Cocoa and cacao… do you know the difference?

Printed with the permission of the Alpine Avalanche

I have been on a chocolate binge lately. Not just eating chocolate, but making it at home using ingredients with names I can pronounce like, “cocoa,” “organic coconut oil,” “pure vanilla extract,” and “maple syrup.” Reading the ingredients lists on store-bought chocolate was an eye-opener for me.

About a year ago, I shared a simple recipe for homemade chocolate here, and have been using it more than usual lately. I like knowing exactly what goes into the foods I prepare – and since I can control it, I want those ingredients to be simple, wholesome and healthy. I’ve read many times that it’s healthy to eat chocolate every day, so I’m doing my part.

“Are you using cocoa or cacao?” my husband asked after savoring several pieces of a fresh batch of chocolate candies.

“I’m using unsweetened cocoa. Why?”

He went on to tell me that it would be much healthier and beneficial to us if I used cacao. Since I was excited about the prospect of making healthy and beneficial candy, I began to investigate.

What’s the difference between cocoa and cacao? They look about the same. They both taste chocolatey. Is it just a fancy pronunciation and spelling? I found that the differences were many.

While cacao and cocoa begin with the beans from the Theobroma cacao trees, native to South America, the way they are processed makes them completely different creatures. The beans grow in pods on the trees and when they are harvested, look similar to coffee beans. You can eat these cacao beans raw if you enjoy very bitter chocolate flavor… and this is where the biggest health benefits are. The beans are normally fermented and dried before they move on to the next step of processing.

The raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. This process keeps the living enzymes in the cocoa, and removes the fat (known as cacao butter – not to be confused with cocoa butter), making it a “superfood.” Superfoods are known for having outstanding nutritional and healing properties and have been used medicinally for centuries in different cultures.

Because cacao is a superfood, the health benefits include antioxidant effects (protecting you from premature aging due to free radicals), lowering your blood pressure, boosting your mood, protecting your heart by helping to regulate glucose production, and it’s rich in magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper and manganese.

Cocoa looks like cacao, but it’s not the same. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that has been roasted at high temperatures. There are two types of cocoa powder: Dutch-pressed cocoa and natural cocoa powder. Dutch-pressed is commonly known as dark cocoa. It undergoes more processing with an alkalized chemical solution to produce a rich, less-acidic flavor than the natural cocoa powder. In recipes that contain baking soda, you’ll often find natural cocoa because the baking soda alkalizes the bitter cocoa to make it tastier.

The processing of cocoa tends to strip away the nutritional value of the original cacao superfood bean. All those studies about daily chocolate being beneficial? They’re not talking about store-bought cocoa chocolates… they’re studies using raw or minimally-processed cacao beans. Not the same as that dark chocolate bar you just picked up at the check-out counter. Sorry to be the bearer of this news.

On my first attempt at homemade chocolate, I poured the melted chocolate into a glass bread pan and ended up with a rectangular bar that we broke into pieces to eat. Then, I used mini muffin tins. Considering that was some time ago, I now have quite an assortment of silicone candy forms in my cabinets.

Now using raw cacao powder, I also like to add drops of orange or peppermint essential oil, sprinkles of cinnamon, or Chile powder and red pepper flakes to different batches to experiment with flavors. Not a single nibble has brought complaints.

Questions or comments? Email

Make Your Own Chocolate

1/2 cup coconut oil

1/2 cup cocoa powder or cacao powder if you can get it

4-6 teaspoons maple syrup 

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
 Slowly melt coconut oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir cocoa/cacao powder, maple syrup and vanilla extract into melted oil until well blended. Pour mixture into a wax paper-lined tray or candy mold. Refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour. Enjoy, because it’s good for you!



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