Cocoa vs. Cacao: What's the Difference?

If you’re like us, you’ve probably stumbled across a recipe that called for cocoa or cacao and thought, what the hell is the difference? Or, you haven’t even registered there was a difference, and just tossed in the cocoa powder or cacao powder or some Swiss Miss, cause they’re basically the same thing, right?

Well, not exactly.

Chocolate is made from cocoa and cocoa is made from crushed cacao - that’s the basic equation. But, it’s a bit more complicated than that. So grab a square of dark chocolate and pull up a chair, time to delve into the difference between cocoa and cacao.

On This Episode of How It’s Made

On the road to becoming chocolate, cacao seeds are grown on the Theobroma cacao tree - Greek for “food of the Gods” - in batches of 40-50 seeds per pod and surrounded by a sweet gooey pulp. It takes 4-5 months for a cacao pod to grow and several hundred mashed up beans to create 1 pound of chocolate. Once a cacao pod is harvested from the tree it undergoes a few steps:

  1. Fermentation: Pods are shucked and the beans left out in covered bins; about 5 days.
  2. Drying: Beans are sundried for 1-2 weeks on large trays.
  3. Roasting: To bring out that chocolaty goodness, beans are roasted - separating the fatty cacao butter from the bean.

All cacao beans are roasted, it’s the temperature that’s the divider. Roasting beans on a low heat maintains the integrity and nutrition of the bean so it remains cacao. While high temperatures will degrade the nutritional profile but sweeten the end product and gain a new name, cocoa.

The Low Down on Cacao

Cacao is the purest form and has a bitter taste. There are many forms of cacao but these are the most popular:

  • Nibs: Chopped cacao, like chocolate chips but without the additives.
  • Powder: Defatted (cacao butter removed) and ground cacao, like baking cocoa.
  • Cacao Butter: Coats each bean and is removed during production - it’s white, fatty and has a similar taste to white chocolate.

Raw cacao is a superfood and in its powdered form has four times more antioxidants than goji berries! Cacao is more nutrient dense than its counterpart, cocoa.

The Scoop on Cocoa

Cocoa starts out the same as cacao but is treated to higher temperatures, creating a sweeter end product. This also means the health benefits of cocoa differ from that of cacao. Cocoa’s main forms are:

  • Chocolate: Cocoa powder is blended with sweeteners, vanilla and sometimes milk. The higher the percentage of chocolate (70-90%) the higher the cocoa mass and lower the unhealthy inclusions like sugar - upping the nutritional value!
  • Powders: Dark cocoa is more processed (to cut the acidity) making sweeter while natural cocoa powder is the healthier choice.

Health Benefits

Raw cacao has a slew of health benefits worth bragging about.

  • Antioxidants: Flavonals to protect you from free radicals and for heart health.
  • Iron: Highest source of plant-based iron (greater than beef) that’s readily absorbed, perfect for vegetarians.
  • Anti-depressant: Containing amino acids such as tryptophan to help you relax.
  • Magnesium: To improve your heart health and cognitive function, cacao contains the highest amount of any plant!
  • Calcium: The highest source of calcium, even beating milk.

Potato, Patato...Cacao, Cocoa

If you want to reap the benefits of this wonder food, low temperature and minimal processing to preserve the antioxidants and that superfood label. Here’s the undeniable truth: 100 grams of cacao powder has an ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) score of 95,500 while cocoa powder has 26,000 - just a wee bit of a difference.

If you’re going to swap out your baking cocoa for cacao, bear in mind that once you heat the powder it loses its potency. Our advice, try to maintain it’s natural integrity and find ways to eat it raw (trail mix, smoothies, no-bake desserts).

Cacao the King of Cocoa

The double-C’s may start off together, like twins, growing together on the Theobroma cacao tree but like most twins, they’re never alike. One twin is sweet like cocoa while the other is a bit more original like cacao. In a nutshell, cacao is less processed and closer to its original form while cocoa is more processed for a sweeter taste.

Want to put all this new-found knowledge to good use? Then pick up our new nutrition guide & recipe book and score dozens of delicious recipes and hundreds of clean eating tips.

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