Have you ever looked at a label for “cacao” and thought it was a misprint by a company actually selling cocoa? We can assure you it wasn’t a typo and your eyes weren’t deceiving you.
These two words get mixed up more often than one would think. But they’re worth differentiating, considering one of them is a byproduct of the other. As similar as they sound, there are plenty of differences to be aware of.
We’re going to clear up any confusion between the two for you right here. What are the similarities? What are the benefits? Stick around and we’ll give you the rundown.
Table of Contents
What Is Cocoa?
Cocoa, like cacao, is the name of the plant that chocolate comes from, but it goes through a different process than cacao.
Of course, you’re probably thinking, “Who cares about the process? Just hand it over!” But not so fast.
To make cocoa, the seeds from the cacao tree are roasted and ground. The fat, or cocoa butter, is then squeezed out, to give you cocoa powder from what’s left.
The process does involve heating, which, in this case, greatly reduces the nutritional benefits. You can think of cocoa as cacao’s less healthy, slightly overweight, brother.
When you’re at the store, you’ll likely see two kinds of cocoa powder: Dutch-processed and “natural.” Natural cocoa powder is going to be the healthier option of the two, as it typically comes unsweetened, with limited additives.
Dutch-processed, on the other hand, is cocoa that has been treated with an alkalizing agent. This lightens the color of the cocoa and gives it a less bitter taste as well. This cocoa is typically what you’ll see the most of because it’s a popular option worldwide.
Some of the most popular brands that use Dutch processing include:
Depending on the recipe you’re using for a particular food that requires cocoa powder, you may need Dutch-processed, rather than natural. If so, we recommend finding an alternative recipe that allows you to use a natural version.
Although cocoa is less nutritious than cacao, it can still offer some benefits. If you’re looking for cocoa powder, read labels and note which ones have added sugars and other unhealthy ingredients.
This will help you choose a powder that won’t have the opposite effect of what you’re looking for. Here are a few cocoa powder brands that carry unsweetened, “natural” powder:
How to Use Cocoa
Besides making brownies, there are several uses for cocoa. You can use it to make a delicious homemade hot chocolate, or add a little chocolate flavor to your oatmeal. Take the savory route and add a bit to your pot of chili for some depth.
Because most cocoa powders contain sugar and other added ingredients, it’s important to use this in moderation. If you’re trying to switch from using cocoa to cacao, there are ways to use your cocoa powder without feeling guilty.
Instead of wasting the cocoa in your pantry, consider using it to make your own self-care products. Cocoa can be used as a natural bronzer, and it even makes a great ingredient for DIY face masks. You’ll find plenty of recipes online, and we’ve also heard of adding it to eyeshadow, believe it or not.
What Is Cacao?
To put it simply, cacao is the beautiful, less-tainted source of all chocolate. It’s the bean that’s harvested to make chocolate and other products. If you’ve ever had a taste, you can easily note the difference.
Rich in antioxidants, cacao comes from the Theobroma cacao tree, grown in South and Central America. It can also be found in some countries in Africa and Asia.
When you see “cacao nibs” or “cacao powder” at the store, you’re getting a raw, cold-pressed version of the bean. This helps preserve the nutrients and health benefits that come with raw cacao.
While cocoa and cacao are essentially interchangeable when talking about the tree itself, they both go through very different processes. Cacao is the term brands will use when they’re giving you a minimally-processed version of the bean. Typically with few additives and little sugar, if any.
How to Use Cacao
Its raw nature is what makes cacao a popular choice among health and wellness circles. You can find cacao in just about any grocery store, in two different forms: cacao nibs and cacao powder.
Both forms are made by cold-pressing the cacao bean and then crushing it.
Are there any major differences between the two forms? Not really. They both carry the exact same benefits, but they offer different textures.
Cacao nibs are coarsely ground cacao beans. They’re a great addition to smoothies and other breakfast foods, or they can be used in a variety of recipes. Cacao nibs are also great for skin exfoliation, to help stimulate and tighten the skin.
Cacao is really a win-win all around. Here are just a few other ways to use cacao nibs:
- Add them to a salad. You can pair them with a citrus dressing and some nuts of your choice. We like to mix them with vitamin C foods, like bell peppers.
- Mix it with quinoa, chia seeds, and coconut for breakfast.
- Make homemade, natural ice cream from bananas and mix it with raw cacao nibs. This is a good way to get that chocolaty crunch, without all the added sugar.
- Straight up! Believe it or not, these little dudes taste great just as they are.
Cacao powder can be used in the same ways as cacao nibs, but it has a different texture. While nibs will provide extra crunch along with the health benefits, the powder will have virtually no texture when mixed with other ingredients.
If you aren’t a fan of crunchy textures but you still want the benefits of cacao, the powder might be a better option for you. Here are a few of our favorite ways to use cacao powder:
- Make a chocolate banana smoothie. All you need is frozen bananas, cacao powder, and any other smoothie ingredients you like the taste of. Add chia seeds for extra fiber, and other superfoods to jumpstart your morning. Kale, anyone?
- Sprinkle it over pineapple for an extra kick.
- Use cacao powder to make homemade hot chocolate. Cacao powder is a much healthier alternative to cocoa powder, welcome the bitterness.
- Make chocolate walnut date balls. We have a great recipe that just needs walnuts, dates, vanilla extract, sea salt, and cacao powder. Throw them all in the food processor until smooth, form them into 2-inch balls and refrigerate to chill.
Health Benefits of Raw Cacao
There are several benefits to consuming raw cacao. Whether you need clear skin or an improved mood, raw cacao can do that for you. Here are some of the main benefits of adding raw cacao to your diet.
- Essential nutrients
- Low sugar content
- Enhances mood
Antioxidants are essential for your body in fighting against free radicals and oxidative stress. Free radicals are basically the environmental factors your body comes face to face with every day. These can range from sunlight to cigarette smoke.
Raw cacao packs a major punch when it comes to delaying cell damage. It boasts a higher antioxidant capacity than that which you’d get from tea and red wine—two antioxidant-rich drinks.
It’s extremely rich in polyphenols, a naturally occurring antioxidant in many fruits and vegetables. Polyphenols have been linked to health benefits, including lower cholesterol, better blood flow, and better blood sugar levels.
Flavonol is another antioxidant that’s heavily present in raw cacao. This particular component has anti-inflammatory properties, and there’s limited evidence showing it can help fight cardiovascular disease.
Your body needs nutrients in order to properly maintain its systems. That’s where raw cacao can really come in handy. Raw cacao contains several different essential nutrients your body needs to function properly.
Here are some of the most prevalent ones:
- Fatty acids
Low Sugar Content
When we think of chocolate, the first thing that typically comes to mind is sugar. Luckily, raw cacao contains none whatsoever. How’s that for a treat?
When we say it enhances your mood, we mean it in more ways than one. Are you suffering from PMS, ladies? Forego the sugar-infused artificial options and greet cacao with open arms, we promise you won’t regret it.
Raw Cacao Is Your New Jam
Chocolate is a girl’s (or guy’s) best friend. If you’re starting on a new health journey and you’re dreading the break up with chocolate, you don’t need to worry now.
Raw cacao is a great addition to your everyday diet because you can use it in a variety of ways. One of our favorite go-to treats is a little plate of raw cacao nibs. On their own, they’re delightful.
So, next time you’re looking to bake some cookies or have a smoothie, think twice before grabbing those chocolate chips or processed powder. Cacao will give you what you’re looking for, with less yucky stuff in tow.
What are your thoughts on raw cacao? How will you use raw cacao from now on? Let us know in the comments below!
Download Your FREE Paleo Starter Kit Today!
- 3-Day Paleo Diet Meal Plan
- Comprehensive Paleo Diet Shopping List
- 5 of Our Favorite Paleo Diet Recipes