Despite the similarities in their spelling, there are a surprising number of differences between cacao and cocoa. While both ingredients come from the same plant, their processing, taste and even health benefits are hugely different. So to clear up any confusion, here’s some more information about the difference between cacao and cocoa.
The scientific studies that boast of chocolate’s amazing health benefits aren’t usually referring to your average chocolate bar, or even a mug of hot cocoa. Instead they tend to draw their conclusion from research into raw cacao.
So what exactly is the difference between cocoa and cacao? And why does one boast more health benefits than the other?
Well, the story of both these ingredients begins with the cocoa tree, or more specifically, the cacao pod. To make cacao and cocoa, these pods are hand-picked and cracked open to harvest the cocoa beans. Yet whereas raw cacao is made by cold-pressing these unroasted cacao beans, to make cocoa powder producers have to roast the beans at high temperatures. It is this additional processing that morphs the molecular structure of the bean, as well as destroying the living enzymes inherent within the plant itself.
In addition to roasting, the cocoa beans are ground to produce cocoa mass, or cocoa liquor. From this, the cocoa butter is removed to leave cocoa, which is then ground to make powder.
The processing of cocoa doesn’t stop with fermentation, roasting and grinding. Many cocoa products also undergo ‘Dutch Processing’ to create alkalized cocoa. This product has been washed in a potassium solution that neutralizes the acidity, giving the cocoa a mellow and smoother flavor.
Yet while this type of cocoa is often useful in baking, the extensive processing destroys almost all the health benefits attributed to cacao. In fact, one study found that raw cacao contains almost four times the antioxidant content of regular processed dark chocolate.
The Health Benefits of Raw Cacao vs Cocoa
Cocoa is far from unhealthy. In fact, it still contains polyphenol compounds, as well as a range of magnesium including calcium, zinc and magnesium. However, the nutritional clout of cocoa depends entirely on its level of processing. What’s more, studies suggest that the addition of milk and sugar to most cocoa products may actually block the absorption of antioxidants into the body.
In comparison, cacao boasts all of the natural health benefits of the raw, fermented cocoa beans. These include:
1. The Potential to Lower Risk of Diabetes
Thanks to cacao’s high magnesium content, it can potentially help reduce the chance of developing diabetes, as well as supporting strong bones and healthy blood pressure.
2. Reduce Inflammation
The flavonoid antioxidants found in raw cacao are key to its inflammation-busting potential. Flavonoids inhibit pro-inflammatory enzymes in the body, leading to a widespread anti-inflammatory effect.
3. Great Source of Iron
Iron is essential in helping the body transport oxygen molecules to tissue, and thankfully cacao contains it in abundance. In fact, cacao is one of the highest plant-based sources of iron in the world, offering an amazing 7.3mg per 100g. This compares to beef and lamb at 2.5mg, and spinach at 3.6mg.
4. Mood Booster
Cacao is loaded with phenylethylamine – a chemical dubbed the “love drug” for its mood-enhancing ability.
5. Packed Full of Antioxidants
Raw cacao contains an impressive amount of antioxidants. Boasting more than 40 times the antioxidants of blueberries, this superfood can help protect your body against dangerous free radicals, which accelerate cell and tissue damage.
The taste test
One of the biggest differences between cacao and cocoa is their taste. As a result of the alkalizing process used for cocoa production, the natural acidity of the bean is reduced, leading to a smoother product.
In comparison, cacao’s minimal processing means that it retains the natural bitterness and fruitiness of the cocoa bean. Of course, the texture of cacao will depend entirely on whether you’re using cacao nibs or powder. The latter is the perfect substitute for cocoa in hot drinks, smoothies and desserts, whereas cacao nibs make a unique addition to granola, trail mix and even salads.