Cacao and cocoa; very closely related, but two very different products. You're not alone if this confuses you!
The difference lies in the processing.
What does cacao mean?
Cacao refers to a tropical plant that is native to South America: the Theobroma cacao tree.
It also refers to the beans of this tree and a specific type of product made from the beans.
The beans of the cacao plant are prized the world over for their distinctive flavor and aroma. They are the main ingredient of chocolate and are also used to make cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and other products.
Although the cacao plant is native to South America, African countries represented three of the top five exporters of cacao in 2005.
Cacao products: Cacao can also refer to a specific type of product made from the cacao bean. If a product is made by cold pressing non-roasted cacao seeds, it is said to be cacao.
Makers of raw (unroasted) or less processed cacao bean products often use the word cacao rather than cocoa, which may imply that they’re more natural products.
Cacao products — such as unsweetened raw cacao powder, raw nibs and raw dark chocolate — are rich sources of minerals. Minimally processed, raw cacao products contain little or no added sugar and are higher in antioxidants than more highly processed cocoa products.
Health benefits of cacao
Cacao beans and the products derived from them are rich sources of beneficial plant compounds, particularly flavanols, which have antioxidant, heart-protective and anti-cancer properties, among other health benefits.
Cacao also contains iron that is readily absorbed by your body, unlike some plant sources of the mineral. Vegetarians and vegans may especially benefit from this.
Cacao products also contain tryptophan, which is an amino acid your body uses to make serotonin, a brain chemical that helps you relax.
What does cocoa mean?
Cocoa starts the same way cacao does: as harvested beans from the plant’s seed pods. During processing, however, it’s heated at much higher temperatures. This results in a slightly sweeter flavor and different health effects.
Cocoa powder is extremely popular in dessert recipes. Cocoa tends to be cheaper than cacao and a bit easier to find. The challenge is finding a high-quality option without any added sugars, dairy products, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, or emulsifiers – “fillers” companies use to kick up the flavour and cut production costs.
So, while cacao refers to the plant itself and the products made from non-roasted seeds, cocoa products are made from roasting its seeds.
Generally, raw cacao products — made from fermented, dried, unroasted cacao beans — are less processed and healthier.
Therefore, choose the cacao-rich products that best fit your taste buds and budget, and enjoy the many benefits this ancient plant can offer you.