Cacao vs Cocoa: What’s the Difference?

If you are a chocolate lover, or even if you aren’t (but why wouldn’t you be?), you have probably noticed that there are two chocolate-related words that are so similar you wonder if they are interchangeable. We are talking about cocoa and cacao.

Maybe you’ve glossed over them or maybe you’ve wondered what the deal is. Well, we’re here to explain the very important differences between cocoa vs. cacao.

Both cocoa and cacao are chocolate-related and while some use them as if they were one in the same, they’re not. But it can be a little confusing, and there’s not 100% agreement on the terminology, but we’ll try our best. So let’s get into it!

Cacao

Our favorite end product — chocolate — takes a long journey from start to finish. Its base ingredient comes from cacao beans, which are technically seeds of a fruit (see? confusing!). This fruit grows on the Theobroma cacao tree. The beautiful, fruit-bearing tree grows mostly in tropical Africa, South and Central America and Southeast Asia.

The seeds/cacao beans are found inside large pods, kind of like a pomegranate. Inside each fruit pod, you will find a sweet and sticky pulp that surrounds 20-60 cacao beans.

Cacao in this original form is just at the beginning of the long road to becoming the chocolate we eat. So let’s pivot here and talk about how cacao seeds become chocolate.

After growing and harvesting, this is the multistep process:

  1. Fermentation: the collected cacao beans and some remnants of the pulp that surrounded them in the fruit are collected into bins and covered with a lid. If you know anything about fermentation, you know that this is a living process and the same is true here. Microbes begin to feed off of the pulp, which ferments the beans.
  2. Drying: after a few days, the now fermented beans are given air and sun to dry. The farmers are now ready to sell the product to chocolatiers.
  3. Roasting: Like coffee beans, the cacao beans are roasted, which adds some sweetness and develops the chocolate flavor.
  4. Crushing: the beans are next crushed to separate the hulls. You might have heard the word “nibs” before — nibs are the resulting product from this stage of the process.
  5. Grinding: the nibs get put through another crushing/grinding process to produce a non-alcoholic liquor.

This liquor product, which is roughly half fat (ie. cocoa butter) is now ready to make cocoa powder, which is a great segue to talk about cocoa.

Cocoa

Here is where things (continue to) get tricky. Cocoa is basically, sorta, a slightly different product that comes from our original fruit we just talked about. The difference occurs during the processing outlined above, when the beans are heated at much higher temperatures, resulting in a sweeter flavor.

The higher temperatures that transforms cacao to cocoa actually affects the beans on a molecular level. This changes their structure and nutrient content. This heavy processing is what makes cacao turn to cocoa.

Cocoa usually comes in a powdered form, which you will find in supermarkets. It is often blended with sugars and other sweeteners so beware of that when shopping — it is always best to carefully read labels so you know exactly what you are getting.

Does a Body Good

One of the most important differences between cocoa and cacao is in the nutritional and health benefits. When they say chocolate is good for you, they are usually referring to the cacao content. The higher the cacao content, the better.

Cacao, which is less processed, has more powerful antioxidant effects and health benefits. Raw cacao is an excellent source of magnesium and is associated with lower risk of diabetes, healthy blood pressure, strong bones, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and healthy nervous system activity. It can reduce inflammation, support heart health, and even help improve your mood.

Because cocoa is much more highly processed, much of the nutritional content is affected. Cocoa is also often blended with sugar and can increase risk of diabetes. Like with everything — it is best to be enjoyed in moderation.

Things to Remember

Cacao is a pure form of chocolate that comes very close to the raw and natural state in which it is harvested. Cocoa is much more processed and sweeter, if that is what you are after.

Sometimes manufacturers use the lingo a little haphazardly in order to market products a certain way. It’s often up to the consumer to make a cautious and informed decision.

Chocolate, in all its many forms, is created to please the masses. Since the flavor profile runs from very bitter to very sweet, there aren’t many people who can’t find something they like.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

In addition to its versatility and deliciousness, chocolate makes an excellent gift. Especially custom chocolate! With modern technology, there are companies that create gorgeous engraved custom chocolates that you can order with literally any design emblazoned onto high quality and delicious chocolate.

If you are stuck for the perfect gift for someone, consider a custom chocolate creation. Have a wedding picture engraved onto chocolate, or have a giant chocolate bar custom created with someone’s birthday to make it truly special. It’s truly a win win situation.

At the end of the day, sometimes we all need a little pick me up, and chocolate is basically the perfect treat. Whether it is nutritious dark, bitter chocolate with high cacao content or sweet hot chocolate from cocoa powder. Think high quality, few ingredients, sourced from ethical farmers that respect the product. Take the time to savor each bite and enjoy it! Life is made better with simple pleasures and chocolate is the sweetest of them all.