Chocolate and the Differences Between Cacao and Cocoa

three bowls containing cacao butter, cacao powder and cacao nibs and plate of brownies
Bottom Left to Right: cacao butter, cacao powder and cacao nibs (Photo Credit: Blair/Joanne @ TheDragonsPicnic.com)

Considered by many as food of the Gods, the world’s love affair with chocolate is thought to have began approximately 5,300 years ago in the rainforests of Ecuador. It is believed that ancient civilizations used cacao to produce drinks for festivals, feasts and medicinal purposes. Also, contrary to the old adage that money doesn’t grown on trees, they also used cacao seeds as currency!

I concur with this global consensus and have coveted and feasted on chocolate in all its glorious forms since childhood. However, I only discovered the use cacao powder, cacao butter (oils of the bean) and cacao nibs (the dried and fermented pieces of cacao beans) since exploring whole foods, plant-based (WFPB) eating.  Cacao appears regularly in WFPB recipes as it is considered raw and is minimally processed with no additives.

What is the difference between cacao and cocoa?

Cacao and cocoa both start out as beans from the cacao plant and the difference comes in the way they are processed. Both are fermented for a few days to develop a flavour and then they are dried.

To produce cocoa, the beans are then roasted at high temperatures which alters the chemical nature of the bean resulting in a less bitter powder. The processing also causes a loss in nutritional value as the antioxidant flavonoids, enzymes and minerals are reduced.

Alternatively, cacao beans are not roasted and remain in their raw form which, although results in a more bitter taste, maintains a higher nutritional content. 

What are some of the health benefits of cacao?

Some of the health benefits of raw cacao include the following:

  • Contains a powerhouse of antioxidants (flavonoids with anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits)
  • Improves mood and energy due to phenylethylamine (a natural antidepressant) and tryptophan (linked to the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of happiness)
  • Increases mental alertness (caffeine and theobromine)
  • Includes nutrients such magnesium, zinc, calcium, potassium and even vitamin C

Although safe for most people, please keep in mind that cacao contains caffeine and eating large amounts might cause caffeine-related side effects such as nervousness, increased urination, sleeplessness, and a fast heartbeat.

cacao beans and crushed cacao powder
Chocolate cacao beans (Photo Credit: janiceweirgermia from Pixabay)

Is cacao and cocoa interchangeable?

The flavour and texture of cacao and unsweetened cocoa powder are similar and are interchangeable and both offer a bitterness and depth of flavour. I have now used cacao powder successfully in many recipes including baked goods, granola and smoothies, cacao butter in chocolate desserts, and cacao nibs add a lovely crunch texture as a topping on any of these items. 

Chocolate and quality?

All chocolate is not created equal. Cacao is the purest form and gram per gram it is more nutritious than cocoa. Although unsweetened cocoa still has relatively high nutritional value, the average mass-market chocolate contains a relatively small amount of cacao and is mainly comprised of refined sugar, unhealthy fats, flavourings, preservatives, and colourings.

The disadvantage of cacao is that it tends to be more expensive and some people find the taste too bitter.  In the past, I have always gravitated towards milk, and even white chocolate, yet have been pleasantly surprised with the taste of cacao and now defer to it for all my chocolate recipes.

Like a fine wine, the taste of authentic chocolate can be savoured and I invite you to try cacao and pay homage to the celebrations of our ancestors in the forests of Ecuador so many years ago!

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Check out more whole food, plant-based information in Resources

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