Hands up who is confused about the difference between cacao and cocoa?

It’s no wonder there is so much confusion because loads of conflicting versions of the truth are out there. In this article, I want to break it down to make it more simple to understand.

One of the most common questions I am asked when doing chocolate-making demonstrations in workshops is what is the difference between cacao and cocoa. 

I noticed a good many years ago how some recipe developers within the English speaking raw vegan movement seemed to decide that “cacao” means raw and unprocessed, whereas “cocoa” means roasted, alkalinized or mixed with additives, anti-caking agents and possibly sugar.

OK let’s reel it all back in! Because that’s not strictly true. 

Let’s start at the beginning here with my video about the difference between cacao and cocoa… 

Cacao comes from the Theobroma Cacao Tree… 

Whether it is called cacao or cocoa, the original ingredients come from the cacao bean, which grows on the Theobroma Cacao tree.

You will find this tree in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world.

The cacao tree grows pods which are either red, purple, green or yellow in colour. These pods produce about 20 to 40 cacao beans per pod. 

When did we start calling cacao bean cocoa?

According to historical records, it is believed that cacao was first cultivated in ancient South American cultures. 

The beans are still called cacao in Spanish and French languages.

It is thought that somewhere in the 1600s after the cacao beans were introduced to the English-speaking world that there was either a typo or miscommunication at which point the beans were suddenly known as COCOA beans (rather than cacao) in the English language.

Since then the two terms cacao and cocoa have been used interchangeably.

The important point to note here is that cacao and cocoa were exactly the same things – the only difference being their spelling.

Cacao beans in the pod and the difference between cacao and cocoa beans

Let’s look at the chocolate-making ingredients that we get from the cacao bean

From the cacao bean, we get the following ingredients:

  • Cacao liquor (also called cocoa liquor or cocoa mass)
  • Cacao powder (also called cocoa powder)
  • Cacao butter (also called cocoa butter)

How do you get cacao liquor, cacao powder and cacao butter?

Here’s what happens – the essentials…

  1. The cacao beans are harvested.
  2. After harvesting the cacao beans are taken from the pods and fermented.
  3. After fermenting the cacao beans are dried (ideally sun-dried).
  4. Then the cacao beans are usually roasted (unless being kept raw). Roasting develops the chocolate flavour and aroma that we all adore.
  5. Then the cacao beans are ground down. This develops a cacao liquor (also called cacao mass) which melts down upon heating. At room temperature, this ‘mass’ or liquor’ solidifies into a block. This can be then used as a chocolate-making ingredient. It is called liquor because it turns into a very thick liquid when heated, even though it is a solid mass at normal room temperature.
  6. If cacao powder or cacao butter are required, then the cacao butter and cacao powder are separated from the liquor/mass. This involves is a process of pressing out the cacao butter to separate both components, at which time you are left with cacao powder and cacao butter. 
What's the difference between cacao and cocoa?

Cocoa mass or liquor

Cacao or cocoa butter ready to make chocolate with

Cocoa butter

Dutch Cacao Bean Processing (alkalinising/chemical processing)

Some cacao powder is then ‘dutched’ (also called dutch processing). This was originally developed in the 1800s by a Dutch scientist, involving the addition of an alkalinising agent which basically lowers the acidity with an alkalinising agent. Potassium carbonate is most commonly used.

Cocoa beans have a pH level of around 5.2. After alkalinisation treatment, the pH level rises to over 6.8.

Why do we need to Dutch Process cacao?

The acidity levels have implications when using cacao powder for baking with raising agents such as bicarbonate of soda. Bicarbonate of soda, for example, relies on an acidic environment to get cakes etc to rise.

Dutch processing also makes the cacao smoother to taste. It also makes it more soluble in water, which is ideal for mixing with water to make chocolate drinks. In addition, the colour of the powder is lighter after processing.  

Different types of cacao

Cacao ingredients come in three different forms…

  1. Raw (i.e. unroasted)
  2. Roasted
  3. Roasted and then alkalinized with additives (dutch processed)

There is still confusion about what to call cacao powder and cacao butter.

Essentially if you want raw, unroasted cacao, then go for a product that says ‘raw cacao’. If you want ingredients that are simply naturally processed (i.e. not alkalinized/dutch processed) by roasting, then go for a product that says naturally processed cocoa/cacao powder or cocoa/cacao butter. 

Roasted cocoa beans

To confuse matters, ‘hot chocolate drink’ powder might sometimes be called cocoa powder too!

To confuse matters, in some countries (I am thinking the USA) you can buy ‘cocoa powder’ in a container, which is really ‘drinking chocolate powder’ made of a mixture of cocoa powder, dried milk powder, sugar and stuff.

So if you don’t want that stuff, then be sure to buy a cacao product that says 100% cocoa powder or pure cocoa powder. I do think this may have changed now so that they are labelled as hot chocolate powder

Is raw or roasted cacao the best?

Personally whilst I adore raw cacao, my body prefers naturally roasted cacao. I find raw delicious, although as a foodie, I prefer the depth of roasted cacao beans. Preferably, I don’t want the additional chemicals added to the dutch processed, so I am always sure to buy naturally processed cacao or cocoa powder. In essence, I just want pure cacao (whether raw or roasted), that’s it. 

A good chocolate-making recipe…

Homemade vegan chocolate with cacao powder and coconut sugar

Homemade vegan chocolate with coconut sugar