Most chocolate products usually list either cacao or cocoa as an ingredient. So what makes it cacao vs cocoa? And does it really matter?
Chocolate, in all its many delicious forms, is beloved by people around the world. It’s the ultimate comfort food, and all of that soothing goodness begins with cacao beans. The difference between cocoa and cacao lies in how the beans are handled.
Cacao vs Cocoa: It’s All In The Processing
Cacao beans are actually seeds from the Theobroma cacao tree. The colorful pods, or fruits, contain between 20 and 60 beans nestled into a sticky white pulp. The pods are harvested and the cacao beans are removed. At this point, they don’t taste anything like chocolate.
Once picked, they’re processed and this is where the controversy around when exactly they become cocoa vs cacao begins. Let’s walk through the basic process:
- Step 1: The cacao beans are fermented for a few days, during which time they start to taste and smell more like chocolate. Purists, like bean-to-bar chocolatiers, maintain they can only be called cacao beans before they’re fermented.
- Step 2: The cacao beans are dried for a few more days. At this point, they may be sold off as raw cacao (unless you’re one of the above-mentioned purists, in which case you’re buying raw cocoa). This is chocolate at its most nutritious – and also at its most bitter.
- Step 3: The dried beans are roasted to develop the flavor. This also gives them some sweetness, making them more palatable to the average chocolate-lover.
- Step 4: The beans are crushed and the outer hulls removed. The broken pieces are called nibs.
- Step 5: The nibs are ground into a non-alcoholic liquor, which is made up of about half cocoa butter.
Many experts believe that chocolate products can be labeled cacao up till this point, but any further processing results in cocoa. That said, manufacturers of cocoa vs cacao products don’t necessarily adhere to these rules, so it’s always worth taking marketing jargon with a pinch of salt.
Cocoa vs Cacao Products
Now we’re starting to understand the difference between cocoa and cacao, let’s talk about those products on the shelves that we all know and love, starting with cacao powder vs cocoa powder.
Raw cacao powder is made from the raw cacao produced in step 2 above. It generally costs more but it’s far superior in quality, taste, and nutrition. Although it can be heated, it’s best used raw to preserve its nutritional value, for example in a smoothie or chocolate cashew butter.
“Normal” cocoa powder (vs cacao powder) is made from the liquor produced in step 5 above. The liquor is pressed to separate out the cocoa butter, leaving a dry powder that is usually used for baking, cooking, or hot drinks. It’s often roasted at much higher temperatures and contains additives like sugar, preservatives, or alkalizing chemicals.
Unsweetened cacao nibs are produced during step 4 above and they’re a far cry from standard chocolate chips. They’re very healthy but some may find them too bitter on their own. Try them raw mixed into trail mix or other goodies.
Chocolate is made from the liquor in step 5 mixed with a variety of other ingredients, including milk, sugar, and more cocoa butter plus a variety of flavors. Read the label of your favorite chocolate bar to find out what percentages of cocoa/cacao it contains. Usually, the darker it is, the higher the content.
Does the Difference between Cocoa and Cacao Matter?
Yes, it really does and this is where cacao vs cocoa comes into its own. The less the bean is processed, the higher the nutritional value. When processed using minimal heat and without harsh chemicals, cacao is a superfood.
It’s chock-full of essential minerals like magnesium, selenium, chromium, potassium, and manganese, plus antioxidants and a highly absorbable form of iron, all of which our body needs to function optimally. Cacao also contains tryptophan, an amino acid your body uses to make serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone, which helps explain why good-quality chocolate is so comforting.
So what should you buy?
Although it’s clear that chocolate has many benefits, it also merits a word of warning. Many chocolate products are very high in sugar, fat, and calories. The healthiest choices are dark chocolate, especially unsweetened products like raw cacao or nibs, followed by high quality, minimally processed cocoa products like Wild Chocolate Powder.
So now you have an idea of the difference between cocoa and cacao. When you next buy a chocolate product, be sure to read the label so you can make good nutritional (and taste) choices – your body will thank you. Then relax and enjoy it!