The Difference Between Cocoa and Cacao

Cocoa beans, powder, crushed cocoa beans and chocolate on wooden background.

What’s the difference between cocoa and cacao? You may be most familiar with cocoa since it’s used in baking and in making hot chocolate. The word “cacao” may not be as familiar to you, but you may have noticed it on some labels when you were buying chocolate bars. Are cocoa and cacao the same thing but with two different spellings?

In some cases, there are important differences between the two products, but other times, it comes down to a marketing tactic. Both cacao and cocoa have one very important thing in common: chocolate. So what is the difference between cocoa and cacao? And is one better for you than the other? Keep reading to learn more about these two products.


The Word Cacao

Both cacao and cocoa originate with the Theobroma tree, where seeds known as cacao beans grow in pods. This evergreen tree grows in tropical areas like Central and South America, Africa, and Asia and produces football-shaped pods that contain an average of 30 cacao beans each.

Cacao residue found in pottery in Ecuador has revealed that humans may have consumed chocolate as far back as 5,000 years ago. The Aztecs created the first chocolate drink, called xocoatl, which was a bitter, thick, foamy drink made by grinding roasted cacao beans into a paste. The Aztecs then mixed that paste with water, vanilla, chili peppers and other spices.

The terminology around cacao vs cocoa can be confusing. The word “cacao” is used when referring to the tree on which the beans grow as well as to the beans that have not been roasted. Those who make products with unroasted cacao beans often use the word “cacao” rather than “cocoa” to imply the natural state of the beans.

In any of the Hispanic languages, “cacao” is the only word ever used to describe what English speakers think of as cocoa. It’s possible the word “cocoa” has its origins in a simple spelling mistake that was never corrected. And since cocoa is easier for English speakers to pronounce, the spelling was never fixed.

Is cocoa and cacao the same? In many ways, the answer is yes, since “cocoa” is quite likely the English adaptation of the spelling. However, with the growing popularity of the vegan diet, the more authentic spelling of “cacao” has made a comeback, and some notable differences between the two words have been defined. “Cacao” is often used to let consumers know the product is all natural rather than processed. Manufacturers of vegan products use the term this way to help consumers distinguish between the two words. And this is where you, as a discerning consumer, come in. Make sure you read the ingredients label to determine which product—cocoa or cacao—has been included or if the use of “cacao” on the label is simply a marketing ploy.


The Word Cocoa

The biggest difference between cocoa and cacao is in how the two are processed. The word “cocoa” is used to refer to beans after they have been roasted. Bean-to-bar chocolate makers, who make their chocolate from scratch using fermented, dried beans, use the word “cacao” for the tree, the pod and the beans before they’re fermented. After fermentation, they call them cocoa beans.

Cocoa is a highly concentrated powder made from chocolate liquor, which is a paste prepared from cacao beans. Cocoa powder and chocolate liquor—as well as blends of the two—are used to flavor chocolate confections and food products like chocolate syrup, milk, toppings, prepared cake mixes and even pharmaceuticals.


Cacao Powder vs. Cocoa Powder?

While cocoa powder and cacao powder are very similar, the biggest difference is that cocoa powder is processed at a much higher temperature. This may kill off some of the nutritional properties found in cacao powder, and packaged cocoa often contains added sugar and dairy. Cocoa powder is often alkalized during processing to remove some of the bitter taste.

Cacao powder is made from fermented beans that have not been roasted. Because the beans have not been roasted, they are considered raw and have a more bitter taste than those used to make cocoa powder. Because of the raw nature of cacao powder, it contains more minerals and enzymes than cocoa powder. Often, cacao powder is labeled as vegan because it has been minimally processed with no additives.


How to Use Cacao Powder?

You may be wondering what cacao powder can be used for. You can bake brownies, cakes, or cookies with it in the same way you would use cocoa powder, but be aware that cacao powder has a stronger flavor, so you won’t need as much of it.

Here are a few out-of-the-box uses for cacao powder:

  • Sprinkle on top of toast, pancakes or fresh fruit.
  • Add to oatmeal, yogurt, a smoothie or a pot of chili or hearty stew.
  • Use as an ingredient in homemade hot chocolate mix.
  •  Dust brownie and cake baking pans to prevent sticking.
  • Make homemade granola bars.
  • Make homemade chocolate with cacao butter, cacao powder and cane sugar or honey.


How to Use Cocoa Powder?

There are two kinds of unsweetened cocoa powder: natural and Dutch-process. Natural cocoa has a light color and is somewhat acidic. It’s usually used in recipes that call for baking soda—baking soda is an alkali that acts as a leavening agent and allows the batter to rise during baking.

Dutch-process cocoa has a milder flavor than natural cocoa and is processed with alkali to neutralize its natural acidity. Unfortunately, the process of creating Dutch-process cocoa destroys most of the flavanols that provide numerous health benefits.

How do you know which kind of cocoa to choose? Dutch-processed cocoa works well for beverages and frozen desserts and for dusting the tops of baked goods. Natural cocoa works best when baking.

Use cocoa powder in the following ways:

  • Flavor biscuits, ice cream, milk and cakes.
  • Create a fancy, delicate design on a cake. To do this, place a doily or a paper cut-out of the design on top of a cake, and sift the cocoa powder over it.
  • Make a dessert sauce by dissolving equal parts cocoa and sugar in warm milk or cream, then add a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg.
  • Add a tablespoon of cocoa powder to hot coffee, a smoothie or peanut butter.
  • Stir into yogurt or sprinkle over fruit or cereal.
  • Substitute cocoa powder for unsweetened chocolate by mixing three tablespoons of cocoa powder with one tablespoon melted butter or vegetable oil for every ounce of unsweetened chocolate in a recipe.
  • Make hot chocolate by dissolving two teaspoons of cocoa powder and one tablespoon sugar in one tablespoon hot water, and then stir into one cup of hot milk.

Cocoa powder can also be used to make something you might not have thought of—makeup, face masks, and dry shampoo. Make an exfoliating scrub by mixing a tablespoon of cocoa powder with equal parts coconut oil, honey and sugar until a paste forms. Apply the blend to your face, and allow it to set for approximately 20 minutes. Not only will it make your skin soft, but it will smell good at the same time.

At Cococlectic, we feature American small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate makers who use cacao beans in their products. Each month, a different craft chocolate maker is featured, and these chocolate makers are passionate about producing their chocolate from scratch using only three main ingredients: cacao beans, sugar and cocoa butter.

The chocolates at Cococlectic are vegan, non-GMO, fair-trade and ethically sourced. They do not contain any soy, gluten, dairy or nut, but they may be produced in a facility that handles these ingredients.

We sell only dark chocolate bars in our chocolate shop. One-time (dark bars only or mixed bars) gift boxes or corporate gift boxes are available with the purchase of the Office Box. Each chocolate box comes with 4 full-size dark chocolate bars that are made in the US.


Sign up for our chocolate-of-the-month subscription club and join us for a free virtual chocolate tasting with our featured chocolate maker of the month.