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The Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa

cocoa powder on wooden bowl and cacao seeds

Is cacao the same as cocoa? In this post, we explain the difference between cacao and cocoa. After reading this post, not only will you know the difference, but you'll be able to make near expert decisions between cocoa and cacao when it comes to comparisons of taste, quality, and overall nutritional value. 

What is Cacao?

If you are like most people you probably didn't know there’s even a difference between cocoa and cacao. Or maybe you're aware they’re somehow different, but you’re not sure how. We assure you, it’s not just a recurring typo all across the internet.

Kuh-cow. Imagine the call of an exotic bird. Cacao refers to both the fruit from the tree and its raw and ‘unprocessed’ product. By ‘unprocessed’ we mean that from harvesting to consumption you can expect that a cacao product has not been cooked or heated up beyond certain temperatures. It may be shelled, cold-pressed and even ground until it becomes cacao powder, but the absence of roasting or cooking methods means cacao retains its original bitter flavor and none of its phytonutrients are leached.

What is Cocoa?

Ko-ko. Like coconut. Cocoa products are inherently sweeter and are closer in taste to chocolate that we’re all familiar with. While a cocoa product may have been through similar processes as cacao it has also been roasted at some point during production which alters its nutritional value and taste.

Where Do They Come From?

The Theobroma Tree. Which literally translates into 'Food of the Gods' and can be found in the tropical Americas. While this evergreen does flower, it's really the fruit that’s the genesis of our beloved chocolate.

If you've never seen a cocoa pod you might be surprised by its oval shape, surprisingly hard shell and greenish, orange-ish or reddish coloring depending on its stage of ripeness and origin.

many pieces of cacao of varying ripeness based on color

Once you've managed to crack open its hard outer shell you will find anywhere between 20 to 60 cacao seeds coated in a moist, almost cotton-like substance. If ever you get your hands on one of these pods, don't be afraid to try the pulp of this fruit. Its sweet, soft texture is quite scrumptious. Its use in jellies, jams, and juices are just another way that this fruit of the Gods is a gift that keeps on giving.

cacao cut in half showing its white meat close up view

How Cocoa and Cacao Are Made

Once the pods are harvested, they are then fermented, dried, and bagged for processing.

The fermentation process varies by region, but essentially, it is the same everywhere. The pods are cracked open, usually with a hard central strike that will split the pod right down the middle.

Hey, nothing good comes easy!

Although the fibrous pulp can be extracted and eaten as a sweet treat, it must be left intact, as it plays a key role in the fermentation process. During fermentation, this pulp liquefies and turns into alcohol by reacting with the yeasts in the air and ‘sweats’ the seed. During which, the beans swell by absorbing moisture from the pulp, which develops the original sharp taste into a more sweet flavor, giving it that hint of chocolate flavor. 

The fluid is allowed to drain, leaving behind the fermented seeds. The entire process takes between 6 to 8 days. As most fermentation goes, the longer the beans are left to cure, the stronger the essence will be. However, it is recommended not to exceed the 8th day.

Throughout this process, the beans are turned a couple of times to allow for even distribution of oxygen, during which time the beans may change color. This change usually indicates the stage of fermentation.

Once fermentation is complete, the beans are then sun-dried. (Oven-drying typically creates smoke which interferes with the sweet flavoring of the seeds, rendering them unfit for consumption.) By the time the seeds have dried, they have usually shrunken to half of their size.

At this time they are shipped to factories around the world where they then undergo different processes to become the products we know such as cacao/cocoa butter, cacao/cocoa powder, cacao/cocoa nibs, and of course, chocolate.

How Do Cocoa and Cacao Differ?

Roasting. It's all in the heat. Once the beans are roasted, they turn from cacao into cocoa.

How? The high temperatures work to break down the enzymes in the cacao seed, pretty much sterilizing it. The roasting also purges the seed of some of its nutrients while further developing its palatability.

So, while cacao and cocoa products both share a series of similar processes, it is assuredly the application of heat that differentiates one set of products from the other.

Curious as to how cocoa butter is made? Once the cacao bean is separated into shells and nibs, through a method called winnowing, the nibs (which contain more than 50% of cocoa butter) are then ground down to form what is called 'cocoa mass’ when melted. This pasty substance is then diffused to separate the cocoa butter from any remaining cocoa solids. Incidentally, the cacao shells generated through the winnowing process can be used to make cacao tea.

You may notice some products advertise cacao butter versus cocoa butter. Keeping in line with what we said about the use of heat, cacao butter undergoes the same process, however, it never exceeds temperatures above 115 degrees F.

Cacao powder? The solids extracted from the cocoa butter are placed in a hydraulic press for further grinding and then mixed with additives like baking soda and sweeteners.

Can you guess how cocoa powder is different from cacao powder? Yup! Those finely ground beans have definitely been roasted.

While the production of cocoa powder and cocoa butter consists of separating the elements of the cocoa mass, making chocolate is all about adding more cocoa butter to the cocoa mass. The means involve more grinding, churning, and even an extra channel called 'conching' that all works to smooth out any grittiness and leave us with that delicious, creamy treat that melts in your mouth.

Cocoa vs. Cacao: Which is Healthier?

Needless to say, while cocoa products retain some of their nutrient value it is cacao in the raw and un-roasted state that yields healthier gains.

So while cacao might have more of a bitter flavor, you'll be reaping the benefits of all the nutrients it has to offer.

Let's look at just what cacao brings to the table. When it comes to the advantages of this super-food, the list is long.


For one, it is packed with antioxidants that have been known to have anti-aging benefits. In fact, it has been proven that daily consumption of raw cacao can improve the elasticity of the skin and reduce the appearance of sun damage. It has been shown that ingesting cacao can even allow you to spend twice as long in the sun while preventing the effects of sunburn.

Weight Loss

You might be pleased to know that cacao may actually play a role in aiding weight loss. Studies have shown that the properties found in raw cacao have a positive effect on lipid metabolism and lower the blending of fatty acids.

Cardiovascular Health

Cacao is so abundant in nutrients such as magnesium, iron, vitamin C and flavonoids that it has been linked to helping prevent anemia, lower blood pressure, and counter diabetes.

Nutritional Value

Raw cacao and cocoa powder essentially have the same amount of calories, but if you take a look at their nutritional value you will soon realize that not all calories are created equally.

For instance, for every 100 grams of cacao powder, you can expect to find 11 grams of fat. However, for every 100 grams of cocoa powder, the fat content is almost doubled at over 20 grams.

Bottom line?  Raw cacao is gram for gram far healthier than cocoa. 

Side Effects

As with anything, even good things in abundance can be detrimental. Take for instance the high levels of caffeine in cacao. While a cup of cacao husk tea might be a great substitute for coffee in that it offers a much more mellow stimulative effect compared to caffeine, the effects of too much theobromine can hamper your quality of sleep if you ingest too much before bedtime.

In addition, while it can be integral in your weight loss plans, be careful just how much you eat, as cocoa products may contain high amounts of sugar, fats and other additives.

Even with its anti-aging properties, cacao products have been shown to cause skin issues such as acne, allergies, and inflammation. What works for others may not work for you, so be cautious about any negative reactions you might develop towards these products.

Ways to Enjoy Cacao

dried cacao beans cacao nibs close up view

From our nutrition and health benefit breakdown, we can now be certain that cacao is the superior option when it comes to keeping in line with healthy decisions.

You may have picked up on the few mentions of its bitterness and might be wondering just how this super-food can be enjoyable. But, worry not. We’ve found ways for you to relish all the benefits of cacao without sacrificing taste.

Breakfast Smoothie

Just plop a spoonful of raw cacao powder into a banana shake and you’ve got yourself a tasty treat without any of the guilt. With 4g of protein for every 15 grams, you can have yourself an organic protein shake to keep you feeling fuller, longer.

Cacao Powder Tea 

On those cold autumn and winter nights, you can curl up with a hot cup of cacao powder tea. Substitute dairy with nut milk like almond or macadamia, which are naturally sweet and voila; a creamy hot chocolate without the need for sugar.

Cacao Nibs 

These can be eaten as a standalone snack when you’re feeling peckish and you’re tempted to reach for that mid-afternoon bite. Make sure to have a bag of these lying around. With 175 calories in every ounce, you can’t go wrong. Or maybe, try sprinkling some over a scoop of ice cream for an indulgent topping.

Ways to Enjoy Cocoa

small mound of cocoa powder close up view

Hot Cocoa

Well, this one is a no brainer. No one is a stranger to a steaming mug of hot cocoa to get you through the Christmas season. A spoonful of cocoa powder, a splash of milk and hot water is the simplest way to warm anyone up on a wintry night.

Baked Goods

Brownies anyone? Chocolate cookies? Chocolate cake? Really, the possibilities are endless. A few spoonfuls of cocoa powder is the main ingredient in all of these indulgent desserts and we’ve found some delectable recipes for you here.

Substituting Cacao Powder and Cocoa Powder

With so many ways to use cocoa and cacao products, you may be wondering if it is possible to substitute cacao powder with cocoa powder (especially when baking), without sacrificing taste.

Generally, cocoa powder is cheaper than cacao powder, and this is as good a reason as any to substitute recipes that call for cacao with cocoa.

Or maybe, you want to satisfy your sweet tooth while watching your health, so the question stands, will it taste the same?

While it may not be the perfect solution for all, in most recipes one can be used in place of the other with a few tweaks and tricks.

Typically, cacao powder has a much stronger taste. You may want to keep this in mind for a recipe that lists cocoa powder as an ingredient. We suggest using less for the same effect.

Baking a cake? Cacao powder tends to absorb more moisture than cocoa powder, so keep an eye on how much liquid you use in your recipe if you want to substitute one for the other.

Also, when it comes to baking, it is important to note that cocoa powder is usually mixed with additives like baking soda during production. The lack of baking soda in cacao powder may mean you need to compensate for the absence of its leavening qualities by adding more baking soda or baking powder to the recipe.

Did You Enjoy This Article?

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this article, you might also like the following articles: Health Benefits of Cacao: The Complete Guide and Chocolate Tea: The Ultimate Guide

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