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What's the Difference Between Cocoa and Cacao?

By Julie Morris, Superfood Chef | 

If you’re a chocolate lover, you’ve likely noticed that chocolate ingredients vary between containing cocoa and cacao and that both products are also sold individually on the shelf. Though their names are similar and they are derived from the same cacao plant, there are actually significant differences between the two—in processing, flavor and nutritional value!

Cacao vs Cocoa Powder

Both cacao and cocoa come from the cacao bean of the Theobroma cacao tree. The key difference between the two lies in how the cacao bean is processed after harvesting and how the health benefits are altered as a result of this processing. Cocoa powder, the highly processed form, is roasted at a much higher temperature and typically supplemented with additives to cut the bitterness (either an alkalizing chemical solution in the case of Dutch-processed or alkalized cocoa, or with sugar and other additives, as found in milk chocolate and candy chocolate bars). Cacao powder, which is often labeled as "Raw Cacao Powder," is minimally processed form of the bean that maintains the nutritionally dense properties of the cacao seed.

Signs of a Superfood
Cacao is the minimally processed form of chocolate that is robust in flavor and maintains all the impressive nutrients that make it a superfood. It comes directly from the cacao tree, which fruits colorful pods that are filled with large cacao seeds, called cacao beans. When these beans are naturally fermented, roasted at low temperatures and cold-pressed (separating out most of the fat, a.k.a cacao butter), cacao powder is the result.

The Processing Differentiation 
While cocoa comes from the same source (cacao beans), it refers to highly processed cacao. Cocoa manufacturers roast the beans at high heat and many add preservatives, textural agents or added sugar and sweeteners to the powder as well. You may have noticed cocoa on the market that says it has been “Dutch processed” or “alkalized,” which means it has been treated with an alkaline solution to reduce its acidity. These processes and additives take the bitter edge off the bean (a bitterness that is indicative of its nutritional potency), flatten the rich chocolate flavor and/or increase the shelf life of processed cocoa. 

Bonus Benefits
In their purest forms, both cacao powder and unsweetened cocoa powder taste similar: like unsweetened chocolate. Their health benefits are where the biggest variances occur. Minimally processed cacao powder is an abundant source of minerals (iron, magnesium and potassium), fiber and those unique antioxidants called flavanols, which support cardiovascular and brain health. After cacao has been heated at high temperatures, many of these beneficial nutrients degrade and are no longer significantly present in the powder—quite the unnecessary loss in nutrition.

Can Cacao Powder Be Used as a Substitute for Cocoa Powder?

Yes! In fact, we at Navitas recommend choosing our Cacao Powder over unsweetened cocoa powder (or another natural cacao product like our Raw Cacao Nibs or our Cacao Sweet Nibs over chocolate chips) whenever possible. You can easily swap our Cacao Powder in any recipe that calls for regular cocoa for an instant health boost! Chocolate cake? No problem. Simply substitute the recipe's call for cocoa powder or natural cocoa with our "raw," a.k.a. minimally processed Cacao Powder.


At the end of the day, both cocoa and cacao will provide benefits – any time low-sugar chocolate is consumed can be considered a smart treat. Yet, cacao is clearly the most nutrient-dense form of this superfood. If you’re not doing so already, lean on cacao to satisfy your chocolate cravings and enjoy an entirely new level of energizing health!

Not sure how to start incorporating cacao into your everyday? Check out some of our favorite recipes for immediate inspiration.