The Difference Between Cacao & Cocoa Explained

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? We’re here to explain what makes them unique.

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

Cacao and Cocoa Origins

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)

Both cacao and cocoa come from the same source: the cacao bean of the Theobroma cacao tree. Native to Latin America, these beans are the reason we can enjoy chocolate.

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.

The process:

  1. The beans are fermented for up to 2 weeks to give the cacao depth, texture, and flavor.
  2. They are 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 chocolate treats. 

So What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

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 a 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, is a key ingredient in baking recipes 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 easily. 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, try experimenting with natural sweeteners like organic honey, dates, or agave syrup to offset 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 there are numerous health benefits to cacao and cocoa, the most important one is the high proportion of flavanol. Flavanol is unique for its ability to fight diseases. As a source of antioxidants, flavanols aid 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 help lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, as well as improve 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. There are more traditional chocolate recipes, like (vegan) chocolate mousse or homemade vegan nutella, as well as new and interesting ideas, like homemade Swedish Kladdkaka cake or chocolate and banana nice cream.

Cacao powder allows us to enjoy our favorite chocolate goods with a health boost. However, it is still important to consume luxury products like chocolate in moderation.

More importantly, chocolate should always be bought fair trade 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 fair trade chocolate products you actively support manufacturers who employ fair and ethical working practices.

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