Cacao vrs. Cocoa: What’s the difference?
I’ve gotten asked a few times now what my deal with cacao powder is and why not cocoa so here is my mini-article. Stick with me if you can, this information is actually really interesting. But if you absolutely cannot, here is the short answer…cacao and cocoa are basically the same thing and come from the same place. The difference is %100 in the processing.
(^My Fudgy Chocolate Cookies made with cacao powder and topped with cacao nibs)
What Is The Process?
So, it all starts with a cacao tree, which grows pods. Those pods are split open to reveal cacao beans which look similar to coffee beans. If you’re a coffee snob like I am, you know that the conditions in which coffee grows (i.e., soil, sunlight, elevation, etc.) changes the flavor of the coffee. This also goes for cacao beans. You can eat the beans raw, but they are very very bitter – regardless of the climate they are grown in. Before further processing, cacao nibs are usually fermented and dried. This is the last step before the distinction between cacao and cocoa becomes clear.
It Is All In The Temperature.
In making cacao, the harvested beans are then cold pressed or heated at a very low temperature. This separates the cacao from the fat – cacao (or cocoa- it goes by both names) butter. The butter is used later in high-quality chocolates and is also used commonly in natural skin care. The cacao can be left in “nib” form (which I love throwing on smoothies!), and is like a very bitter chocolate chip, or it can be ground into cacao powder, which has the same use as cocoa powder.
Cocoa powder is heated at a very high temperature. This results in a slightly sweeter flavor. In the case of dark or “dutch” cocoa powder, the cocoa goes through an additional processing with an alkalized chemical solution. In other words, the goal here is to make the powder less acidic and richer.
Unfortunately, roasting the cacao at high temperatures really changes its molecular structure and reduces the enzyme content—lowering the overall nutritional value and removing health benefits. So, when you read all those studies that boast the health benefits of chocolate, they are not referring to your grocery store’s average chocolate bar. They are referring to high-quality cacao. (If your Hershey’s bar is making you happy though- keep eating away. No shame here, just information).
So, all those benefits of cacao? Here are a few, and this is why I opt for it:
- Cacao provides minerals such as: magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, and copper
- Cacao has been shown to lower insulin resistance
- Cacao has been shown to shield nerve cells from damage
- Cacao has also been shown to lower and stabilize blood pressure
- Finally, it is commonly shown to boost your mood! (And who doesn’t want that?)
(quick note here, some of the articles I link to say “cocoa”, but they are referring to minimally processed cacao – not high roasted cocoa powder)
(My Sweet Potato Walnut Brownies made with cacao powder)
Get The Most Out Of Your Cacao
Finally, if you are hard-core into getting all the benefits of cacao possible, it is important to note that pairing cacao with dairy is not a great choice. Dairy, unfortunately, limits the body’s ability to absorb the phytonutrients (aka the good stuff in the make-up of the cacao). When buying chocolate bars at the store, look for high cacao content, and vegan/dairy free—possibly made with cacao butter and natural sweeteners. These types of chocolate bars are typically more expensive, but you are paying for a higher-quality snack and a much higher amount of nutrients for your body.
Purchase Some Cacao For Yourself!
In conclusion, I choose to purchase cacao powder over cocoa because I appreciate the extra health benefits that my body can gain from it. You do you though.
On top of all this, there is a good deal of controversy (I’ll save this rant for another day) over the way cacao beans are harvested in other countries—slave and child labor for instance. I’ve simply found a few brands of cacao that are ethically sourced and minimally processed.
All this to say, I do not have a sweet tooth like some people, and I love bitter chocolate. Thus, cacao is great for me. I highly recommend grabbing yourself a bag to, at least, experiment with. You might need an extra drizzle of honey here or there, but I totally think it is worth it!
(My Brownie Fat Balls made with cacao powder)