Cacao vs Cocoa: The Difference and Why It Matters




It is well-known that chocolate is a very tasty treat. But, there is a difference between “cocoa” and “cacao” which is not easy to understand.

It is interesting to know the difference between cocoa and cacao. However, it can reveal important things that you need to know about how these ingredients affect your health. Some people pronounce “cocoa”, and some “cacao”. Why is this so?

For a long time, I believed that cocoa and cacao were just two different worlds, but are referring to the same thing. And the chocolate was just a tasty treat.

The reality is more complicated. Yes, cocoa and cacao start at the same place, but their path is different and affect their nutritional values.

The Way of Processing is Different

Chocolates come from a South American plant popular as the cacao tree, but its name is Theobroma. The plant produces seed pods. Inside the pods, there are cacao beans that look like coffee beans.

Interestingly, you can eat raw cacao beans that taste like a bar of bitter chocolate. The flavor varies depending on the conditions in which the cacao tree has grown such as sunlight, soil, etc. Before they are processed, beans go through the process of fermentation. After that, they need to be fried. Even though bitter, raw cacao beans are the healthiest this way.

The following step decides if the beans are going to be cocoa or cacao. Chocolate lovers probably know that cocoa and cacao have different forms such as butter, nibs, powder, chips, chocolate bars, etc.

Health Studies on Chocolate Can be Confusing

Chocolate lovers are for sure getting very excited about learning about chocolate’s health benefits. It seems that each day new articles on the most amazing chocolate discovery appear.

However, it is important to note that studies that are analyzing the health benefits of chocolate do not involve chocolate you purchase from stores. So, they put their attention on raw or minimally processed cacao beans.

Sadly, this important notice gets lost in translation, and many articles present it in the wrong way. But, you need to know the difference.

Cocoa and cacao are extremely tasty and offer numerous health benefits. You need to know how scientists conduct their studies on chocolate and to know what kind of benefits cocoa and cacao have.

Numerous Health Benefits

Cacao beans are super healthy for you in raw form or minimally processed. We offer you a shortlist of the greatest health benefits:

  • Due to their high amounts of phenolic flavonoids and phytochemicals, cacao beans serve as an antioxidant and prevent free radical damage to your cells. This prevents oxidative damage which leads to premature aging.
  • Epicatechin is the most important flavonoid in cacao which improves mood and cognitive performance.
  • Some studies say that flavonoids found in cacao decrease blood pressure, but also increase the flexibility of blood vessels.
  • Procyanidins and flavonoids in cacao serve as antioxidants in blood plasma. They also decrease the reactivity of platelets which results in better heart health. So cacao beans can protect your heart.
  • Epicatechin is a flavanol in cacao that can control glucose production by activating key proteins. It can regulate levels of insulin even in people with diabetes (8).

Additionally, cacao beans contain Forbes. They are believed to contain more magnesium than dark chocolate.


As we mentioned earlier, cacao beans are found inside the cacao tree seed pods.

So, the journey of cacao starts here. After the fermentation process, beans are dried, and then, they are heated, but at a low temperature. An important step is when heat separates the fatty part of the bean.

Manufacturers create cacao nibs by grounding cacao beans into small pieces. They look like chocolate chips but are not very sweet. They also do not contain artificial sweeteners and sugars. In this way, cacao beans keep the antioxidants and nutrients.

Cacao beans can be eaten alone or added to the Paleo trail mix. Or, of course, you can simply use them like chocolate chips, but with all of the antioxidants and nutrients.

Manufacturers create cacao butter from the fattest part of cacao beans. This substance is white and has a lot of fatty texture. Its flavor reminds us of white chocolate. You can use it in baking, or try it as a moisturizer.

The beans separated from the buttery parts are milled into a dark powder which is popular as cacao powder. People use cacao powder to prepare cakes, cookies such as brownies, and other sweet treats. Also, many use cacao powder in coffees and smoothies.


Just like cacao, cocoa starts its way as harvested beans. Anyhow, the procedure is different than the cacao. Cocoa is heated to very high temperatures. This results in a sweeter flavor and different health benefits.

People use cocoa powder in various dessert recipes. There are two available types:

  1. Dutch-processed – known as dark cocoa. It is processed with an alkalized chemical solution. It results in a richer taste and decreased acidity. Sadly, the processing of cocoa speeds up the loss of nutrients and antioxidants.
  2. Natural cocoa powder – is bitter and a bit more acidic than the previously mentioned powder. Baking soda is often used in recipes because it alkalizes the natural cocoa powder.

When choosing cocoa powder, make sure to choose plain varieties. Manufacturers, often mix cocoa powder with sugars and various sweeteners. Cocoa butter can also be used as a moisturizer or in baking. Cocoa nibs do not exist, but they can be found as chocolate chips loaded with various ingredients.

Interestingly, cocoa is cheaper than cacao, and it is more available. It is not easy to find cocoa of high quality without dairy products, high fructose corn syrup, sugars, artificial sweeteners, or emulsifiers. Emulsifiers are fillers that manufacturers use to improve the flavor of cocoa.

Why does Cacao vs Cocoa Matter?

Cocoa is made by heating at higher temperatures, and this way of processing makes changes in the structure of the beans. This results in a lower amount of nutrients. So, shortly, thorough processing turns cacao into cocoa and kills nutrients.

Moreover, because of milder production, cacao has more health benefits and antioxidant properties. ORAC or oxygen radical absorbance capacity represents the antioxidant capacity of raw cacao powder in a hundred grams. The capacity is 95,500. But, when they use cacao nibs, the capacity falls to 62,100, and in cocoa powder to 26,000.

We are not saying that cocoa is not good for you, but cacao is a better option. Important to note is that baking with any of these products decreases antioxidants and nutrients.

Is Dairy Good in Combination with Chocolate?

People who love chocolate should not think a lot about nutrients and antioxidants because chocolate is made from milk.

Why is this so? It is known that dairy provokes health issues. When dairy is added to chocolate it prevents the body from absorbing phytonutrients (Sacred Taste, b).

It is very popular that dark chocolate is very healthy because it has 70% or more milk chocolate. When the amount of cacao is high, the amount of antioxidants and nutrients is also high. Milk chocolate is usually found in chocolate bars and chocolate chips. Also, these products have lots of artificial sweeteners and sugar. So, make sure not to add dairy to your chocolate.

In addition, it does not mean that if you eat just dark chocolate, you are safe. Many people do not know that almost all chocolate products have dairy in some form. Manufacturers use fillers like powdered milk to decrease production costs and improve the taste. Dairy prevents your body from properly absorbing cacao’s nutrients and antioxidants.

When you are buying chocolate, read the labels! You can find chocolate without dairy, but it is more expensive. Luckily, you have other options:

Homemade Chocolate

Instead of buying chocolate without dairy, you can make it yourself.

The way of making chocolate is very simple. For people on Paleo, there are many Paleo-friendly recipes online. These recipes include honey, coconut oil instead of sugar, and dairy. In this way, there is no space for worrying about ingredients that are not healthy for you.

The first thing you need is organic cacao (or cocoa) powder of high quality. You can purchase this powder online or at health stores.

If you are a fan of chocolate desserts, there are lots of them you can find online. These can be eaten raw (no baking), and consume all the antioxidants and nutrients.

Baking Using Cocoa and Cacao

If you want to spend more money, choose organic cacao because it goes under less processing than cocoa. You can find it as powder, chocolate nibs, or butter.

Paleo dessert recipes can be more easily found. Most of the time, cacao can be utilized as a one-to-one substitute.

However, cocoa is a bit sweeter than cacao because of the process of heating at high temperatures. To get the flavor you want, you may need to make some adjustments in your recipes with cocoa. You can always choose to buy cocoa of high quality that tastes like cacao. Do experiments and you will reveal what you prefer more.

Healthy Enjoyment

You should not worry about whether you will choose cacao or cocoa, but you should be careful when it comes to added sugars, dairy, and artificial fillers.

The best decision would be to choose organic cacao powder, nibs, or butter. If you stay away from ingredients that can harm your health, you can freely use cocoa of high quality.

Remember that if you choose to use cacao in your recipes, you may need to make some adjustments during the preparation method.

If you eat healthily, chocolate can be a great, healthy dessert from time to time. Make sure to enjoy the amazing flavor, the health benefits will come after.  Also, keep in mind that paleo veggies and fruits contain lots of antioxidants!

Source: Paleo Hacks

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