Despite the similarities in their spelling, cacao and cocoa are two very different ingredients. All of the chocolate products you eat are derived from cacao seeds in some form or another, which are derived from the cacao plant — an evergreen tree that grows in South America and West Africa. Cacao seeds grow in large pods on the trunks of these trees.
But Not All that Glitters is Cacoa – What’s the difference?
Despite coming from the same plant, cacao and cocoa have numerous differences. Cacao is a pure form of chocolate that comes very close to the raw and natural state in which it is harvested (One Green Planet, n.d.). While the natural nature of cacao would seem to limit its versatility, the product actually comes in several forms.
When the cacao beans are released from their pods, they are sometimes blended into cacao butter. Cacao butter contains the fatty part of the cacao fruit and is white in color. The remainder of the fruit is used to make raw cacao powder.
It is also possible to purchase cacao nibs, which are cacao beans that have been chopped into smaller pieces. These are similar to chocolate chips although much more intense in their chocolatey flavor.
So, if it’s possible to process the seeds and still call it cacao then what change draws the distinction between this natural food and the more-common cacoa? The answer is simple: cocoa has been processed with high heat.
Cocoa refers to the powder that is commonly seen in American supermarkets and stirred into beverages. The process used to create cocoa entails applying high heat to raw cacao, which destroys some of the beneficial nutrients it contains. However, even after this process, cocoa still has several beneficial nutritional properties (One Green Planet, n.d.).
One concern to watch out for when seeking these benefits, however, is the way in which many manufacturers supplement their cocoa powder with added sugar, oil, or milk fat. Be sure to seek out cocoa products have little or no added ingredients.
So, What Exactly ARE the Benefits of Raw Cacao?
Because they come from a seed, both cocoa and cacao are excellent sources of fiber. They also contain some protein while having relatively low-fat content. Although cocoa has some nutritional benefits, they are far outweighed by the nutritional properties of raw cacao (Menato, 2016).
Cacao Can Mitigate Risk of Diabetes, Hypertension, and More
Raw cacao is an excellent source of magnesium. Getting enough magnesium is not only associated with a lower risk of diabetes, but it also healthy blood pressure, strong bones, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and healthy nervous system activity (Volpe, 2014).
It Can Reduce Inflammation and Support Heart Health
Flavonoids are a class of antioxidants that are abundant in both cacao and cocoa powder. Flavonoids inhibit pro-inflammatory enzymes in the body, meaning that they have a widespread anti-inflammatory effect (WHFoods, 2014). Additionally, flavonoids have been associated with higher levels of “healthy” HDL cholesterol and better overall cardiovascular health (Menato, 2016).
Eating More Can Help You Meet Your Dietary Iron Needs.
Cacao is a great source of iron, which helps your body transport oxygen molecules to your tissue.
Eating More Cacao Can Improve Your Mood
Cacao contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which is sometimes known as a “love drug.” Although PEA cannot technically make you fall in love, it is associated with elevated mood and higher energy levels.
This is thought to be due to the interaction between PEA and the neurotransmitter dopamine, which regulates the brain’s reward response (Menato, 2016).
So, cacao and cocoa can support your wellbeing, but is eating cocoa in chocolate bars really good for your health?
What Are the Healthiest Ways to Enjoy Cacao and Cocoa?
Cacao and cocoa are both excellent additions to your diet because of their nutritional qualities. There are several ways to use these forms of chocolate:
Baked goods. Raw cacao powder and cocoa powder can be used interchangeably in baked goods, so swapping out cocoa for the more healthsome cacao can help keep your desserts healthy. Just one or two tablespoons go a long way toward adding an intense chocolate flavor to your brownies or cakes.
Smoothies. Raw cacao nibs are excellent when blended into smoothies. Add a heaping spoonful of the nibs to your favorite fruit smoothie for a chocolatey treat that supports your health goals.
Snack mix. The slightly bitter taste of cacao makes a great counterpart to the sweetness of dried fruits.
Toss together with your favorite nuts, dried fruits, and a small handful of cacao nibs for an antioxidant-rich snack.
Homemade coffee drinks. Craving some caffeine but trying to avoid the sugary drinks at your local coffee shop?
Cacao powder is a fantastic addition to your favorite coffee beverage, creating a chocolatey mocha without a lot of added sugar.
Dairy-free chocolate ice cream. When blended, frozen bananas create a creamy, dairy-free treat that is very similar in texture to regular ice cream. Adding cacao or cocoa powder to your blender with the bananas makes excellent ice cream.
Check out our cacao and cocoa recipes below for two delectable varieties that put cacao to good use!
When it comes to chocolate, there’s never just one or two choices to satisfy your cravings. There’s not only numerous brands of chocolate out there, but also many different forms.
For instance: cacao vs. cocoa – is there a difference and which one is best?
Cacao and cocoa may sound similar, but both of them are unique when it comes to taste, nutrition, and cost. If you’re unsure if you should buy cacao or cocoa, check out these differences below so you can make a well informed, choco-licious decision!
Cacao is the purest form of chocolate you can consume, which means it is raw and much less processed than cocoa powder or chocolate bars. Cacao is thought to be the highest source of antioxidants of all foods and the highest source of magnesium of all foods. It has been used throughout many cultures for years for health purposes and even used as a high trade commodity.
The cacao fruit tree, also known as Theobroma Cacao, produces cacao pods which are cracked open to release cacao beans. From there, cacao beans can be processed a few different ways.
Cacao butter is the fattiest part of the fruit and makes up the outer lining of the inside of a single cacao bean. It is white in color and has a rich, buttery texture that resembles white chocolate in taste and appearance.
Cacao butter is removed from the bean during production and the remaining part of the fruit is used to produce raw cacao powder.
Cacao nibs are simply cacao beans that have been chopped up into edible pieces, much like chocolate chips without the added sugars and fats. Cacao nibs contain all of the fiber, fat, and nutrients that the cacao bean does.
Cacao paste comes from cacao nibs that have been slowly heated to preserve the nutrients and are melted into a bark known that is a less-processed form of dark chocolate bars. Cacao paste can be used to make raw vegan desserts or you can just eat it as an indulgent snack by itself!
Cacao powder contains more fiber and calories than cocoa powder since more of the nutrients from the whole bean is still intact. Cacao is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats, cholesterol-free saturated fats, vitamins, minerals, fiber, natural carbohydrates, and protein that make it an excellent source of nutrients.
Cocoa is the term used to refer to the heated form of cacao that you probably grew up buying at the store in the form of powder.
Though cocoa may seem inferior to raw cacao, it’s actually very good for you. It’s also less expensive.
Cocoa powder is produced similarly to cacao except cocoa undergoes a higher temperature of heat during processing. Surprisingly, it still retains a large number of antioxidants in the process. It’s excellent for your heart, skin, blood pressure, and even your stress levels.
If you buy cocoa powder, be sure you buy plain cocoa powder. Cocoa mixes often contain more sugar. Look for either regular cocoa powder or Dutch-processed (a.k.a. dark) cocoa powder.
Dutch-processed cocoa powder (dark cocoa) is a cocoa powder that has been processed with an alkalized solution. Which makes it less acidic and much richer in taste. Regular cocoa powder retains a more acidic nature and bitter taste and is used in baking recipes with baking soda where Dutch-processed cocoa powder is not since it has already been alkalized.
Cocoa powder is a rich source of fiber, has little fat, and has a bit of protein in it as well.
You can use cocoa powder and cacao powder interchangeably in baking recipes, smoothies, oatmeal, cookies, homemade raw treats, or even stir them into your coffee for a homemade mocha. Both cacao and cocoa are highly nutritious for you and are sure to satisfy your chocolate cravings. If you want more nutrients, I would suggest you choose cacao. If you want fewer calories and a decent source of antioxidants, then definitely go with cocoa powder.
Need cacao and cocoa recipes?
We’ve got you covered with plenty of recipes to choose from to satisfy your chocolate cravings!
Which one do you prefer — cacao or cocoa?
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Raw cacao offers amazing health benefits for your entire body! The Incas considered it the drink of gods, an association that gave rise to the scientific name of the cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, from the Greek words theo (god) and broma (drink).
You should never feel “guilty” about eating certain foods, but if you’ve ever felt a little naughty when indulging in chocolate, these 14 ridiculously good reasons to eat cacao will help you realize that high-quality chocolate and cacao are, in fact, a fantastic, healthy addition to your diet:
1.Get Happy With Cacao
Some days you just need to find your bliss – cacao is one of the healthiest foods you can consume. Cacao contains the mood improver, anandamide – known as the bliss molecule, which creates a feeling of euphoria. Plus it’s loaded with theobromine, found to halt coughs better than codeine or commercial cough suppressants with the equivalent of two cups! In fact, the UK-based study by the British Lung Foundation discovered codeine was only slightly more effective than the placebo at preventing coughing with no side effects.
2. It Puts You “In The Mood”
Another mood-enhancing compound found in cacao is PEA or phenethylamine, which triggers the release of endorphins and pleasurable opium-like neurochemicals. These often release naturally when we fall in love and during sexual activity. (The only other food on earth that contains PEA is blue-green algae.) In addition, these chemicals improve libido, which is probably why chocolate is so popular on Valentine ’s Day!
3. Helps To Keep Mood Swings At Bay
Cacao boosts brain levels of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical. When women are experiencing PMS serotonin levels drop dramatically. The benefits of cacao are proven to boost the brain levels of calming hormones and restore feelings of well-being.
4. Protects You From Heart Disease
Flavanols are an anti-inflammatory and heart-protective antioxidant group found in cacao. Studies show they can protect against cardiovascular disease, reduce the risk of stroke, and help improve blood circulation! Cacao contains over 700 compounds and the complex antioxidants found in it known as polyphenols help reduce ‘bad cholesterol’ and prevent hardening of the arteries.
5. Helps To Prevent Signs Of Premature Aging
Polyphenol antioxidants found in cacao belong to the same group of antioxidants like green tea and red wine. These anthocyanins (found in dark colored fruits) and catechins (found in green tea) protect our cells from premature oxidation or destruction and can keep us looking and feeling younger longer.
6. Boost Your Energy Naturally!
Mineral-rich cacao energizes the body without overstimulating the nervous system, giving you incredible long-lasting energy! Create loads of energy and combat fatigue with one of the highest concentrations of magnesium found in this natural food source. Magnesium also helps to protect against osteoporosis, reduces type II diabetes, and lowers blood pressure. Raw cacao powder (2tbsp) contains 52mg or 14% of the daily value.
7. It’s A Beauty Food
Get shiny hair, strong nails, and take care of your liver and pancreas with this great source of sulfur. Sulfur has a significant impact on our complexion, hair and how our skin glows. It has the ability to continuously build and rebuild collagen and keratin which is important for hair, skin, and nails to get their shine whilst also playing an important role in driving nutrients into and out of cells, blood sugar regulation, tissue repair, and our immune system.
8. Improve Your Metabolism
Not getting enough antioxidants in your diet can have dangerous long-term health consequences. A Swiss study found that in just under two weeks cacao reduced the stress hormone cortisol, improved metabolism, and even improved gut microbial activity.
9. Helps To Prevent Sunburn
A recent study by London scientists found participants who ate 20 grams of cacao for 12 weeks were able to stay in the sun for twice as long as those who didn’t, without getting sunburned.
10. Get Glowing Skin
In 2006 the Journal of Nutrition found that women who drank cacao with at least 326 mg of flavonols a day had better skin texture, improved microcirculation, increased oxygen saturation, and improved skin hydration than those didn’t. Stir some cacao powder in your cup of coffee or add to a smoothie.
11. May Protect Against Skin Cancer
German scientists found that cacao may protect against harmful UV rays that cause cancer. Dietary flavanols from cocoa and cacao contribute to sunlight protection, improves dermal blood circulation, and improve your skin’s surface and hydration!
12. Fights Tooth Decay
Recent studies from Tulane University discovered that an extract of cacao powder was even more effective than fluoride in preventing cavities. This crystalline extract similar to caffeine helps harden teeth enamel. Fascinating! Though we don’t recommend brushing your teeth with chocolate just yet…
13. Helps To Improve Brain Function
Cacao appears to improve cognitive function and prevents Alzheimer’s! A Harvard study by Dr. Gary Small showed that middle-aged people who drank two cups a day had improved memory and increased blood flow to the brain.
14. It’s Nature’s Aspirin!
The Department of Nutrition at the University of California, Davis, discovered that cacao thins the blood and can prevent blood clots. This finding shows that eating raw cacao can be just as beneficial as taking an aspirin a day.
It’s official, we love chocolate even more! From improving your memory, increasing your bliss, reducing heart disease, boosting immunity, and giving you loads of energy. It really is a superfood worth enjoying regularly!
The key to getting the most benefit is making your own chocolate, or consuming raw chocolate, as studies have found that by adding dairy to cacao, it stops you from absorbing the antioxidants. So it’s definitely worth the extra effort to make your own! Plus, you’ll know exactly what’s in it, avoiding processed sugars and other unwanted ingredients.
One of the most wildly popular trees on the planet is the cacao, the plant species from which cocoa – and chocolate – is derived. While some might think cacao and cocoa are one and the same, they’re not, exactly. Cacao is the tree, while cocoa is the product made from it (not to be confused with cocoa, an evergreen shrub from which cocaine is concocted). Edible parts of cacao pods and the beans inside them can be processed to make cocoa powder, cocoa butter, or chocolate after being dried and fermented.
Because cocoa beans were prized for their medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties, they were traded just like currency among ancient South American civilizations. Rumor has it Casanova was fond of them.
The earliest known evidence that cacao was processed for ingestion goes back as far as 1,400 B.C.E., gathered from discoveries of its residue on pottery excavated in Honduras, possibly to ferment the pulp for making an adult beverage.
Sweetened forms came about when the Europeans landed in the New World and tasted cacao in liquid form. Although they hated it at first, someone discovered that adding honey made it downright palatable. By the 17th century, this form of chocolate was all the rage in Europe, and subsequently, the world. It still is.
Health Benefits of Cacao
There’s been a lot of discussion about free radicals and antioxidants, but some are unsure of what these terms mean in regard to our health. Exposure to the sun, cigarette smoke, pollution, and toxic chemicals, such as chemical weed killers, and unhealthy foods can all release free radical activity in the body, however, they also can be produced by factors like stress, damaging healthy tissue.
Antioxidants in the foods you eat reverse that process, helping to combat disease by zapping harmful free radicals.
That’s where cacao comes in. Raw cacao powder contains more than 300 different chemical compounds and nearly four times the antioxidant power of your average dark chocolate – more than 20 times than that of blueberries. Protein, calcium, carotene, thiamin, riboflavin, magnesium, sulfur, flavonoids, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids are also present.
The precise blend of all these elements combined serves to kick in naturally occurring phytochemicals that have incredible benefits throughout the body, such as lowered LDL cholesterol, improved heart function, and reduced cancer risk.
Phenethylamine, or PEA, is one of them. Large doses of this compound are said to be released into the brain when we’re attracted to someone, but natural pain- and stress-relieving chemicals known as neurotransmitters stimulate the secretion of endorphins to help us stay alert and focused.
Studies have shown that chocolate affects your emotions and mood by raising serotonin levels, which explains why chocolate is often craved when gloominess looms. Also to the rescue is a neurotransmitter called theobromine, a mild stimulant sometimes used as a treatment for depression. It releases the compound anandamide, which produces uniquely euphoric feelings of relaxation and contentment.
For those who think chocolate must be bad for you (it has to be if it tastes so good, right?), rest assured: there’s only one gram of sugar in a half-cup serving of raw cacao. It’s what’s done with it that makes the difference. Unfortunately, high heat from processing and refining to produce different types of cocoa or chocolate damages the cocoa bean’s micronutrients, along with the health benefits.
Not only that, but additions like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), sugar, and partially hydrogenated oils limit the amount of actual cocoa, and dairy products actually block the absorption of antioxidants, so if it’s nutritive benefits you’re looking for, your average chocolate bar isn’t likely to supply much.
Cacao Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 3.5 ounces (100 grams), dry powder, unsweetened
Serving % Daily
Calories from Fat 115
Total Fat 14 g 21%
Saturated Fat 8 g 40%
Cholesterol 0 mg 0%
Sodium 21 mg 1%
Total Carbohydrates 58 g 19%
Dietary Fiber 33 g 133%
Sugar 2 g
Protein 20 g
Vitamin A0% Vitamin C 0%
Calcium13% Iron 77%
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Studies on Cacao
According to one study, black tea, green tea, red wine, and cocoa are all high in phenolic phytochemicals, such as theaflavin, epigallocatechin gallate, resveratrol, and procyanidin, respectively, which have been extensively investigated due to their possible role as chemopreventive agents based on their antioxidant capacities.
Cocoa contained much higher levels of total phenolics and exhibited the highest antioxidant activity. These results suggest that cocoa is more beneficial to health than teas and red wine.
Another study showed that while eating lots of fruits and vegetables was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, there was also a similar relationship found with cocoa, a “naturally polyphenol-rich food.” Intervention studies strongly suggested that cocoa has several beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, such as lowering of blood pressure, improving vascular function and glucose metabolism, and reducing platelet aggregation and adhesion.
Proposed mechanisms through which cocoa was thought to exert its positive effects included activation of nitric oxide synthase, increased bioavailability of nitric oxide, as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Cacao Healthy Recipes:
Raw Cacao Fruit-Nut Bonbons
1 cup dates ¼ cup coconut oil ¼ cup honey (or stevia) ½ tsp. cardamom powder
¼ tsp. cinnamon A pinch of sea salt 1 tsp. vanilla extract ½ cup coconut
½ cup raw cacao powder ¾ cup chopped soaked nuts (almonds, walnuts, and pecans) ¼ cup dried fruit (raisins, cherries, and cranberries)
Place the dates in a food processor and process on high speed for 10 seconds. Add the coconut oil, honey, cardamom, cinnamon, sea salt, and vanilla and process again for 10 to 20 seconds or until the mixture is thoroughly combined.
Add the coconut and cacao powder and process again for another 10 seconds. Transfer to a large mixing bowl, add the chopped nuts and dried fruit, and mix well.
Use an ice cream scooper with a release lever (or a spoon) to place bonbons onto a parchment paper-lined plate or tray. Chill for at least 30 minutes. Enjoy!
Cacao Fun Facts
The Aztecs gave cacao the name “yollotl eztli,” meaning “heart blood.” They may have understood even then the heart-benefiting aspects of eating what is now known to be a boost for the cardiovascular system.
I say cocoa, you say cacao, but there is a slight difference: Cacao is the tree; what’s made from it is cocoa. This moderately addictive plant-derived substance contains such amazingly powerful nutrients.
Raw cacao powder has more than 300 phytochemicals and nearly four times the antioxidant power of regular dark chocolate and contains protein, calcium, carotene, thiamin, riboflavin, magnesium, and sulfur.
These properties can be destroyed by high heat, so it’s important to know just what type of processes your cocoa powder and baking chocolate have undergone.
Cacao can improve heart health, cholesterol, stress levels, and inflammation, to list just a few physical advantages. Fringe benefits cacao releases into the brain include anandamide, endorphins, phenylethylamine, and serotonin, all sparking descriptives like “blissful” and “euphoric.” All this satisfying goodness comes from a frothy mug of hot cocoa or a creamy bar of unadulterated chocolate. It’s no wonder the Spanish called it “black gold.”