When you hear someone say, “cacao,” you might think they’re just pronouncing “cocoa” in a funny way. Although cacao and cocoa are both related to chocolate, they are wildly different things. The difference occurs in the production process to make chocolate. Beginning at the Theobroma cacao tree, these trees produce pods which contain the “seeds” that are actually cacao beans. There’s no harm in eating raw cacao beans, but it is typically very bitter! These beans are fermented and dried before becoming either cacao or cocoa. The fermentation process is what gives the chocolate flavor and aroma to the cacao beans. From there, they are dried for several days and are then roasted, crushed, and ground in order to make the delicious chocolate we know and love. The percentage listed on a chocolate bar is a general indicator of the total amount of cocoa powder with cocoa butter.
Raw cacao beans are what most studies focus on regarding the many benefits that come with eating chocolate. In fact, cacao beans are a superfood! They are great antioxidants, boost your mood and cognitive performance, lower blood pressure, protect your heart, and regulate insulin levels. This is all thanks to the flavonoids, phytochemicals, and flavanols that cacao contains. On top of that, cacao beans are packed with important nutrients such as iron, calcium, zinc, potassium, copper, manganese, zinc, and magnesium (which they’re believed to be a rich source of). After cacao beans are fermented and dried, they are typically heated at low temperatures which separates the fatty part of the bean from the rest of it, which is an important part of the process. The three most popular forms of cacao beans that you see – or even use yourself – are cacao nibs, cacao butter, and cacao powder! Cacao nibs are a perfect substitute for those cavity-inducing chocolate chips as they still contain the nutrients and antioxidants that cacao beans have. Cacao butter is created using the fattiest part of the cacao bean, which can either be used for baking or moisturizer for your skin. Finally, cacao powder is made from what’s leftover from the removal of fat from the cacao beans that is then finely ground.
Meanwhile, cocoa shares the same beginning as cacao, but is processed at much higher temperatures which results in a sweeter taste and different health benefits. It’s probably the one that you’ve heard of and use a lot more than cacao powder in your favorite desserts. The two types of cocoa powder that are widely used are Dutch-processed cocoa powder and natural cocoa powder. Dutch-processed cocoa powder is processed with an alkalized chemical solution which results in a richer taste and less acidic final product. However, this process greatly reduces the antioxidants and nutrients of cocoa powder. Natural cocoa powder is the more bitter of the two and contains more acidity. Similarly to cacao butter, cocoa butter is also available for baking and moisturizing. Cocoa is much easier to find and is typically more affordable since cocoa powder is typically mixed with a bunch of unhealthy sugars, artificial corn syrup, or “fillers” that are used to enhance the flavor.
The difference in heating temperature transforms cacao beans at a molecular level which transforms their structure and nutrient content. Since cacao is less processed, it offers more health benefits than cocoa. When shopping for something to satisfy your sweet tooth, you should be looking at chocolate bars that contain 70% or more of cacao than milk chocolate. In reality, dairy is the real culprit behind making cacao unhealthy as it limits the body’s ability to absorb all the nutrients in cacao. This is why it’s super important to read labels! When in doubt, try your baking skills at making your own chocolate.