Cocoa and Cacao, What’s The Real Difference?

What is the difference between cocoa and cacao? Other than a few rearranged letters, at first glance, your answer might be “not much.” I have spent more than a few trips to the grocery store scratching my head, wondering if the more cost-efficient cocoa was really the same as the more expensive cacao.

Well, here’s the answer: cacao and cocoa are the same thing. Yet very different.

The technical difference

The Cacao Tree (Theobroma cacao if you’re into botany-speak) is the tree from which the cacao bean comes. Cacao beans are found inside the “fruit” of the tree, in football-sized pods. When we see “cacao nibs” or “powdered cacao” for sale, we are seeing the bean in its raw state, uncooked and unprocessed. After the beans are cleaned, roasted and processed, they are called “cocoa.”

The nutritional difference

Cacao and cocoa are both antioxidant powerhouses, though cacao is significantly more powerful. ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) is a method of measuring antioxidants in biological samples. It is likely not something you typically consider as much as calories or other nutritional facts, but it is useful when comparing apples to oranges. Or, er, cocoa to cacao. Per 100 grams:

  • Raw cacao powder has an ORAC value of 95,500
  • Raw cacao nibs have an ORAC value of 62,100
  • Roasted cocoa powder as an ORAC value of 26,000

Raw cacao powder, therefore, has significantly more antioxidant power. To boot, raw cacao is an excellent source of essential fatty acids, fiber, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, calcium and sulfur. Unfortunately, once roasted and processed, cacao, now cocoa, loses much of its nutritional benefits.

You can buy raw cacao in health food stores and online. You can buy both nibs (great to use as you would chocolate chips, though not nearly as sweet) and powder (which I have found to be much more convenient and versatile). I use cacao powder as a substitute for cocoa in baking recipes and occasionally stir a little into my milk. (mmm)

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