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Is cocoa butter vegan? It’s one of those ingredients that can make a new plant-based practitioner do a double take. It does contain the word “butter” after all, which is usually associated with dairy milk. However, this “butter” contains about as much dairy as peanut butter — zilch.
So, if it’s dairy-free, does that mean cocoa butter is suitable for vegans? Before I can answer that, let’s figure out exactly what this mysterious ingredient is and how it’s made.
What is cocoa butter?
Cocoa butter, also known as Theobroma cacao, is essentially fat that’s been extracted from cocoa beans. Its most commonly used to make chocolate. In fact, it’s this edible fat that gives chocolate its signature melt-in-your-mouth creaminess.
The process of making cocoa butter begins with the football-sized cacao pod, which contains cacao beans. These beans are removed from the pod, cleaned, and roasted to enhance their flavor, turning them from cacao beans to cocoa beans. They are then extracted from their individual shells, producing tiny nuggets known as nibs, which are milled into a liquid called cocoa liquor. When pressed, the cocoa liquor separates into two substances: one is the remnants of the nibs, used to make cocoa powder, and the other is a fatty, yellowish substance. That is cocoa butter.
As you can see, there are no animal ingredients or by-products involved in the production of cocoa butter, making it completely vegan. But, as you may have realized by now, just because something is vegan doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthy (ahem, Sour Patch Kids). That begs the question…
Is cocoa butter good for you?
As it turns out, the usefulness of cocoa butter does not end with making chocolate. In fact, it has several health benefits.
Cocoa butter is a source of healthy fats, not unlike coconut oil and avocado. These healthy fats are full of polyphenol antioxidants that can boost your immune system and insulate your DNA and cells from mutations and damage that can lead to disease. Keep in mind that the more processed cocoa butter is, the more polyphenols it loses, so it’s best to use raw cocoa butter whenever possible to reap the full antioxidant benefits.
In addition to boosting your immunity, this aromatic butter can help keep your heart healthy. Studies on the health benefits of cocoa butter indicate that it can reduce inflammation in the arteries, lowering the risk of heart attacks and heart disease.
Adding reasonable amounts of cocoa butter to your diet can help make you not only healthier, but happier. That’s right — there’s science behind the moment of bliss you experience when savoring a delicious piece of chocolate. Cocoa butter can actually increase your serotonin and endorphin levels, helping you feel calm and content. If that’s not reason enough to reach for another piece of cocoa butter-filled chocolate, I don’t know what is!
(That being said, cocoa butter is quite high in calories, so unless you’re trying to gain weight, it’s best consumed in moderation. Sorry about that!)
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A naturally beautifying butter
Believe it or not, cocoa butter’s benefits don’t stop there. This nourishing butter has long been a favored ingredient in cosmetics and toiletries because of its intensely moisturizing and healing properties. It’s excellent for dry and sensitive skin, plus the same antioxidants that can boost your immunity can also reduce signs of aging by protecting skin from harmful environmental irritants.
If you’d like to test these skincare benefits for yourself, there are tons of vegan-friendly and cruelty-free products to try. The popular cruelty-free brand Lush makes a wide array of vegan skincare and haircare products starring cocoa butter, including their Love and Light hand lotion. However, their products tend to be on the pricier side, so if you want to try cocoa butter’s beauty benefits without breaking the bank, the vegan and cruelty-free brand Pacifica offers some great affordable options, including beeswax-free lip balms and lotions.
If you prefer a DIY approach, you can easily make your own cocoa butter-based moisturizer. This recipe from naturallivingideas.com uses cocoa butter, shea butter, coconut oil, almond oil, and lavender essential oil to make a rich and soothing body butter. Apply it to dry, cracked skin to experience this natural butter’s amazing healing properties.
This rich butter also works wonders for dry hair. Its nourishing fats can rejuvenate even the most damaged hair while soothing an irritated or flaky scalp. By gently melting the butter down and combining it with coconut oil or another deeply moisturizing oil, you can create a killer hair mask.
Check out this easy, three-ingredient hair mask that will leave your hair shiny, soft, and smelling like chocolate:
If you prefer to buy a pre-made deep conditioner, you may want to try something like Alba Botanica’s Hawaiian Cocoa Butter Deep Conditioning Minute Mask.
So, now we know that cocoa butter is not only vegan, but full of amazing health benefits. However, as socially conscious vegans, we should always question whether what we’re consuming is sustainably and ethically made. Let’s dig a little deeper.
Where does cocoa come from?
As you know by now, cocoa butter comes from the cocoa bean. This popular crop thrives in a narrow strip of the globe, known among chocolate producers as the “Cocoa Belt” or the “Chocolate Belt,” where high heat, humidity, and heavy rainfall allow cocoa trees to thrive. Many countries fall within this belt, but the vast majority of cocoa comes from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast. Collectively, these two west African countries are responsible for producing about 70 percent of the world’s cocoa.
Sadly, these countries are deeply impoverished. According to the Cocoa Barometer, the international authority on cocoa production data, cocoa farmers in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are living below the global poverty line. This low pay, combined with exhausting and dangerous labor, is contributing to an alarming shortage of cocoa farmers. As older farmers die out, there are fewer and fewer young people willing to take their place.
Underpaid farmers are not the only ethical concern when it comes to cocoa. Rates of child labor and slavery in this industry have been reported on for decades, but they show no signs of decreasing. In fact, as recently as 2016, child labor rates in West Africa were shown to sharply increase by 21 percent, meaning that more and more children are being exposed to the incredibly dangerous work of harvesting cocoa. Not only does that mean that their safety and well-being are endangered, but they are missing out on an education as well, furthering the cycle of poverty.
This brief, eye-opening video from CNN gives us a glimpse into the harsh reality of child labor and slavery in the cocoa industry:
Thankfully, there is a solution for conscious consumers who want to enjoy cocoa butter and other cocoa products without contributing to farmers’ poverty or child labor. By buying products that are certified fair trade, you’re ensuring that the farmers are paid a living wage and that no children were exploited. Fair trade products may cost a bit more, but that’s a small price to pay for a fairer and more ethical world.
To help make it easier to find fair-trade products and brands, fairtradecertified.org has a handy shopping guide.
Is cocoa butter vegan? Answered!
Cocoa butter is completely vegan, and it can be used in a variety of ways to improve your health and your beauty routine. However, not all cocoa butter is ethically sourced. If you want to avoid using cocoa butter derived from beans harvested by child slaves or severely underpaid farmers, buy fair trade whenever possible.
If you have any questions or suggestions about how to use cocoa butter or finding ethically sourced cocoa butter products, please leave a comment below!