Cacao vs. Cocoa: what's the difference?

Ahhh chocolate, the most popular sweet treat in the world. Humans have been consuming food and drink made from beans from the Theobrama cacao tree (the Latin name for cacao, which translates to “food of the gods”) for centuries - from as far back as 460 AD! The Mayan and Mexican religions even believe cacao has divine origins, and cacao is now rising in popularity again thanks to the prominence of raw, natural and vegan diets.

Eight million of us in Britain indulge in a bar of chocolate every single day. You might have noticed that sometimes chocolate products are labelled with “cocoa”, sometimes “cacao”, and sometimes these terms are used interchangeably. Aside from the couple of letters in spelling, there isn’t a huge difference between the two: they both start off as cacao beans from the Theobrama tree. What distinguishes one from the other is the level of processing, which then affects the taste and the nutrient profile of the end product.

What is cocoa?

Cocoa refers to highly processed cacao. The cocoa beans are fermented and then roasted, decreasing their antioxidant capacity and reducing most of their nutritious capacity. 

Oftentimes the beans are then washed in an alkaline solution of potassium carbonate to form Dutch-processed cocoa beans, reducing their acidity and taking the bitterness out of the taste. If the cocoa powder hasn’t been Dutch processed it’s known as natural cocoa powder - but as the beans have been roasted it still can’t be called cacao. 

Cocoa manufacturers also then often add preservatives, added sugar and sweeteners to the powder, making it a lot less natural than raw cacao powder.

What is cacao?

Cacao generally refers to cacao beans that haven’t been roasted or alkalised. The beans are simply made edible by removing shells, pressing the cacao butter from the nibs, and drying and grounding the nibs into a powder. Because the beans aren’t subjected to heat, more minerals and antioxidants are preserved.

The term cacao then encompasses any sort of raw product that derives from the cacao bean.

  • Cacao nibs are crumbled bits of cacao that look a bit like chocolate chips, but taste a lot more bitter, and pack a hell of a lot of antioxidants!

  • When cacao nibs are heated to preserve their nutritional value they form a cacao paste

  • Cacao butter is pale and yellow fat from the cacao bean, which is packed with essential fatty acids and antioxidants

The benefits of cacao

There’s a reason why cacao has historically been celebrated as a medicinal food and drink for both the body and the mind. The Kuna tribes living on the San Blas Islands consume up to 5 cups of pure cacao a day, and issues like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are pretty much non-existent within the tribe!

Because raw cacao is minimally processed, it retains all the nutrients that make it a superfood.

  • Contains countless minerals necessary for vascular function, including zinc, magnesium, copper, potassium and calcium, all of which reduce the risk of hypertension

  • Contains more phenolic antioxidants than most foods due to its high percentage of flavonoids, which protect the cardiovascular system

  • Epicatechin content of cacao improves vascular function, reduces blood pressure, improves insulin sensitivity and reduces platelet activity

  • More vitamin C than blueberries

  • Cacao butter is commonly found in skin moisturisers, but cacao flavonoids also protect the skin from damage from UV light

  • Source of essential amino acid tryptophan, which triggers ‘happy’ hormone serotonin, boosting mood. Cacao can also help you fall asleep thanks to the tryptophan!

Is cacao powder chocolate?

Yes - all chocolate comes from cacao seeds. For cacao powder, raw cacao beans known as the cacao nibs are pressed and dried into a paste, making for an extremely strong, bitter dark chocolate flavour.

Unfortunately, you’re not actually benefiting from all the amazing heart-healthy benefits of cacao when you grab a Dairy Milk off the supermarket shelf. Highly processed chocolate bars don’t contain the kind of raw cacao that so many tribes have hailed as divine; Dairy Milk bars, for example, only contain about 20% cocoa solids, meaning the other 80% of the bar is filled with ingredients like sugar, sweeteners, milk and additives. The potential health benefits from the cocoa solids that are present in milk chocolate bars has also been found to be somewhat blocked due to the presence of dairy, which may prevent the absorption of the antioxidants.

What about dark chocolate? Although dark chocolate will contain a higher amount of cocoa solids, and subsequently contains less sugars and sweeteners, most dark chocolate bars bought from a normal shop won’t contain raw cacao powder. To get the benefits from chocolate, you’ll need to consume an extremely high cocoa content chocolate bar or raw cacao.

Does cacao powder or cocoa powder taste better?

The lack of processing that raw cacao powder goes through means that its bitter taste is preserved, whereas cocoa powder is often mixed with additional ingredients to make it sweeter.

Although cacao powder is bitter, more intense and has a richer chocolate flavour than cocoa, it’s still a great addition to smoothies, desserts, baked goods, porridge, hot drinks, and tons more recipes to satisfy your chocolate cravings and boost your nutrition. Our Vegan Raw Hot Chocolate contains 40% raw cacao powder and rest assured that it’s still a creamy and delicious drink for bedtime. 

Cocoa vs cacao: which is better for you?

There’s a clear winner on this one! The preservation of nutrients in raw cacao means that it has a much higher amount of antioxidants, flavonoids, and minerals like protein, fibre, magnesium and iron. The roasting of the beans which turns cacao into cocoa destroys a lot of these properties, the potential for cacao to mitigate diseases such as diabetes, heart issues and hypertension is all but lost in cocoa powder.

Can you substitute cocoa powder for cacao powder?

Yes, cacao can be used as a substitute for cocoa - and we would highly encourage you to do so for its excellent health-boosting properties. We use cacao in this recipe for delicious Vegan Cacao Protein Pancakes!

If you’re using cacao instead of cocoa for baking and cooking, you’ll want to reduce the amount you use because of how strong cacao is. Natural cacao powder may also need to be used alongside baking soda rather than baking powder, as the two components react with each other to help your baked goods rise. Finally, as cacao powder absorbs more liquid than cocoa powder, you might also have to adjust how much liquid you’re using in your recipe.

For a taste of raw, divine chocolate plus some bonus nutrition points, try out the Raw Cacao flavour of our best-selling PERFORM vegan protein powder, or try out the magic of our Vegan Raw Hot Chocolate, both made with Fairtrade cacao powder from Ecuador. You can explore even more nutritious vegan hot drinks by checking out our Magic range


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