Cacao vs. Cocoa: What is the Difference?

Two open hands holding fermented cacao beans

Walking down the chocolate aisle at the supermarket, you’ve likely noticed cocoa or cacao labeled on different chocolate products. You’ve probably also seen cacao nibs and dark chocolate cocoa chips at a health food store and wondered how they differ. They’re all just chocolate, right? Well, not really. Although they are both derived from the same plant, there are many differences between cacao vs. cocoa products.

Cacao (pronounced kuh-kow) and cocoa (pronounced ko-ko) are made using different processes and have distinct nutritional profiles. Many people are familiar with cocoa as it is commonly used in baking desserts and making hot chocolate. Cacao, on the other hand, is a raw chocolate product that is popular with health-conscious, vegan, and whole-food consumers.

Still confused between cacao vs. cocoa powder? Want to know the difference between cacao butter vs. cocoa butter? In this post, Wildly Organic will explain the difference between cacao and cocoa products to help you help make healthier food choices.

Cacao vs. Cocoa: Origins

From cacao powder and cocoa butter to chocolate liquor and bars, all chocolate products are made from the seeds of the Theobroma tree. Yes, chocolate grows on trees! The Theobroma tree is a small, tropical tree that is native to Central and South America. The tree produces an oval, pod-like fruit that contains between 30 to 60 seeds. These seeds, also called beans, are encased in a sweet and sticky white pulp.

The fresh beans can be eaten raw straight from the fruit, but their bitterness makes them quite inedible. What happens from here will determine whether the beans become cocoa or cacao. The beans will undergo several processes to reduce their bitterness and enrich their flavor. It is the type of processing and application of heat that will distinguish between cacao vs. cocoa, and cacao butter vs. cocoa butter products.

Cacao and Cocoa Products: How They are Made

Fresh cacao seeds inside the pod taste more like coffee beans than chocolate. Cacao and cocoa both undergo multiple processes to get that chocolatey flavor. While raw chocolate products are not made from cacao beans right out of the pod, they are generally less processed than cocoa products. Below, Wildly Organic will walk you through the processing steps that distinguish between cacao vs. cocoa products:

1. Harvesting

A pile of halved cacao fruit pods

To make cocoa or cacao products, cacao beans must be harvested from the Theobroma tree. As the tree is too fragile to climb, workers on the ground use a machete to cut the stalks and harvest the pods. The ripe pods are then cut open with a blade to extract the wet cacao beans.

2. Fermentation

The cacao beans ⏤ along with their sticky pulp ⏤ are placed inside wooden bins or earthen pits and left to ferment for a few days. Cacao seeds are covered with banana leaves to add natural heat and speed up the fermentation process. The added heat and microbes that feed on the pulp will reduce cacao’s bitterness and help the beans develop a distinctive chocolatey taste and aroma.

While there are processing differences between cacao vs. cocoa products, in most instances both initially undergo fermentation to make the cacao develop a bold flavor. Most chocolate products on the market use fermented cacao, but you can find specialty cacao products that are non-fermented. Wildly Organic offers non-fermented cacao powder and nibs for those that prefer a milder chocolate flavor.

3. Drying

After a few days of fermentation, the beans must be dried out to eliminate excessive moisture. Sun-drying and artificial drying are two commonly used methods to bring the beans’ moisture content down from 70 to seven percent. Failure to reduce the beans’ moisture content can give the cacao a rancid taste.

4. Roasting and Alkalizing

Cocoa or cacao? Roasting will decide. The roasting process establishes the difference between cacao vs. cocoa, and cacao butter vs. cocoa butter products. Cacao products are raw and never roasted or exposed to high heat. To make cocoa products, on the other hand, raw cacao beans are roasted in temperatures as high as 300° F to further enhance the flavor and deepen their color. Cacao is generally lighter in color and milder in flavor compared to cocoa products.

5. Crushing and Grinding

The raw cacao and roasted cocoa beans are then crushed to remove their hulls. Crushing also breaks the beans into little pieces. These broken pieces are called nibs. The nibs are ground into a fine paste, producing a semi-solid substance known as chocolate liquor. Chocolate liquor is composed of solids and butter in equal proportion.

6. Pressing

 Brown powder inside a glass storage jar

In this final step, the chocolate liquor is pressed to separate its butter content from the solids. The type of bean used to make the chocolate liquor will determine whether you get cacao vs. cocoa powder, and cacao butter vs. cocoa butter in the pressing process. If cacao beans were used to make the liquor, the pressing process will yield cacao butter and powder. If cocoa beans were used to make the chocolate liquor, pressing will give you cocoa powder and butter.


And this is how cacao and cocoa products are made. Roasting not only intensifies the beans’ color and flavor but also alters its nutritional profile. The high heat applied to the beans during the roasting process changes cacao’s nutrient content. Learn which product ⏤ cocoa or cacao ⏤ is healthier for you.

Cacao vs. Cocoa: Nutritional Value

The nutritional value of cacao and cocoa vary considerably as they are processed differently.

Raw cacao, which is the purest form of chocolate, is a superfood packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Cacao has more antioxidants than most foods, including green tea, red wine, and blueberries. A study conducted by Yale University’s Prevention Research Center has revealed that the flavonoid antioxidants in cacao products can lower the risk of heart disease, relieve depression, and improve mood and cognitive function.

Cocoa, on the other hand, does not have cacao’s health benefits. The high heat used during the roasting process destroys many of cacao’s beneficial enzymes, nutrients, and antioxidants. Studies have found that roasting cacao can reduce its antioxidant content by up to 95 percent. When considering cacao vs. cocoa, and cacao butter vs. cocoa butter, always choose the raw cacao variety if you want to take advantage of the plant’s health benefits. Cocoa powder that is Dutch processed, or alkalized, has further reduced nutritional benefits and as few as half the phytonutrients.

Shop Wildly Organic’s Raw Cacao Products

Cocoa or cacao? Now you know which product is healthier for you. Raw cacao preserves all the bean’s nutrients as it is minimally processed and exposed to low or no heat. Cocoa, on the other hand, is exposed to very high heat and loses most of its nutrients in the roasting and alkalizing processes. You can use cacao instead of cocoa in your drinks, ice cream, and baked goods to make healthier and more nutritious treats.

Need cacao products for your recipes? From fermented and unfermented products to cacao powder, nibs, and butter, Wildly Organic stocks the largest and finest cacao selection in the country. Our USDA-certified organic cacao products are Fair Trade, grown sustainably, and never exposed to temperatures over 120° F to retain all their healthful nutrients. Shop now for our premium quality cacao products and get free US shipping on orders over $49.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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