What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

Raw Vs. Processed

Is there a difference between cacao and cocoa?

When it comes to cocoa and cacao, many people are unaware of the differences between the two. Some people aren’t even aware that there are differences.

So, is there a difference between cocoa and cacao? What are the origins of the two words? Do they come from the same plant? Is one healthier than the other? Is cocoa butter and cacao butter the same product? Let’s explore these points and more.

Origins of the words Cacao and Cocoa

Cocoa and cacao both get their start from the Theobroma cacao tree of South America. The name Theobroma is taken from Greek and literally means “food of the Gods”.

The word cacao originated from the ancient Olmec people, an early Mexican Gulf Coast Culture (1500-400BC) and then the usage was passed to the Mayans and then later the Spanish.1

The word Cocoa is the Anglicised version of Cacao and is believed to have come about “as the result of misspelling by early English traders.”2

But the usage of the two words in the English speaking world has now become almost interchangeable. However, many chocolate makers and chocolatiers do make a distinction between the two.

Many use the word Cacao to describe the plant, the pod, the beans and the paste of the beans and then use the word Cocoa to anything that has been processed. They say Cocoa when referring to chocolate bars, drinks and the cocoa powder found in most shops used to make hot chocolate.

Bean to bar makers use Cacao for the pods and beans before fermentation and say cocoa beans after fermentation.

Do Cocoa and Cacao Come From the Same Plant?

Does Cocoa and Cacao Come From the Same Plant?

They both start as beans that are harvested, then processed and then transformed into a multitude of different products. Cacao is the raw version of cocoa.

Image of two Cocoa beans.

Cacao beans are often cited as having great health benefits because they contain high levels of antioxidants, fiber, lipids and minerals such as magnesium.  Because cacao is raw, these health benefits are not destroyed through the processing of the bean. Some other health benefits of cacao include boosting mood and lowering blood pressure, along with protecting the heart and controlling blood sugar levels.

An image of cocoa powder.

Cacao comes in many forms including nibs, chips, paste, and powder.

Is Cocoa Different From Cacao?

Is Cocoa Different From Cacao?

Cocoa is a different product from cacao. Cacao beans are processed with heat to roast them, the fat (cocoa butter) is then removed and what’s left is typically ground into a powder to form cocoa powder. This means that some of the nutrients are destroyed in the process.

However, cocoa powder does retain some of its antioxidants and is not yet sweetened with sugar, meaning it does have similar health benefits as raw cacao.

Does Chocolate Contain the Same Health Benefits?

When most articles discuss health benefits, they are usually referring to raw cacao which hasn’t been processed yet. But, chocolate has been processed in a number of ways and this causes it to lose some of its nutritional value.

Chocolate is made by roasting cocoa beans, separating the husks from the nibs, grinding them and then adding in other ingredients, typically sugar and milk. This creates the sweet treat that we all know and love.

Although cocoa powder itself does have some health benefits, that doesn’t mean that chocolate does. Dark chocolate with high cocoa or cacao percentage is better than other forms, like milk chocolate, but that doesn’t mean it will magically transform someone’s health. Sugar can wreak havoc on a body when consumed in large amounts, so it is best to limit the intake of chocolate that is high in sugar.

4 spoons: Cocoa Powder, Nibs, Beans and Chocolate

The health benefits of Cacao can be seen in my other article “What are the Health Benefits of Eating Chocolate.”

When products label the percentage of cacao, it refers to the amount of cocoa powder/cocoa nibs and cocoa butter there is compared to the other ingredients. So how much of the ingredients are drawn from the cocoa bean.

Is There a Difference Between Cocoa Butter and Cacao Butter?

Cocoa and cacao butter is the same product. Cocoa, or cacao, butter is made by separating the fat from the other parts of the bean. Fermented cacao beans are separated from the husks and ground down. This process liquifies the beans and the product is then pressed to remove the fat, which is cocoa butter.

Cocoa butter has a variety of uses and also boasts some health benefits. Cocoa butter is a mixture of monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids. A large portion of this is oleic acid, which may improve the function of blood vessels and help lower the risk of heart disease. It is used in a wide range of skin products such as moisturizers and is also an ingredient in chocolate.

The Resurgence of the Word Cacao

The original spelling of the word ‘cacao’ has been making a comeback in recent years due to the rise of interest in health foods and healthy diets.

Manufacturers have been trying to profit from this trend by using the word cacao and giving the impression that their products are healthier than other products that use the word cocoa. They seek to set apart their products from others that use roasted cacao beans and this is why you can see the two separate products: cacao powder and cocoa powder.

Cacao powder is the fine dark powder that is left after cold pressing unroasted beans to separating the cocoa butter. Cocoa powder is basically the same but has been roasted at a high temperature.

Some argue that some of the nutrients get destroyed in the heat and as a result, it loses some of its health benefits. However, there has not been enough scientific tests done to prove this.

A bowl of cacao powder.

Although there are many inconsistencies in the usage of the words cacao and cocoa, there is nowadays a difference between the two. While cocoa and cacao start out as the same substance, they end up slightly differently.

Cacao is the raw version and retains most of its health benefits whereas cocoa loses some of these benefits through processing. Cocoa also tends to get mixed with other ingredients like sugar and milk to soften its bitterness. This is a good thing to remember when deciding which product to buy.

It is also advisable to keep in mind that while chocolate does retain some nutritional value, it is not comparable to cacao nibs or cocoa powder.

Even though all three products are different, they are all delicious.

  1. Cacao in Olmec Society https://sites.bu.edu/gastronomyblog/2017/07/20/cacao-in-olmec-society/
  2. David Lebovitz’s The Great Book of Chocolate