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Cocoa and Cacao… What’s the difference?

So the ‘smart Alec’ answer here is spelling. ‘Cacao’ has two As, one O and two Cs. ‘Cocoa’ has one A, two Os and two Cs.

However, all sorts of claims are made for the benefits of the likes of “raw cacao nibs”, “alkalinised pure cocoa powder”, etc. Almost all these claims are hogwash. And some are downright misleading.

And then there are a bunch of definitions in dictionaries, government departments, medical sites, etc., which are at best amusing and invariably confused and confusing.

Having said this, there are a couple of best practises for using the terms cacao and cocoa. And as long as these aren’t bowdlerised by nonsense terms like ‘raw’, the way we use the terms helps us think more about the magic of chocolate and that it’s so much more than a commodity or mechanic for half-baked health claims.

Bottom line: Think of “cacao” as to what the farmer does with the fruit of Theobroma cacao. Cocoa is what makers do with cocoa (or cacao) beans.

Cacao is what comes from Theobroma cacao (aka, the tree whose fruit gives us chocolate)

Most craft chocolate makers and “cacao sourcerers” (yes there really is such a term; it refers to people who source the cocoa beans used to make chocolate), use “cacao” to refer to the fruit of Theobroma cacao that is handled on the cocoa farm, i.e. the pods, the pulp inside the pods, the seeds, and the then fermented and dried ‘beans’.

But you can also refer to cocoa pods, cocoa seeds, cocoa pulp, fermented cocoa beans, dried cocoa beans, etc.

It really doesn’t matter too much. Both are correct.

Cocoa is what chocolate makers do with fermented cacao (or cocoa) beans

Many of us use the term ‘cocoa’ to refer to ‘hot cocoa’ (i.e. the drink) or ‘cocoa powder’.

These terms started to be extensively used in the early 19th century following the invention of the cocoa press (by father and son, the Van Houtens). And to demarcate the massive innovations following on from this invention (coupled with a few by Fry, Nestlé, Lindt, and Daniel Peter), the idea of makers processing the fruit of the cacao tree into cocoa, is a useful historical reminder.

The cocoa press kicked off a bunch of innovations and further inventions (if you want more details, and to taste loads of chocolates, please do come to an in person, or virtual craft chocolate tasting).

  1. Fairly soon after working out the mechanics of the cocoa press, the Dutch also realised that if you ‘washed’ the remaining cocoa mass in an alkaline solution you could remove some of its bitterness, lighten and redden its colour, whilst also improving its solubility in water, milk etc. Smart marketing was deployed for this alkalinised or ‘Dutched’ cocoa powder such that many consumers perceive Dutched or alkalised cocoa powder to be nutritionally superior; but in fact, natural cocoa powder retains far more of the nutritionally valuable minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron, etc. In the US, food labelling requires that manufacturers say whether cocoa powder is alkalinised. But here in Europe, and the UK, this isn’t a requirement (you can read more on the deficiencies of European labelling regulations and other issues on chocolate labels). And in Europe (and the US), most cocoa powder is alkalinised. So if you want some cocoa powder to make a great hot chocolate and/or to cook with, please can we recommend our Kokoa Kamili cocoa powder (and if you are near Nkora speciality coffee, check out their hot chocolate made with this).
  2. In parallel, this extracted cocoa butter also became a key ingredient for cosmetics. Cocoa butter is an amazing butter in a multitude of ways. It nourishes and moisturises. It doesn’t go rancid or ‘off’ for a VERY long time. And it can be crafted into a stable solid at room temperature which then can melt on contact with bits of the human body like lips (lipsticks), cheeks (blushes), arms and legs (moisturisers), etc. And so popular is cocoa butter for these purposes that cocoa butter is now far higher priced than cocoa mass (which is used to make confectionary, ice cream, etc.).
  3. Another use of the spare cocoa butter also (apocryphally at least) gave rise the transformation of chocolate from being consumed as a drink to being eaten in the form of stable, solid bar. Back in 1847, Joseph Fry had his eureka moment when he realised that he could add back cocoa butter to the cocoa mass used to create drinking chocolate to create the first stoneground chocolate bar (try a Taza bar to explore the very different textures of these stone ground bars).
  4. Over the next fifty years the Swiss then fine tuned the idea of the chocolate bar into smooth and moreish chocolate bars thanks to Rodolphe Lindt (conching), Jean Tobler (tempering), Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé (milk chocolate); learn about these developments at a tasting.
  5. At the same time, advertising and trading standards here in the UK can be partially traced back to “hot cocoa”. Cadbury are, again, coming in for criticism of their sourcing with child labour etc. But they were (and arguably still are) amazing marketers. And amongst their marketing genius was their use of the advertising for their Dutched cocoa essence drinking powder in the 1860s as “Absolutely Pure. Therefore Best”, alongside medical testimonials, which helped shape the idea of which gave rise to the modern day trading and advertising standards authorities.

What about raw caca nibs, raw cacao, etc.?

Cocoa (or cacao) nibs are wonderful to nibble on, add to porridge and smoothies, use for cooking (both sweet and savoury), etc. Try them from our shop.

And they are also very nutritious. And they can be packed with flavour. They also are less astringent to consume than 100% chocolate bars; so many chocolate connoisseurs worried about additives and sugar will opt for a handful of nibs rather than a few squares of 100% chocolate. To somewhat oversimplify, this is technically because the finer particles of the ground cocoa nibs in your smooth 100% chocolate bar can deliver the tannins in your chocolate faster and more effectively to dry out the proteins in your saliva which is what creates that puckering sensation of astringency.

But these nibs aren’t ‘raw’. Please read our longer rant on “raw”. But raw cocoa (or cacao) nibs are nonsense (as are raw bars). All cocoa nibs are made with fermented beans, not unfermented cocoa seeds. And as cocoa beans can’t germinate, they shouldn’t be called ‘raw’, at best raw should be confined to cocoa seeds. And these aren’t very pleasant to eat (they are super bitter and astringent). And fermentation and drying of cocoa goes above 42 degrees which effectively kyboshed another often quoted characteristic of raw foods; i.e. they’ve not been cooked or heated above human body temperature.

Almost all cocoa nibs for sale direct to consumers, are also roasted. This roasting is partly to impart flavour; just as roasting coffee beans differently imparts different flavours, the Maillard reaction does the same for chocolate. Roasting is also used to kill off any bugs and nasties in the chocolate (cocoa beans are a notorious source of anthrax). And almost all raw chocolate is ‘flash roasted’. This is true of many of the ‘raw’ bars we sell (e.g. Minka) where these bars are roasted similarly to the “virgin roast” of Conexión’s bars, i.e. a flash roast for 1-2 minutes rather than 18-25. We do have a few exceptions, e.g. Raaka and Forever Cacao, who don’t roast their beans (and they are very careful to test all their beans for any nasties). But these makers are careful not to confuse the loose definition of raw with their ‘unroasted approach.

And on a final note: Cocoa nibs are super healthy and nutritious. But the extra claims that go along with raw cocoa nibs are scientifically unfounded. For example, the oft quoted claim that these raw cocoa nibs are higher in anti-oxidants because of their ORAC score is technical tosh. And the same is true for raw chocolate bars’ health claims. Indeed many of these supposedly super healthy raw chocolate bars are packed with sugar and other ultra processed additives, so you’d be FAR, FAR better off with a craft chocolate bar that has ‘cleaner’ ingredients, tastes far better and is far better for the farmers and the planet.

So bottom line: If you do want to draw a sensible line between ‘cacao’ and ‘cocoa’, this processing by makers is as good as any line to draw. But don’t fall for the marketing nonsense about raw, alkalinisation, etc. Having finished this rant, we’d love to ask you readers with an interest in chocolate a couple of questions:

  1.  Why do so many people continue to believe so much tosh about chocolate?
  2. What do we have to do to get more common sense into the industry about not just misleading health claims but also disingenuous sourcing claims (such as Cadbury’s Cocoa Trace programme)?

Let us know your thoughts here (please comment on the blog here, or send an email to

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