Almost everything you ever wanted to know about cocoa and cacao

After last week’s chocolate candy-making column, I thought it might be helpful to talk a little more about the differences in cocoa and cacao today.

I love making chocolate at home using ingredients with names I can pronounce like, “cocoa,” “organic coconut oil,” “pure vanilla extract,” and “maple syrup.” Throw in pecans and shredded coconut, and it disappears quickly.

Reading the ingredients lists on store-bought chocolate was an eye-opener for me. Blue Water Natural Foods in Alpine carries many different natural, dark chocolate bars that I like to pick up when we’re out shopping… and we usually get back to Fort Davis with only an empty wrapper.

A few years ago, I started making chocolate candy, and have been using the simple recipe 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, back in my formative days of homemade 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.

Cacao on the left, cocoa on the right.
Cacao on the left, cocoa on the right.

They both taste chocolatey, but not the kind of chocolatey that makes you want to grab a spoon and dig in to the bag or carton of brown powder. Is it just a fancy pronunciation and spelling for the same item? I found that the differences were many, and the benefits of cacao are outstanding.

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 (anti-inflammatory and antioxidant), boosting your mood (it contains anandamide, known as the “bliss molecule” which gives you feelings of euphoria), 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. And all those studies about daily chocolate being beneficial? They’re not talking about store-bought cocoa chocolates, or milk chocolate that’s loaded with sugar… they’re talking about ingesting raw or minimally-processed cacao beans.

There are many more physical and mental health benefits of raw cacao chocolate, including better sleep, lower fatigue, and stronger hair, skin and nails. Including raw cacao in your diet can help improve your well-being and longevity and overall mood, so give it a try.

It's good for your heart.
Cacao is good for your mood … and your heart ❤

Questions or comments? Email


Flourless Cacao Brownies

1 cup raw cacao powder

4 eggs

3/4 cup raw honey

1/4 cup coconut oil

1 pinch sea salt

Add all of the ingredients to a large bowl and mix well. Line the bottom of a 8-inch square pan (or similar size) with parchment paper. Pour the batter into the pan and spread it out evenly. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool for 30 minutes before eating.



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