There’s a common misconception that cocoa and cacao are the same. While they both originate from the same tree they end up being different products. They go through different processes and this effects which is healthier.
How Do Cocoa and Cacao Differ
Chocolate in all its forms including cacao and cocoa originates from the Theobroma Cacao Tree. This tree was discovered over 2000 years ago by people living in the tropical rainforests of Central America. Theobroma means food of the gods in Latin and cacao is derived from the words meaning bitter and water in an Aztec language. The cacao beans grow in pods on the tree.
Cacao beans when fresh are wet and covered in a sweet and slimy fruit flesh. They can be eaten raw straight out of the pods but are very bitter, similar to coffee beans. Once the ripe pods are harvested they’re opened to extract the beans and left to dry.
The processing of these beans determines if the final product is cacao or cocoa.
Cocoa and cacao differ in nutrition, depth of flavour and cost. Cocoa is darker than cacao as shown in the photos.
How Cocoa and Cacao Are Processed
For both cocoa and cacao the harvested beans are fermented for a few days to develop a flavour then they are dried. The next step for cocoa is roasting at a high temperature. As cacao is raw it does not get roasted.
Over 99% of all cacao beans are roasted to make cocoa. Once roasted the beans lose nutrition as the antioxidant flavonoids, enzymes and minerals such are magnesium and iron are reduced.
Cocoa powder is mostly treated with an alkali solution to make it less acidic with a uniform flavour, this is called dutching. Normal cocoa powder that has not gone through dutch processing has a more bitter taste and is known as natural cocoa powder. Natural cocoa powder is still different to cacao powder as it’s been roasted.
As long as a bean has not been roasted it can be called raw. Raw cacao is found in several forms; the whole bean, powder or the cacao solids/powder or the extracted fat known as cacao butter. If the bean isn’t roasted it’s usually sold under the name cacao.
Cacao and Cocoa Nutrition
Pure cocoa powder has 11.9mg Iron, 429 mg Magnesium and 1311mg Potassium.
Raw cacao contains 126% more Iron, 149% more Magnesium and 136% more Potassium.
Raw cacao is higher in many minerals that you can see on the packet. However, there are many things listed such as enzymes and antioxidants that are not listed on the packet that raw cacao is higher in.
Are Cocoa and Cacao Interchangeable
Check out all of my healthy chocolate recipes that can be made with either cacao or cocoa. All Nest and Glow recipes are vegan and made without heavily refined ingredients.
Which Is Healthier Cocoa or Cacao
The nutrition of cocoa and cacao are different as they are processed differently. The heating and processing of cocoa makes it lower in nutrients. However cocoa still has a significant amount of nutrition and is far cheaper.
Cacao is the purest form of chocolate. It’s one of the highest sources of antioxidants in foods and has a high amount of flavonoids. Cacao is higher in protein, fibre, magnesium and iron.
Cocoa powder without added sugar is still high in nutrition and is a more affordable option.
Gram per gram cacao is more nutritious. However when you factor in that cocoa is far cheaper it means that per dollar cocoa is the better choice if budget is an issue.
Not All Chocolate Is Healthy
Often chocolate is touted as something healthy and it makes for a great article to click or share. Unfortunately, most of these studies are very misleading.
Chocolate in its pure form of the cacao bean is healthy and has health benefits. Cacao or pure cocoa is almost always what is tested in studies. However most chocolate contains a low amount of highly processed cocoa. The average mass-market chocolate is less than 22% cacao and the rest is usually refined sugar, unhealthy fats, flavourings, preservatives and colourings. The small amount of cocoa does not counteract all the unhealthy ingredients so is in no way healthy.
To get health benefits from chocolate consume a very high cocoa content chocolate bar (80% or higher cocoa solids) or raw cacao.
Some of the health benefits of chocolate are reduced inflammation, may lower risk of stroke, improve brain function and may help depression.
How to Eat Raw Cacao
Raw cacao is usually in nibs or powder. The nibs are the pieces of the whole raw cacao bean broken. The powder also is known as cacao solids and the nibs ground into a fine powder and the fat extracted. These are too bitter to consume on their own. The extracted fat is usually known as cacao butter.
Raw cacao powder can be used in many recipes like raw chocolate thumbprint cookies, raw hot chocolate or raw chocolate orange brownie. If you’re not looking for a recipe you can just sprinkle raw cacao powder or nibs on sweet breakfast foods or in smoothies.
Cacao vs Cocoa Health Benefits Summary
- Both cacao and cocoa come from the same tree.
- Cocoa is roasted at a high temperature and usually treated with an alkali agent. This reduces the nutrition profile.
- Cacao has more nutritional properties as it’s less processed and not heated but cocoa still has many health benefits.
- Most chocolate isn’t healthy as it’s very low in both cacao and cocoa.
- Consume high cacao or cocoa products to get any health benefit that won’t be cancelled out by unhealthy ingredients such as sugar and oil.
- There is not a unanimous agreement on the namings of cacao and cocoa but most manufacturers use cacao to mean raw and less processed.
- If you can afford raw cacao powder for recipes great go for it, but there’s still much nutrition in cocoa powder as long as it’s not had sugar or anything added.
- If you’re on a budget cocoa is far cheaper and is probably the better choice.
What do you think of this article? Are there any points I missed or should expand on? Please do let me know in the comments below or just share your favourite recipes with pure cacao.