What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

When it comes time to indulge in a chocolate treat, the possibilities are endless. Some people enjoy a cozy mug of rich hot cocoa; others are more drawn to warm and gooey lava cakes. The purists among us prefer to bite right into the bar. But do you know what makes your chocolate taste like chocolate?

If you answered “cocoa” you’re right—sort of.

Skim the nutritional information on the back of your favorite chocolate sweet, and you’ll almost certainly find “cocoa” listed somewhere near the top, after all. However, cocoa and chocolate are not the same thing, but they do both originate from the cacao bean.

What's the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

Cacao vs. Cocoa

It’s possible you’ve seen raw cacao powder in a health food store or watched a food blogger sprinkle cacao nibs over an açai bowl. Cacao looks and sounds a lot like cocoa, but cacao is the unprocessed seed from which chocolate is actually made, while cocoa is a processed ingredient in chocolate.

When someone speaks of cacao, they are technically referring to the cacao seeds that are harvested from a tree native to South America called the Theobroma cacao tree. Cacao seeds are considered the “raw” and purest form of chocolate available—you can eat cacao seeds raw or chopped up in the form of cacao nibs, for instance. That’s why you’ll often see cacao popping up in different raw vegan chocolate products or “health” foods.

Cocoa, on the other hand, is the product that is made from the cacao tree. Harvesters take the edible parts of cacao pods, such as the beans, and process them in a variety of ways—such as roasting them, fermenting them, drying them or grinding them—to make things like cocoa powder and cocoa butter.

When you roast cacao at a super high temperature to make something like cocoa powder, several transformations occur. You eliminate the bitter taste that is associated with cacao, but you also end up reducing both the enzyme content and nutrient content of the original cacao seed or powder.

Cacao’s Nutritional Benefits

Cacao in its pure form offers a host of impressive nutritional benefits. Cacao is a high source of antioxidants (with 20 times the amount of antioxidants found in blueberries). It’s also extremely rich in magnesium, which is informally known as the anti-stress and relaxation mineral.

Cacao contains epicatechin, a flavonoid that has been demonstrated to boost cognitive performance and mood.

Cacao also lowers insulin resistance, improves cardiovascular health and contains serotonin, a neurotransmitter which activates the pleasure center in our brains.

Two homemade hot chocolate mugs on rustic wooden table

Cocoa’s Nutritional Benefits

Just like cacao, cocoa is a source of magnesium and antioxidants—but the real difference between the two nutritionally is that cocoa, being a processed ingredient, undergoes changes on a molecular level when it’s being transformed from cacao to cocoa.

True, cacao offers about four times the amount of antioxidants that cocoa does, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid cocoa. It just means that you’re not getting quite the same amount of benefits as you would with cacao.

Can you use cacao and cocoa synonymously in recipes?

The answer here is no. Because the two ingredients are processed so differently, if you try swapping in cacao powder for cocoa powder in your favorite recipe, your end product is going to turn out with a different consistency and taste.

Images via Getty

61 comments

Jan S
Jan S26 days ago

thanks for posting

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La'neSa'an M
La'neSa'an M26 days ago

I love them both. Cacao is harder to come by.
This is food of the gods. Thank you.

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Yvonne T
Yvonne Tabout a month ago

reminded me of drinking a raw and vegan chocolate!!!!right now ;-)

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Shelley R
Shelley Rabout a month ago

Thanks.

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Dennis Hall
Dennis Hallabout a month ago

Thank you.

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Marija M
Marija Mabout a month ago

thank you!

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Andrea B
Andrea Babout a month ago

Aha

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Alexandra Richards
Alexandra Richardsabout a month ago

Thank you.

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Chrissie R
Chrissie Rabout a month ago

Thank you for posting.

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Louise A
Louise Aabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing

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