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Cocoa vs Cacao: WTF is the difference?

Susan M. Stokes, Chocolate Addict

10 December 2019

Are you tired of seeing cocoa and cacao used interchangeably on the back of chocolate wrappers and ingredient lists – thinking to yourself WTF is the difference? And were you buying the right one?

So, yes they are different products, but manufacturers and chocolate makers do use the names interchangeably, so you have to look at context they are mentioned in to determine which one you’re looking for. 

In this article, we’ll tell you the difference between cocoa vs cacao and which one is best for each purpose. For example, if you’re making a smoothie use cocoa powder but if you’re making trail mix cacao nibs are better.

Cocoa vs. Cacao 

 

Cocoa and cacao originate from the same place, the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree. Once the fruit is harvested the two processes change, but the process they go through affects how they end up and their nutritional benefits. 

 

And so you know before any processing happens you can eat cacao beans raw, but full disclosure they taste quite bitter.

 

  • Cacao – cold processing to retain healthy enzymes
  • Cocoa – hot processing to improve the flavour profile

Cacao

When you see ‘Cacao’ on labels it’s letting you know the product – whether it’s nibs, butter, paste or powder – derived from the cacao bean has remained ‘raw’.

 

For example, raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans, this ensures living enzymes are retained while removing the fat (cacao butter).

 

Once the beans are dried and fermented, manufacturers heat them at a low temperature(to preserve the living enzymes) and goes through a few processes(winnowing, conching etc.) to separate out the fatty part of the bean from the rest of it(key process) leaving you with nibs and butter and after further powder.

 

Cacao Nibs: this is the chocolatey tasing part of the bean (although its a bit bitter at this stage). Cacao is thought to be the highest source of antioxidants of all foods and the highest source of magnesium of all foods.


Cacao Butter: this the flavour carrying portion of the bean and is a white/caramel in colour e.g. the main ingredient in white chocolate.

Cocoa

Cocoa comes from cacao and at its most basic, is simply cacao after it’s been roasted. It is processed at much higher temperatures than cacao though, which changes the flavour (in a good way) by reducing the bitterness while also reducing the levels of antioxidants and nutritional benefits.

But it’s not just the cooking process that differentiates the two. Most store-bought cocoa is also made with added sugar and milk to make it sweeter. There are two main types of cocoa powder – Natural and Dutch:

Dutch cocoa powder: is neutralised during the processing steps, it’s easily recognisable due to its darker colour and earthy flavour profile and in cooking will generally be partnered with baking powder which is also neutral.


Natural cocoa powder: is only processed with heat and pressing so can be a tad bitter still. When cooking with cocoa power use baking soda to help neutralise the pH.

How to use them in cooking

Cocoa and cacao powders can be used interchangeably with just the flavour profile affected, but you shouldn’t replace chocolate chips with cacao nibs in baking e.g. your chocolate chip cookies with hard nibs, is not a nice texture (nibs don’t melt as chips do).

 

Cocoa butter is also available for baking or moisturizing, just like cacao butter.

 

Cacao powder can be more expensive than cocoa powder,and a bit harder to find(think health food stores). The challenge is finding a high-quality option without any added sugars and preservatives etc.

Cocoa vs. Cacao in Summary

So there you have it in our “Cocoa vs Cacao: WTF is the difference?”, they both have different flavour profiles and are better suited to different uses. Cocoa is sweeter than cacao because it’s processed at higher temperatures and neutralised. Cocoa is great for cooking, baking and especially deserts. 


Cacao is closer to its natural form and therefore bitter but full of extra antioxidants and are considered superfoods. Cacao can be great for trail mix or adding to your morning granola for a healthy superkick.

We recommend(for a bit of fun) you do some taste experiments of your own to see which of flavour profiles you prefer. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon sampling and cooking with different types of chocolate… delicious!

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