What's the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

Aerial view of broken chocolate bars and chocolate truffles scattered across a dark backdrop, covered in raw cacao powder, next to a sieve full of raw cacao powder.

Dear Ruthy, What’s the difference between cacao and cocoa and should I only be using one or the other?

While cacao and cocoa start from the same place — they both come from the seeds of the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree — their final form (and the process they go through along the way) significantly affect their nutritional benefits. Raw cacao beans (which somewhat resemble coffee beans) are the seeds extracted from the pods harvested from the cacao tree. 

cookies made with cacao on a white plate with some on white table
(Photo from Salted Plains)

Cacao 

Cacao, which has a slightly bitter taste, is healthiest in its raw state as it hasn’t undergone any high heating and therefore retains more nutrients and health properties. (Any raw food heated beyond approximately 105°F (the exact temperature depends on the diet you’re following and who you ask) begins to lose its nutritional value and can longer be considered raw). Raw cacao is the highest source of all the nutritional benefits associated with chocolate. It’s super-rich in antioxidants and one of the highest food sources of magnesium – a mineral needed for hundreds of biochemical reactions in our bodies and key to muscle and nerve function. Studies even suggest that cocoa flavanols might be associated with improved cognitive function. 

Cacao butter is the fattiest part of the cacao bean that is separated and removed from the bean. It’s white and rich in texture and is a healthy fat (made up of mostly saturated fat, just like coconut oil). It can be used in baking or even as a moisturizer. If separated from the rest of the bean using low heat, its nutritional content is preserved and the resulting butter is referred to as “raw cacao butter”. Once the raw cacao butter is separated, the remaining cacao mass is ground to produce raw cacao powder, which can be used for numerous culinary purposes — everything from smoothies and other cold and hot beverages, to baking, puddings and fudge. 

aerial view of vegan chocolate truffles with raw cacao sprinkled around
(Photo by Danika Zandboer

Cocoa

On the other hand, cocoa (and cocoa butter) are heated to much higher temperatures during processing. This results in a slightly sweeter flavour (in the case of the powder) and a lower nutritional value than that of raw cacao.  Cocoa powder is commercially available in two main forms: “Dutch processed” cocoa powder undergoes an additional chemical alkalizing process in order to make the product richer and less acidic, which is often desired for certain baking applications, but further strips it of any nutritional benefit. “Natural” or “pure” cocoa powder (or products simply labeled “cocoa powder”) is more acidic and bitter than Dutch processed powder. 

vegan chocolate pudding cups layered next to wooden board and jars of vanilla and cacao powder
(Photo from Salted Plains)

So What’s the Take-Away?

For any raw or low heat uses such as making smoothies and other beverages, puddings or homemade ice cream, or mixing into oatmeal or granola (after baking), stick to raw cacao powder and raw cacao nibs for the biggest nutritional bang! If you’re going to be baking or otherwise exposing the product to high heat, much of the nutritional benefit will be lost so you might not want to spend the extra chunk of change on raw cacao. Cocoa powder will definitely do!

 

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