It was only a few years ago that I realized Cocoa and Cacao weren’t the same thing. Let’s be honest. Look at the two words. Cocoa…Cacao. I pondered “Is this a homonym thing or just a spelling error?” “How many times can you misspell these two words?”
Chocolate is chocolate, right? Well not exactly. Growing up you think milk chocolate is chocolate. And then as you ascend the ladder of life you realize that chocolate is a processed confection perfected by Willy Wonka and surreptitiously undermined by Slugworth. True, chocolate, like most things, is a processed item. But how processed determines its salutary effect on the body.
We have been told ad nauseam the health benefits of chocolate. How it is great for your cardiovascular health, mental health, insulin sensitivity (diabetes), weight maintenance, et al. This begs the question. “Does this apply to both cacao and cocoa?” So let’s cover the fundamental differences between cocoa and cacao. In the cocoa versus cacao debate, which is better?
The Origin Is the Same…
Both cocoa and cacao originate from the same tree: the Theobroma Cacao tree. Indigenous to South America, much of cacao is now grown in West Africa (and unfortunately harvested by young children at gunpoint by warlord mercenaries. Forget Blood Diamond. It is Blood Chocolate!). Cacao comes from pods on the tree which are then cracked open to extract the cacao beans. These beans look very similar to the Arabica coffee bean. (Not a surprise perhaps since both coffee & cacao are full of phytonutrients, polyphenols, catechins, and other “big word” goodness which bring the aforementioned health benefits.)
(For a deeper description as to the health benefits of cacao read 4 Superfoods You Should Be Eating Now.)
The cacao beans are dried and fermented. If you have ever eaten pure cacao beans, they are bitter to the point of being almost unpalatable. Think of unsweetened Baker’s Chocolate, but worse. Incidentally, if you have ever heard of Cacao Nibs, they are simply cacao beans chopped up. Pure, unadulterated goodness. Nevertheless, at this point, the cocoa versus cacao debate begins, for the division between cocoa and cacao occurs.
After being dried and fermented, cacao manufacturers heat the bean at low temperatures. This separates the fatty outer layer of the bean from the rest of it. The fatty part becomes Cacao Butter. It looks a lot like white chocolate (which incidentally doesn’t contain any cacao at all). Cacao Butter is the part of the cacao that brings the high amount of fat to dark chocolate bars. Cacao butter may be used for baking, cooking, and even as a skin moisturizer.
The remainder of the cacao bean is milled down to produce Cacao Powder. Similar to Cacao Butter, Cacao Powder boasts high amounts of macronutrient & antioxidant goodness. As a result, it is used in a myriad of baking recipes. The major disadvantage to Cacao Powder is its bitterness. Again think of eating pure Baker’s Chocolate (which incidentally is normally made from cocoa not cacao).
Cocoa stems from heating the cacao beans at a higher temperature than when heating the beans to garner the cacao by-products. This higher heating results in cocoa being a tad sweeter than cacao. Cocoa is found in tons of food items (however not always in hot chocolate cocoa mix).
On occasion you might see cocoa called Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder. The Dutch Process blends it with an alkaline-based chemical in an attempt to mellow the bitter taste of the cocoa. Alas, in this additional processing, we lose more of the health benefits of the original cacao bean. On the plus side, pure Cocoa Powder does tend to be cheaper (and sweeter) than Cacao Powder. Incidentally, you won’t find Cocoa Nibs since these are known by another name: chocolate chips!
In the cocoa versus cacao debate the winner is cacao. It is the purest, less-processed form of the cacao bean (as the name would suggest) and boasts the highest amount of antioxidant, diabetes-fighting, heart-healthy polyphenols and other goodness. Not surprisingly in the paleo/clean eating world, the less processed a food item is the closer it is to its natural state and therefore, the better for your health so this all makes sense.
Cocoa is more refined, and many times, adulterated with sugar and other chemicals for the sake of sweetening it and increasing the profit of chocolatiers since they are using less true cacao. (Think of bartenders who “water-down” their drinks.)
However, cocoa still boasts the antioxidant benefits of its father cacao bean but not as much. For example, simply perusing the ORAC scale, which is used to measure the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory effect of fruits, vegetables, spices, etc will prove my point. 100 grams of pure Cacao Powder boasts an approx. ORAC score of 95,000; Cocoa Powder, 26,000 so you witness a whopping 75% degradation.
So if you can tolerate the taste, here is the scale of best-to-eat to not-as-great.
- Pure Cacao Beans (good luck on that!)
- Pure Cacao Powder
- Cacao Butter
- Cacao Nibs (great on yogurt bowls, desserts, cereals and much more)
- Pure Cocoa Powder
- Unalkalized Cocoa Powder (not Dutch Processed)
- Dutch-Processed Cocoa Powder
These definitions are important when we talk about dark chocolate. In the Review of Popular Dark Chocolate Brands, we urge all people to look at the ingredients because not all dark chocolate bars are created alike. We know the best bars will have high cacao bean to low-sugar ratio (with perhaps a pinch of vanilla). The lower the cacao and higher the sugar (and dairy) veers us toward milk chocolate on the chocolate gamut. And honestly, we ideally don’t want to go down that road since the “benefits of chocolate” stem largely from cacao, not the inordinate amount of sugar and dairy. Remember that in a typical milk chocolate bar, “chocolate” is the 3rd ingredient. The 3rd!
Either way, if money is no object opt for anything Cacao over anything Cocoa. If anything, you get to say Cacao (pronounced “ka-KOW”), which is fun to roll off the tongue. If all else fails, remember this beautiful verse, “Eat the Cacao for it comes with a nutrient Pow!” Okay, okay…
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A. Gregory Luna, double-certified health consultant and high school medical/nutrition teacher.
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