Cacao vs Cocoa – What’s the Difference

Written by: Barb Kelly

April 20, 2022

We spend a lot of time talking about cacao beans and cocoa on our website. Often these two terms are used interchangeably in media, articles, blogs, etc. But, in scientific studies, most scientists are focussing on the cacao bean and powder, which is quite different in nutrients than cocoa powder.

Both Start As Cacao

Both cacao and cocoa start as the cacao bean (or seed), which is harvested from the seed pods of the Theobroma tree. The cacao tree was originally found in South America but due to cacao being one of the most sought crops on the planet, the tree is now grown commercially in South America, Central America, Asia, and Africa.[1] The difference between cacao and cocoa is how the beans are processed after being picked.

Cacao

In both cases, the cacao beans are dried and fermented. In cacao’s case, it is then heated over low heat to separate the fatty part of the bean from the rest of it. The rich, white fatty portion of the bean is made into cacao butter (often used in white chocolate); the remainder of the bean is ground into a fine powder known as cacao powder, which can be used in various baked goods, beverages, and foods. Cacao nibs are beans that have been fully processed and then chopped into small pieces; they can be used just like chocolate chips, if you can find them.

Cocoa

Again, starting with the dried and fermented cacao beans, the oils are removed from the beans and the remainder is crushed into a fine powder. The different is that cocoa is produced with high temperatures, rather than low, which produces a bean which is slightly sweeter and changes the structure of the molecules in the bean to have lower health benefits than the original cacao bean. Cocoa also often has other additives that cacao powers do not.[2]

The cocoa powder produced is less expensive than cacao powder and, generally, easier to find in stores. Cocoa nibs do not exist in the same form as cacao nibs; chocolate chips are the closest thing but read your labels carefully, chocolate chips can have many fillers and sugars in them.

Which To Choose

Organic cacao powder or nibs are probably the best choices for health benefits but, as mentioned earlier, may be difficult to find.  The more common cocoa powder is generally sweeter tasting than cacao powder but also does not have as many health benefits as cacao powder. It is important to read the labels on packaging for cacao and cocoa items to see if there are any additives included that you don’t want to eat. For those looking to avoid sugar in cacao and cocoa products, your choices are limited even further but be aware that Ross Chocolates are all deliciously sugar-free.


[1] Almeida Alex-Alan F. de, Valle Raúl R. Ecophysiology of the cacao tree. Braz. J. Plant Physiol.  [Internet]. 2007  Dec [cited  2020  Mar  02] ;  19( 4 ): 425-448. Available from: http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1677-04202007000400011&lng=en.

[2] Pellizon, M. (April 8, 2016). What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa? Retrieved on March 2, 2020 from https://thrivemarket.com/blog/cacao-vs-cocoa.

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