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Discover why this ancient superfood was once called the “food of the gods”

Thanks to high levels of flavanols, magnesium, and other potent nutrients, cacao supports heart health, brain health, and even your mood.

brain, heart, mood 5 min read

Everybody loves chocolate, but few people know of its ancient roots, cultural significance, and serious superfood benefits...

Turns out, the cacao tree was cultivated more than 3,000 years ago by the Aztec, Toltec, and Mayan people who lived in what is now modern day Mexico, Central America, and South America. These civilizations often prepared a ceremonial beverage from the cacao tree’s fruit, and they even used the cacao bean as currency. Mayans also considered cacao to be sacred, calling it the “food of the gods” and burying high ranking members of society with bowls of it for use in the afterlife.

Today, chocolate may not seem like an obvious “health food,” given its association with cakes, cookies, and other not-so-nutritious fare—but true cacao, which is simply a roasted and ground form of the cacao bean, is potently nutritious and a rich source of polyphenol antioxidants called flavanols, plus a range of other micronutrients. Together, these compounds have been associated with improved cardiovascular health, cognitive benefits, and more.

Here’s a look at some of the most exciting potential health benefits of high quality cacao.

4 Health Benefits Supported By Cacao

  • Better overall cardiovascular health.

    Cacao is a rich source of polyphenol antioxidants, particularly a subclass of polyphenols called flavanols—known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Researchers also believe it’s these flavanols that contribute to cacao’s blood pressure-lowering effect. In fact, a 2017 research review of more than 30 studies found that consuming flavanol-rich cacao was consistently associated with a small but significant decrease in blood pressure.

    Specifically, researchers say cacao flavanols increase nitric oxide production in the blood, which causes vasodilation (an expansion of the blood vessels) and allows for easier blood flow—thus lowering blood pressure. Scientists believe that cacao’s beneficial effects on blood vessels and blood flow may also be why cacao consumption is associated with a lower risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.

  • Enhanced brain health and memory

    For the same reason consuming cacao helps lower blood pressure (increased nitric oxide production, which expands blood vessels), it also improves blood flow to the brain, which may boost cognitive health. A 2008 study found that regular consumption of flavanol-rich cacao was associated with a 10% increase in cerebral blood flow after two weeks, which, according to the study authors, make it a potentially promising treatment for conditions such as dementia.

    Other research builds on this theory, with a 2014 study finding that cacao flavanol consumption was associated with enhanced functioning in an area of the hippocampus associated with age-related memory decline. Experts say cacao flavanols also seem to help brain cells make connections (so they can communicate better) and protect brain cells from toxins and inflammation.

  • Improved mood and focus.

    Chocolate has long been considered a feel-good, stress-busting comfort food, and research suggests there’s more to this mood-boosting effect than awesome flavor. For one, cacao contains phenylethylamine, a compound associated with feelings of euphoria and improved focus. It also contains the amino acid tryptophan, which happens to be a precursor to serotonin—a neurotransmitter that keeps your mood balanced and anxiety levels in check.

    But that’s not all! Cacao is a great natural source of magnesium. Feelings of apathy, depression, agitation, confusion, and anxiety have all been linked to low magnesium intake, while increasing magnesium intake has been shown to help people cope with stress. Cacao also contains theobromine, a mildly stimulating compound that may be partly responsible for the subtle improvements in mood and alertness associated with eating chocolate.

  • Reduced diabetes risk.

    Even though it’s typically associated with sweet foods, cacao itself doesn’t contain sugar—and, according to a 2017 research review, its flavonoid compounds have even been associated with reduced blood sugar, improved insulin sensitivity, and a reduction in inflammation. This, in turn, may help reduce risk of type 2 diabetes. More research is needed, but cacao may exert these positive effects, in part, by reducing oxidative stress, slowing down carb digestion, and improving the health and functioning of blood vessels.

Why Cacao Is Considered A Superfood

Nutritional analysis shows that cacao is an exceptionally rich source of polyphenol antioxidant compounds called flavanols—which, research suggests, are largely to thank for cacao’s beneficial cardiovascular, cognitive, and metabolic effects. Beyond flavanols, cacao also contains meaningful levels of health-boosting compounds and micronutrients including theobromine, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, and copper. Together, these compounds make cacao one delicious superfood.

Bottom Line On Cacao

Not only is cacao delicious, it’s got some pretty solid science to support eating more of it! A range of studies suggest cacao’s flavanols may help improve cardiovascular health, enhance cognitive functioning, and reduce diabetes risk; while compounds like theobromine and magnesium can help improve mood.

*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.