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A woman in sweatpants and cozy socks holding a hot cocoa made with Navitas Organics Cacao Powder
January 15, 2020

What's the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

Though their names are similar and they are derived from the same cacao plant, there are actually significant differences between cocoa and cacao.

By: Julie Morris, Superfood Chef & Luminberry Founder

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!

The History of Cacao

The word "cacao" is believed to have originated from the Olmec people, the earliest known civilization in Mesoamerica. They originally pronounced it as “kakawa.” It was then adopted by the Mayans and later by the Spanish. The term "cocoa" is thought to have arisen from a spelling mistake that became widely accepted in English.

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. Simply put, cacao refers to the minimally processed form of the cacao bean, while cocoa refers to the highly processed form of the bean. Cocoa powder 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 derived from low-temperature roasted cacao beans and 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. During harvest, the cacao pods are opened and seeds are accumulated for fermenting while the empty pods are recycled as compost or used as feed for livestock. 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. The most commonly found cocoa powder on the market is labeled as "Dutch-processed cocoa powder" or "alkalized cocoa powder," which means it was 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. While both cocoa and cacao have a distinguishable chocolate taste, cacao is more bitter, comparable to a full-bodied dark chocolate, while cocoa is generally sweeter.

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. This difference in nutritional value is one of the main reasons more and more people are swapping cacao products for regular cocoa products in their everyday uses and recipes.

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 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 powder for an instant health boost! Chocolate cake? No problem. Simply substitute the recipe's measurement of cocoa powder or natural cocoa with our minimally processed Cacao Powder.

At the end of the day, both cocoa and cacao will provide benefits since low-sugar chocolate is always a healthier alternative to artificially sweetened treats. 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!

The Safety of Cacao

While cacao is celebrated for its nutritional benefits, it’s important to process it properly to avoid any health risks Raw cacao beans can be a source of foodborne pathogens, like salmonella, e. coli and mold, which are naturally present in the tropical environments where cacao is grown. Roasting the raw cacao beans during processing is a natural way to eliminate these contaminants and enhance the chocolate flavor.

Beyond the Bean: Environmental and Ethical Impacts

The journey of a cacao bean from a farm to our plates has multiple environmental and ethical touchpoints. Cacao farming, when done unsustainably, can lead to deforestation and biodiversity loss. Navitas is committed to sourcing cacao sustainably and ethically, ensuring fair wages and practices. In fact, Navitas Organics Cacao Powder was the first cacao powder to be Regenerative Organic Certified®! By partnering with smallholder farms and growing cooperatives, Navitas Organics is confident that their cacao not only offers the highest quality and nutrient density, but also supports the development of integrated, inclusive and restorative farming practices that honor growers’ sovereignty, economy and environment. This not only protects our planet and its people but also ensures a higher quality of the final cacao product. Learn more about the growers here.

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

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