If you’ve been in the baking aisle, you’ve likely noticed that some packages are labeled cacao while others are labeled cocoa. So, what exactly is the difference? And is one healthier than the other? Here is everything that you need to know about cacao vs. cocoa.
All chocolate is made from cacao beans but not all cacao is chocolate. While cacao and cocoa start from the same place, their method of processing varies.
What is cacao?
Cacao is the purest form of chocolate you can consume. The term cacao is typically used to identify beans from the Theobroma cacao tree; a plant that produces large pod-like fruits, which contain seeds in white a sticky, sweet, and tart pulp. (1) When ripe, cacao pods are harvested and cracked open to remove the seeds, known as cacao beans. Once harvested, the cacao beans are then transferred to heaps or bins, often covered with banana leaves, and left to ferment for several days. (2) This process of fermentation helps to destroy the coat of the seed, kill the germ, and begin to develop a sweeter taste. (3)
When the beans are well fermented, they are then dried in the sun for several days before being sorted for production. Any flat, germinated, mouldy, or broken beans are sorted and removed, and all of the good beans are sorted into sacks for further processing. The sorted cacao beans are typically roasted unless a raw product is required, then crushed to create cacao nibs ready to make chocolate products. (2)
Most experts use the term “cacao” to describe the pods, beans or nibs, or any raw products made from the cacao bean, while some refer to cacao as any product, which has not been roasted.
What is cocoa?
Once cacao beans are fermented, dried, and roasted, they are processed into cacao nibs to be used to create chocolate products. Although there is some variation within the industry, products made after roasting are typically referred to as cocoa.
What about cacao powder vs. cocoa powder?
Cacao powder and cocoa powder are very similar, the only difference being the temperature used for processing. Cacao powder is made from raw cacao beans processed at low a temperature and then milled into a powder, while cocoa powder is made from roasted cacao beans processed at a high temperature and then milled into a powder. (4) Cacao powder tends to have a bitter taste, while cocoa powder is often alkalized during processing (or Dutch-processed) to reduce acidity and bitterness.
Cacao Powder vs. Cocoa Nutrition
|NUTRITION PER 5g||CACAO POWDER||COCOA POWDER|
|Calories||20 calories||15 calories|
|Protein||1.3 grams||1.0 grams|
|Fat||0.5 grams||0.5 grams|
|Carbohydrate||2.7 grams||2.0 grams|
|Fiber||1.7 grams||2.0 grams|
|Sugar||0 grams||0 grams|
|Potassium||100 mg||100 mg|
|Calcium||25 mg||10 mg|
|Iron||0.5 mg||1.5 mg|
In addition to the above, cacao is also a good source of trace minerals including magnesium, selenium, manganese, chromium, and antioxidants known as polyphenols, which are not included on nutrition labels. Generally speaking, the less processed the cacao the higher the levels of trace minerals and antioxidants. (7)
Can I substitute cacao for cocoa powder?
Yes. If a recipe calls for cocoa powder but you only have cacao powder you can certainly use it, just be aware that cacao has a much stronger taste so you will likely need less of it. Cacao powder also absorbs less liquid than cocoa powder so you may need to adjust the recipe accordingly. Remember, you can always add more but you can’t take away so it’s best to start with less and increase the amount as needed.
The Bottom Line
Although there is a difference between cacao and cocoa, there is a lot of variation between the two terms and the use is inconsistent. Generally speaking, cacao products such as nibs and powder are made from raw cacao beans, while cocoa powder is made from roasted cacao beans.