Cacao vs. Cocoa

What is the difference between cocoa and cacao? Is one better for you than the other?
Can I just be the first to say that cacao and cocoa have too many of the same letters in almost the same place to be different words. When you add in the fact that they're almost the same thing, it's like having identical twins named Alex and Alix—no one can figure out the difference! Supposedly one is good for you, and the other may or may not be good for you (this is what I hear most often)? They both have something to do with chocolate, though, and I think everyone will agree that chocolate is pretty awesome—ok, so my soror who is allergic to chocolate might not agree, but I think it's awesome. I had to know the differences! So, let's talk about cacao and cocoa.

Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa

Photocredit: Themes
Native to South America, cacao trees produce cacao beans which are used to make cocoa and chocolate.[1] The word originates from South American tribes, such as the Aztecs, who referred to the plant as such.[2] Merriam-Webster's Dictionary lists cacao as the second definition for cocoa, but the primary definition is that cocoa is a powdered form of the cacao bean.[3] The main difference is that cocoa is a more processed form of cacao.

You could essentially think of cacao and cocoa as dark chocolate and milk chocolate, respectively. Cocoa powder is made almost identically to cacao powder, including using cacao beans to make it. The difference is that cocoa is heated to really high temperatures during the process. This slightly changes the flavor and the molecular structure of the resulting powder. Because most people prefer sweetness over bitterness, some companies opt to add something to sweeten the powder into the mix.[4]

Health food and organic companies heavily prefer the term cacao, and it's been alleged that some products may not use cacao based upon the previously mentioned definitions.[5] However, most sources suggest that the true difference is the process in which the bean is turned to powder.

Health Benefits

All right, so once you know the difference between cacao and cocoa, the question should be "Why should I consume either?" I know you've heard there are benefits to chocolate—I remind myself of this all the time when I'm stuffing my face with it. Well, the high heat used in the process of creating cocoa powder lessens the potency of it, but there are definitely health benefits to consuming cacao (or cocoa).[8]
  • Cacao is high in flavonids, calcium, iron, magnesium, and phenylethylamine (which basically elevates your mood!)[6][7]
  • Cacao is high in antioxidants (like fruit!). Antioxidants are linked to health benefits such as lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol, decreasing inflammation, maintaining proper blood sugar levels (note, you'll want to make sure you're getting cacao or chocolate that doesn't have a lot of sugar added to it to get that last benefit).[9]
  • Cacao might lower your risk of stroke or heart attack.[9]
  • Cacao helps with your brain; that's right eating chocolate can help your mental perfromance! (Now I have an excuse for the chocolate stash I have at my desk)[9]
  • You've probably all heard that chocolate produces endorphins which make you happy. That may not be exactly what happens, as there are several possibilities of how cacao influences our mood, but the end result is that, yes, cacao improves your mood.[9] So, scientifically speaking, it is very appropriate for me to eat chocolate during that time of the month.
  • Earlier in the list I said it could regulate blood sugar levels. You know what that means, sources say it can actually help relieve the symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes.[9] I have to point out that the studies are not 100%, so if you have diabetes or are at risk of diabetes, I would definitely consult a dietitian or doctor who believes in natural remedies before adding this to you daily food routine—I would also suggest sweet potatoes. Regardless, you want to be careful that you're eating pure cacao (probably in moderation) and not mainstream chocolate which has been heavily sweetened and would likely make diabetes more likely or worse.
  • Cacao might be help you lose weight (or maintain your weight). Who would have thought, right? Studies showed that people who ate cacao regularly actually had lower BMIs than those who did not. BMIs have their own problems, but as a skinny person who frequently consumes chocolate, I could definitely see how this might be valid. Note, the study was likely performed with dark chocolate, which has more cacao and less additives. White chocolate and milk chocolate do not have the same benefits.[9]
  • Cacao might reduce asthma. Early studies on animals show the potential for cacao to unrestrict air passages.[9]

Most grocery stores have cacao powder, cacao nibs, and dark chocolate that is devoid of the additives that reduce the aforementioned benefits. You can use it in smoothies, breakfast bowls, homemade granola/trail mix, and so much more!

Allergen Risks

As I said at the beginning of the post, I actually have a sorority sister who is allergic to chocolate. So if you find that eating cacao isn't sitting well with you, you might have an allergy. (Don't worry, God knew you would have that allergy so there are plenty of other delicious foods that have the same benefits and properties!) Caffeine is usually found within chocolate as well, so if you have caffeine sensitivity you'll want to watch out for that as well. Common symptoms can be found in this Medical News Today article.

The History of Cacao

I had fun checking out the history of cacao. Here are a few articles if you're interested:


  1. Cacao". Merriam-Webster; visited March 2019
  2. Douglas Harper. "Cacao". Online Etymology Dictionary; visited March 2019
  3. "Cocoa. Merriam-Webster; visited March 2019
  4. Michelle Pellizzon. "Cacao vs. Cocoa". Thrive Market. April 8, 2016
  5. Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD. "Cacao vs Cocoa: What's the Difference?". Healthline. September 10, 2018
  6. Francesca Menato. "The Benefits Of Cacao Powder is Trending – Here's Why". Women's Health. March 29, 2018
  7. "The Health Benefits of Cacao". Nature's Path. October 11, 2016
  8. Rafael Franco, Ainhoa Oñatibia-Astibia, and Eva Martínez-Pinilla. "Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate". Nutrients. 2013
  9. Elise Mandl, BSc, APD. "11 Health and Nutrition Benefits of Cocoa Powder". Healthline. August 9, 2018
  10. Jon Johnson. "Chocolate allergy vs. chocolate sensitivity." Medical News Today. June 5, 2017

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