There’s Way More to Cacao Than Chocolate: These Brands Use the *Whole* Fruit in Delicious Ways

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Chocolate is one of the world's most beloved foods, especially here in the U.S. where it's found everywhere from expensive specialty truffle shops to the checkout line at the dollar store. But ask the average person how chocolate is made or where it originated, and chances are you'll be met with a shrug and a guess along the lines of: Hershey Park?

In actuality, chocolate is sourced from cacao fruit, grown near the equator in countries including Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. While processed chocolate tends to be loaded with added sugar, raw cacao has none—yep, zero. Here's another factoid about chocolate: Only a small portion of the cacao fruit is used to make it.

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While cacao fruit's pulp, juice, and shell aren't utilized to produce chocolate, more food companies are incorporating these parts of the plant in other creative ways. This not only cuts down on food waste, it also brings more health benefits to the table because cacao fruit is super nutrient-rich.

Keep reading to get to know the brands using cacao fruit in new sustainable ways—and to find out why it's so darn good for you.

Cacao fruit 101—and why the whole fruit is good for you

Before we get into all the cool ways cacao fruit is being used, it helps to know what we're actually talking about in terms of the whole plant. Here's a little cacao fruit anatomy lesson. Cacao is a large, colorful fruit. It has a hard outer shell that can be red, yellow, green, pink, purple, or orange. If you crack open its shell, you'll see pods. Each one has a protective covering, inside of which are the cacao beans (the plant's seeds) and pulp.

"For centuries, only the seeds of the cacao fruit were used to craft chocolate, meaning that about 70 percent of the fruit was discarded as waste," says Sylvie Woltering-Valat, the head of marketing at Cabosse Naturals, one brand that's putting every part of the fruit to use. It's an effort registered dietitian Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, says she's excited to see happening more because the entire cacao fruit is full of nutritional benefits. "Many people already know that the cacao beans [used to make chocolate] are high in antioxidants, but the fruit's pulp and juice are high in antioxidants, too," she says. Antioxidants that are linked to heart health, brain health, and warding off chronic inflammation, explains Largeman-Roth explains.

But that's not the only benefit to consuming more parts of this plant. Largeman-Roth says the fruit's beans, pulp, and juice also contain magnesium. "Most people don't get enough magnesium in their diet, and it's very important for heart health," she says. "It's also linked to relaxation and better sleep."

Like all fruit, cacao contains fiber, particularly the fleshly pulp that's so often discarded, Largman-Roth also points out. Considering that fiber is so crucial for gut health and preventing chronic inflammation, it's a shame that fibrous parts of cacao plants typically goes to waste. But, of course, there are several brands working to change that.

How brands are using cacao fruit in exciting new ways

Cabosse Naturals, Blue Stripes, and CaPao are three food brands that are making an effort to use every single part of the cacao fruit—and the result is a wide range of delicious foods and drinks. Before he went on to found Blue Stripes, Oded Brenner was known as one of the top chocolatiers in the world, as the founder of Max Brenner Chocolate. One of the perks of running a chocolate company—besides being a real life Willie Wonka—is getting to travel to meet the farmers growing the cacao fruit. When Brenner went to Ecuador and saw the process-first hand, he realized there was so much more to the fruit than just making chocolate. So, he decided to launch a new brand that did it all.

Blue Stripes has a wide product line that includes cacao water, granola with the fruit pulp as a core ingredient, and even pancake mix where the cacao shell is ground into flour. "For me, learning about cacao fruit was like becoming Alice in Wonderland; it's just led to discovery after discovery of how it can be used," Brenner says. The cacao beans taste completely different from the pulp and juice; the latter two have a more tropical fruit taste than a chocolate-y one. Like other tropical fruits, Brenner found that the pulp pairs perfectly with nuts in the form of granola, energy bites, and bars.

Similar to Blue Stripes, CaPao also integrates cacao fruit pulp into bites made with other dried fruits, nuts, and seeds. Shannon Neumann, the brand's associate director, says sustainability is the main driving factor for the company. "We learned that 70 percent of the fruit was going to waste and the other parts of the fruit were also being upstaged by cacao beans," she says. "Cacao beans do create delicious chocolate, but we saw using [the pulp] as a way to cut down on food waste while introducing people to this delicious flavor that's also really good for them."

The cacao beans and pulp also pair well together, which is exactly what Cacao Barry and Cabosse Naturals (both parts of chocolate company Barry Callebaut) are doing with their new chocolate couverture that chefs will be able to use to create their own cacao fruit-based desserts. "Cabosse Naturals up-cycles everything: the fruit’s seeds, pulp, and peel. This means no wasted deliciousness and no wasted nutrition," says Woltering-Valat. She adds that even the shell is ground into flour and used in the bars.

Besides cutting down on food waste, using the whole cacao fruit means farmers and producers are able to profit more, too, Brenner says. "The owners of these small farmers in Ecuador [where Blue Stripes sources is cacao fruit] are able to make more money because they aren't just selling the cacao beans—they're selling all the parts of the fruit. The pods have a higher price than just the beans," he says. Brenner says that it's actually less labor for them too because instead of cracking open the pod and getting the beans, the whole cacao fruit is shipped to Blue Stripes' manufacturing plant, where it's then processed and turned into different products.

The tl;dr is this: Using the whole cacao fruit means more money for farmers, less food waste, and more nutritional benefits for us. That's an all-around win. But with any food "trend," Largeman-Roth says it's important to do your label reading and research more about the companies before you shell out your money to support them. Companies that truly support cacao fruit farmers should highlight it on their website, if not their packaging. Even better is having a Fair Trade certification, showing a reputable third-party organization is holding them accountable for safe worker conditions and sustainable practices.

When doing your label reading, Largeman-Roth says it's a smart idea to eye the sugar and sodium content. Even though cacao fruit is naturally sweet, you want to be sure brands aren't adding a ton of sugar or salt to what would otherwise be a healthy product. As a general rule of thumb, keep added sugar under 25 grams a day and sodium under 2,300 milligrams a day.

With these tips in mind, you're ready to enjoy cacao fruit to its fullest. Giving it a try is bound to be an (ahem) fruitful experience.

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