lead to atherosclerosis and heart disease (8, 15).

It’s important to note that these health benefits are associated with the polyphenol content of the cocoa powder portion of the product and not directly to cocoa butter, which is naturally low in polyphenol.

May improve insulin resistance

Cocoa consumption has been shown to reduce insulin resistance, a metabolic condition where cells become less sensitive to the blood sugar-lowering effects of insulin (2, 3, 8).

Insulin resistance is associated with the development of (16, 17):

  • prediabetes
  • diabetes
  • heart disease
  • some skin diseases

Similar to the heart-healthy benefits mentioned above, improved blood sugar control is also attributed to flavonoids. These antioxidants help reduce oxidative stress, which is thought to be a major contributor to insulin resistance (18, 19).

Summary

Cocoa butter is a good source of vitamin D, and cocoa consumption has been associated with reduced blood pressure and improved insulin resistance. Some benefits are attributed to the polyphenol content of cocoa powder, though.

Many of the health benefits attributed to cocoa or chocolate consumption are based on the high polyphenol content of the cocoa powder, and not cocoa butter itself.

However, the increased global demand for cocoa products has strained cocoa butter production, creating a shortage, increased manufacturing costs, and a more expensive cocoa product for consumers (3, 4, 11).

The shortage has propelled the diversification of cocoa butter production, which has now expanded to use cocoa butter equivalents from other plants to meet the high global demand for cocoa and chocolate (3, 4, 11).

Potential equivalents include shorea robusta seed oil (known as Sal fat), yeast that has been modulated to produce cocoa butter-like fats, and shea butter (3, 4, 10).

Summary

The global demand for cocoa has strained cocoa butter production, making final products more expensive, and leading to the use of cocoa butter equivalents to meet demands. These equivalents include Sal fat and yeast.

Cocoa butter is used in cosmetics and can be found in various skin creams, hair conditioners, and moisturizers.

With respect to food, cocoa butter is an ingredient in sweet and savory dishes, cakes, ice cream, lattes, and hot chocolate, where it adds a creamy texture.

It can be used to replace butter or oil in a recipe, but it should be melted before use.

Summary

Cocoa butter is used in beauty products and foods, such as cake, ice cream, lattes and cookies. Melt prior to use.

Cocoa butter is a type of fat that is naturally found in cocoa beans.

It’s extracted and used as an ingredient in chocolate production, and it can be found in cakes, cookies, lattes, and savory dishes.

It’s a good source of vitamin D, and when combined with cocoa powder that’s high in polyphenols, it produces a product that has health-promoting benefits. It may help improve insulin resistance and heart health.