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11 Apr '16

Cocoa vs. Cacao - What exactly is the difference?

Posted by Megan Henry

The last few years have seen a number of foods hit the shelves marketed as ‘superfoods’ and it seems everyone is totally enamoured with one of them - cacao. Which I kind of get. I’m one of the biggest fans of chocolate and chocolate flavoured 'stuff', but even I’ll admit it does kind of fall into the ‘sometimes’ food category.  Then along comes cacao and it’s actually a SUPERFOOD – so we can be eating as much as we want of a superfood right?  The thing is, it seems people have jumped on this bandwagon with absolutely no idea of what cacao actually is. And how it’s different from cocoa. And when you’re paying insanely high prices for cacao – even compared to really good cocoa, it’s probably worth knowing what you’re paying for. I’ve read a million different ridiculous explanations explaining the differences from ‘cocoa is full of sugar’ (no it’s not) to cocoa is processed and cacao isn’t (um- it came from a bean and is now a powder – that baby got processed). So let me explain the difference…..

On one level, the difference really is just a case of semantics. Theobrama Cacao is the botanical name for the tree that produces cocao beans - Theobrama translates as ‘food of the gods’.  When the shell of the cacao bean is removed you have cacao nibs. These are then processed to produce cocoa liquor which is just cocoa suspended in cocoa butter, which is then pressed to extract the cocoa butter, leaving behind  the cocoa presscake. The presscake becomes the powder we’ve come to refer to as cocoa and the cocoa butter is used to make chocolate (assuming you’re buying good chocolate anyway). 

Somewhere between the Mayans discovering how awesome this cacao stuff was and it being introduced to the Western World, the spelling got changed. And it became known as cocoa instead of cacao. Simple as that. Well until along came the ‘raw food movement’ and it became a bit confusing. While what we know as cocoa powder is derived from roasted cacao beans, the raw food movement have taken on the word cacao to differentiate the powder processed from unroasted, raw cacao beans. So the short story – cacao comes from a raw bean while cocoa comes from a roasted bean.  The rawness or roasting of the bean does not determine the quality of the original bean. Much like coffee beans there are high and low quality cacao beans.

The raw food movement will tell you that food in its raw state contain higher levels of nutrients that are killed off during cooking and that cacao is therefore healthier than cocoa. Other people (like me) believe the roasting of the cacao bean actually makes it healthier (this is because roasted cacao beans have lower levels of theobromine), and actually both are high in some great nutrients like magnesium. Whichever you choose to believe though, whether you’re choosing raw cacao or roasted cocoa, it’s good to remember that in their pure state they’re really not that much fun to eat unless they’re sweetened. They’re just not. Surely I wasn't the only kid to ever try a spoonful of cocoa powder only to be bitterly disappointed at how horrible it was on its own. So if you’re planning on getting a lot of your daily nutrients from cocoa and cacao, chances are you’ll be consuming a heap of sugar too. People seem to understand this when it comes to cocoa and ‘normal’ chocolate and treat it as a ‘sometimes’ food, yet common sense flies out the window with raw cacao thanks to clever marketing and terms like 'superfood'.