Cacao VS Cocoa – The Key Difference For Health Freaks And Bakers

The difference might surprise you...

Cacao VS cocoa.

It’s all just chocolate, right? 

Not quite…

While all forms of chocolate are made from the Theobroma cacao tree, it’s the way in which they’re processed that decides if they’re cacao OR cocoa. 

You’ve probably heard about “Cacao” as a trendy health food… and you might view “Cocoa” as an unhealthier, more sugary option. 

But what’s the truth?

Read on below and you’ll discover the simple but significant difference between the two, and what this means for you when you’re baking.  

Cacao vs Cocoa – What’s the difference? 

Here’s the basic difference: 

“Cacao” refers to cacao beans that haven’t been roasted. (it’s essentially “raw”) 

“Cocoa” refers to cacao beans that have been roasted. 

As far as retail labeling is concerned, “Cacao” is almost always used for raw and unrefined nibs, powders, and whole beans. “Cocoa” is used for roasted powders. 

Which is healthier, cocoa or cacao?

Cocoa powder can be high in nutrition if it’s not got added sugar, and it’s also cheaper. Yet raw cacao products are more nutritionally dense – typically being higher in protein, fiber, magnesium, and iron. 

The health benefits of raw cacao are because of its high flavonoid content. These flavanols are known to support cardiovascular and brain health. Some sources say that if cacao is heated at high temperatures, a lot of the nutrients degrade into obsolete quantities. But we couldn’t find any science to back this up. 

Classic standard dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa content) is still a good choice –  providing a solid amount of minerals and antioxidants. 

If you’re a health nut, go with raw cacao where you can. If you’re not? You’ll still be getting some nice nutrients, just not as much. But as with any chocolate product, enjoy them in moderation because they’re all very calorie-dense. 

Why is cacao a superfood? 

Gram for gram, cacao actually has more antioxidants than blueberries and even goji berries. Crazy, right? It ain’t called ‘The King of Antioxidants’ for no reason! 

On top of that, it’s high in magnesium, calcium, zinc, copper, and selenium. 

Can I use cacao instead of cocoa for baking? 

Sure. Just note that the taste is much bitterer. And it costs more. It depends what you want – do you want your baked treats to be healthier OR have a classic chocolate taste? 

If your recipe tells you to use cocoa, I recommend using cocoa. I promise it’s worth the trip to the store if you want a chocolately taste! 

How are cacao beans processed?  

The cacao nibs you see in stores looked a lot different before processing! Here are the steps they went through:

  1. Harvesting

The football-shaped cacao pods are cracked open, and the seeds are scooped out. 

  1. Fermenting

The seeds are left in their pulp to ferment for anywhere from a few days up until 10 days. This step is critical for the beans’ natural chocolatey flavor to develop. 

Chocolate made from unfermented cocoa beans lacks in body and richness compared to fermented cocoa beans. 

Fun fact: After the cacao beans are fermented, they’re known as cocoa beans. 

  1. Drying

Once fermented, the beans are left to dry out in the sun which takes up to 2 weeks.

The seeds change color from reddish to dark brown during drying. 

  1. Roasting

Roasting deepens the flavor developed during fermentation a step further. Different companies have different roasting techniques to achieve their own unique flavor.

If roasting isn’t done correctly, it can actually spoil beans that were previously very high quality. 

  1. Extracting (also known as winnowing) 

Now it’s time for the nib to be extracted from the shell. Machines crack the beans open, then powerful fans extract the lighter shells, leaving only the cocoa nibs behind. 

  1. Grinding 

The nibs are now ground up into a paste called “cocoa mass” (AKA chocolate liquor). But don’t think this liquor is alcoholic – it’s not. It’s named as such because it flows out in a liquid form. The cocoa mass then gets separated into cocoa powder and cocoa. 

Does cacao taste better than cocoa? 

Raw cacao can be an acquired taste because of its natural bitterness. Think super dark chocolate – it’s very rich. 

You can ease it into your diet by mixing it with other things. Nuts, cacao nibs for baking, or porridge are all good ideas. 

Cocoa tends to have a mellower taste in comparison because it gets alkalized during processing. 

Is cacao high in caffeine? 

Not at all. In fact, cacao only contains trace amounts of caffeine.

To put things into perspective, 1 teaspoon of cacao nibs contains 5g of caffeine. A typical cup of coffee often contains over 100mg of caffeine. 

Cacao does contain theobromine though, which translates to “Food of the Gods’ in Greek! 

The bottom line  

Clearly, both cacao and cocoa can be good choices. It just depends on what you’re using them for. And how much you care about getting in more micronutrients. 

If you’re baking chocolatey treats and the recipe says cocoa, use cocoa. 

If you’re a health nut, use cacao. 

As with any chocolate product – enjoy both in moderation. They’re both high in calories. 

What’s next? 

Check out our other vegan guides here where we compare other products and brands. 

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