What's the Difference Between Cocoa and Cacao Powder?

Isn't it all just chocolate?

If you've ever spent a minute or two browsing the candy aisle at the grocery store (guilty) then you've probably noticed the terms "cocoa" and "cacao" floating around on different chocolate bar labels with varying percentages. Besides a few vowels, is there any difference between these two terms? Turns out there's quite a few differences between the two, but there's one thing they have in common: chocolate. To learn the difference between cocoa and cacao powder, you first need to look at how they're processed.

Cocoa beans, nibs, and powder measuring cups
Photo by Getty Images.

Cocoa vs. Cacao

You're probably more familiar with cocoa powder, as it's commonly used for baking chocolate cakes or brownies. But cacao is rising in popularity as people begin to shift towards more natural and vegan diets. So what's the difference? The answer is in the heat.

Cocoa powder and cacao powder are very similar, the only difference being that cocoa is processed at a much higher temperature (and often packaged cocoa contains added sugar and dairy). Both start out as beans from the cacao plant (confusing, right?), which are separated from the fatty part known as cocoa butter. At harvest, cacao beans are fermented to develop flavor and texture.

So, cacao powder is made from fermented beans that have not been roasted. They are processed at low temperatures and then milled into a powder. The result is a powder that's bitter in taste and higher in nutritional content. Cocoa powder on the other hand is made from beans that are both fermented and roasted, and then processed at a much higher temperature. The result is a less bitter, slightly darker powder that has lost some of its nutritional value.

Cacao powder is often packaged as vegan, as it has been minimally processed with no additives. And we can't forget about cacao nibs — the dried and fermented pieces of cacao beans that are often used as a topping for baked goods.

Hershey's Cocoa Powder and Viva Naturals Cacao Powder
Photo by Amazon.

Health Benefits of Cacao

Cacao products are rich in disease-fighting plant compounds including flavanols, which have antioxidant, heart-protective, and anti-cancer properties. It's also a good source of iron, fiber, and magnesium. However, these benefits can be lost during processing. Choosing products that are unsweetened, like cacao nibs, can help you to minimize the calorie and sugar-intake that comes with more processed products.

While you can substitute cacao powder for cocoa powder, you will lose some of the antioxidants during the baking process and the flavor will be more bitter—so it's probably best to stick with cocoa powder for baking endeavors. However, consider using it in smoothies, or add raw cacao nibs to trail mix and other uncooked creations.

More Ways to Use Cacao

1. Yogurt Bark

This clean-eating snack uses cacao nibs as a healthy alternative to processed chocolate. Recipe creator mumofsix says, "Yogurt bark is the healthiest treat around! Spread your favorite yogurt on a tray, top with your favorite fruits, dark chocolate bits, nuts, seeds, and more -- then freeze. That's it!"

2. Healthy Hot Cocoa

Cacao powder takes the guilt out of this classic holiday drink. Reviewer Denise Batchelor describes it as "a healthy chocolate drink ! Very yummy!"

Healthy Hot Cocoa
Photo by Paula.

3. Banana Cacao Muffins

Recipe creator Emily Wong says, "This recipe is super simple and super health-conscious, but it tastes delicious and is great for breakfast and snacks on the go!"

Banana Cacao Muffins
Photo by sdwp.
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