Cacao vs. Cocoa Powder. What’s the Difference?

cocoa vs. cacao powder – what's the difference?
Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Jasmine Waheed

Have you ever read the ingredients of your favorite chocolate products and been confused by the one-vowel difference between cacao and cocoa powder? Did you just presume they were the same thing? Well, join the club.

Turns out, however, that cacao powder and cocoa powder are not the same. In fact, there is quite a difference between the two.

What is Cacao/Cocoa?

Both cacao and cocoa come from the same source: the cacao bean of the Theobroma cacao tree. Native to Latin America, these beans are what give us chocolate, and we are forever grateful for them.

The beans are enclosed in pods which need to be harvested. The natural taste of cacao beans is bitter and not too enjoyable, so a few steps are needed to transform this bean into the chocolate we know and love.

Both cocoa and cacao powder are made from cocao beans
Both cocoa and cacao powder are made from cocao beans. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Pablo Merchán Montes)
  1. The beans are fermented for up to 2 weeks to give the cacao depth, texture, and flavor.
  2. They are then dried. At this stage, the beans are sold to chocolate makers, who decide whether they will roast the beans to produce sweet chocolate, or whether they will keep them raw.
  3. The beans will then be crushed, which releases the nibs inside.
  4. These little nibs are then ground, ready to be transformed into different and delicious chocolate treats for us to enjoy. 

So What’s the Difference between Cacao and Cocoa Powder?

Even though cacao and cocoa powder both come from the same bean, the process which gets them to our supermarket shelves makes their final chocolatey products differ. And quite drastically.

Cocoa Powder

Cocoa powder is a processed version of chocolate. It is roasted at a high temperature before being milled into a powder. It is also enriched with preservatives and additives, such as sugar and dairy, to cut the bitterness from the cacao. Cocoa powder is darker in color than cacao powder and sweeter in taste, and has prolonged shelf-life. Because of the roasting process, it has also lost most of its nutritional content.

It is cocoa powder that we are probably most familiar with. This sweet chocolate powder is typically used in chocolate bars, the main ingredient for baking and is how we make hot cocoa.

Cacao Powder

Cacao powder is generally understood as ‘raw’. This is because cacao powder has not been roasted, keeping more of the bean’s original properties and nutritional content.

Cacao powder is processed over very low heat before being milled into a powder. Given its minimal processing, cacao powder is more bitter in taste and has kept more of its nutritional value than cocoa powder.

Substituting Cacao for Cocoa Powder

You can swap these powders about no problem! If you are looking to introduce more nutrition and less sugar into your diet, you can easily substitute cocoa powder with cacao powder in any of your baking endeavors.

Just remember that cacao powder is a lot more bitter in taste. To keep the sugar levels down, why not try experimenting with natural sweeteners like organic honey, dates, or agave syrup to supplement the bitterness of the cacao powder?

Read on: Sugar Substitutes and Natural Sweeteners: What You Should Know

Both Cocoa and Cacao Powder are Great for Baking
Cocoa and cacao powder are equally great for baking. Just remember that cocao powder is less sweet. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Sorin Gheorghita )

Health Benefits

Among the numerous health benefits of cacao/cocoa, the one that sticks out over all the rest is flavanol. Flavanol is unique for its ability to fight diseases. As a source of antioxidants, flavanols are protective towards heart and brain health and contain cancer-fighting properties.

Other health benefits of cacao include the fact that it‘s rich in iron, magnesium, potassium, and fiber. Cacao is also rich in polyphenols, which can aid in lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels, as well as improving blood flow to the brain.

Unsurprisingly, these benefits are more prominent in the less processed cacao powder than they are in cocoa powder. So make sure to keep an eye out for that one-vowel difference when you are in the shops if you are looking to increase your antioxidant intake and lower your sugar intake.

More Chocolate Please?

It’s fair to say that the baking possibilities with both cacao and cocoa powder are endless. From the more traditional chocolate recipes, like (vegan) chocolate mousse or homemade vegan nutella to new and interesting ideas, like this homemade Swedish Kladdkaka cake recipe, or chocolate and banana nice cream. The cacao bean has given us an overabundance of sweet baking to try. 

Note: Cacao powder now has more of us enjoying our same favorite chocolate goods but with a significant health boost. But it is still important to remember to consume luxury products like chocolate in moderation.

More importantly, chocolate should always be bought fairtrade and organic. Because chocolate is loved all over the world, and the beans are grown in developing countries, large, money-grabbing corporations have taken advantage of local manufacturers and producers in inhumane ways. This includes child labor, slave labor, and unfair pay. There are estimates that around 1.56 million children may be involved in cacao harvesting in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. By buying fairtrade chocolate products you actively support manufacturers who employ fair and ethical working practices.

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