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 dark 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’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?
Although the terms “cacao” and “cocoa” are used interchangeably, there is a difference between the two. Cacao refers to the raw material harvested from the cacao tree, while cocoa refers to the product created after the beans are finely ground into a powder and roasted.
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 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).
The fermented cacao beans are then dried in the sun for several days before being sorted for production. Any flat, germinated, moldy, or broken beans are sorted and removed, and all the good beans are sorted into sacks for further processing. The sorted beans are typically roasted unless a raw product is required, then crushed to create cacao nibs ready to make chocolate products (2).
Once the beans are fermented, dried, and roasted, they are minimally processed into cacao nibs to be used to create dark chocolate and chocolate products.
Although there is some variation within the chocolate industry, most experts use the term cacao to describe the pods, beans, or nibs, or any raw products made from the cacao bean prior to roasting, while the term cocoa is used to describe products after roasting. Cocoa is typically consumed as a drink or blended with sugar, milk, cocoa butter, and cacao to make chocolate.
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 a low temperature and then milled into a powder, while unsweetened 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 vs. Cocoa Nutrition
|NUTRITION PER 5g||CACAO POWDER||COCOA POWDER|
|Calories||20 calories||11 calories|
|Protein||1.0 grams||0.9 grams|
|Fat||0.5 grams||0.7 grams|
|Carbohydrate||3.0 grams||2.9 grams|
|Fiber||2.0 grams||1.9 grams|
|Sugar||0 grams||0 grams|
|Potassium||100 mg||76 mg|
|Calcium||0 mg||6.9 mg|
|Iron||0.6 mg||0.7 mg|
Health Benefits of Cacao
Cacao is a good source of micronutrients and beneficial compounds, specifically:
- Antioxidants – Cacao is a source of flavanols, a nutrient with antioxidant properties (7).
- Minerals – Cacao is a good source of iron; one tablespoon of cacao powder contains 0.6 mg of iron and 1 ounce of a 70-85% dark chocolate bar contains 3.37 mg of iron (5, 8). Cacao is also a good source of trace minerals, including magnesium, selenium, manganese, and chromium, which are not listed on nutrition labels.
- Protein – Cacao contains moderate levels of protein. Most notably, cacao contains an amino acid called tryptophan, which sends signals to your brain that help you relax (9).
- Fiber – Cacao beans are also a decent source of fiber, containing 8.99 grams of fiber per 1-ounce serving of raw cacao nibs (10).
Generally speaking, the less processed the cacao the higher the levels of trace minerals and antioxidants (11). Moreover, dark chocolate has a higher cacao content and less added sugar than milk chocolate and, therefore, has a higher content of minerals.
Pure cacao powder contains more minerals and more antioxidants than cocoa powder, however, both options are nutritious and low in calories.
Cacao refers to cacao beans that have not been roasted, while cocoa refers to the powder and products produced after roasting.
100% cacao powder is made from ground raw cacao beans, while 100% cocoa powder is made from ground, roasted cacao beans. Cacao powder is typically found in health food stores, while cocoa powder can be easily found in grocery stores.
Yes. If a recipe calls for unsweetened 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 cacao nibs and cacao powder are made from raw cacao beans, while cocoa powder is made from roasted cacao beans. Cacao is the purest form of chocolate you can consume and is used to make dark chocolate and other chocolate products.