Cocoa vs Cacao. At first glance, there seems to be little to discuss. But, closer investigation reveals the difference between cocoa vs cacao is more than just an “a” or two. And much like grains and dietary fat, it’s all in the processing.
Where does chocolate come from?
While this may come as a surprise, the origin of chocolate is not Hershey, Pennsylvania. Chocolate is derived from the cacao (or cocoa) bean, which is the seed of a fruit found on the Theobroma cacao tree.
Once harvest, cacao beans are typically fermented and dried before being sent off to factories for further production. Sometimes, the beans are ground until they liquefy to create chocolate liquor, or – the fat (cacao butter) is pressed out of the beans to create a powder.
The Latin name for cacao, Theobroma, literally means, “food of the gods.” Since its earliest documented use in 1900 BC, chocolate has been the most craved commodity of civilization. Today, people around the world (that’s us) consume more than 3 million tons of cacao beans annually.
Cocoa vs Cacao: What’s the Difference?
Raw cacao is unheated and unprocessed cacao beans. Typically, you’ll find raw cacao available in powder form – or as nibs. Raw cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been ground into smaller pieces. Raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing cacao beans. Because raw cacao isn’t taken through a high-heat processing, it’s packed with antioxidants, fiber and important minerals like magnesium and calcium.
Cocoa, on the other hand, is raw cacao that has been roasted at high temperatures. After being roasted, the beans are cracked, crushed, ground into a paste, and slammed with a large hydraulic press to create a powder. This processing substantially reduces the antioxidant content, and many of the nutritional benefits are lost.
To make things slightly more complicated, not all cocoa is created equal. Dutch-processed cocoa powder is cocoa that has been processed with an alkalized solution, making it less acidic. As you may expect, alkalization further reduces cocoa’s antioxidant content. The alternative, natural cocoa powder, is cocoa that hasn’t been alkalized.
Because natural cocoa powder has its acidity, it’s generally paired with baking soda (which is alkali) in recipes. Dutch-processed cocoa is typically used with baking powder, as it doesn’t react to baking soda. In other words, while natural cocoa is the more nutrient-dense choice – they aren’t exactly interchangeable in recipes.
Cocoa vs Cacao: Which is Better?
And here’s where it gets a bit complicated.
Unless you’ve been on a technology fast for the last 10 years, you’re likely aware that consuming chocolate can produce many health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, increasing insulin sensitivity, reducing risk of experiencing cardiovascular disease and stroke, and improving cognitive function.
There’s also studies that show chocolate has a higher antioxidant capacity than popular superfoods like blueberries, cranberries, and Acai berries.
While it’s probably obvious these studies aren’t referring to store-bought candy bars, almost all of the studies that investigate chocolate’s health benefits use cocoa – or roasted cacao – when conducting research.
This means, all the proclaim health benefits of chocolate actually come from cocoa and other processed products like dark chocolate, not raw cacao.
Now – this doesn’t mean that raw cacao isn’t good for you, or that cocoa is better than cacao, it just means that there isn’t scientific research showing one has superior health benefits over another.
Because it’s well-known that raw cacao has a higher antioxidant content than cocoa – even without the scientific literature backing its superiority – I choose to use raw cacao over cocoa when making desserts like my homemade magic shell or chocolate covered cherry dessert balls. Using the principles of human food, it makes more sense to me to go with the less processed end-product.
Is Chocolate a Superfood?
Given that there’s no real regulation on the term – it could be. Buutt, there are some reasons to believe otherwise.
As previous discussed, phytic acid is an anti-nutrient commonly found in grains, nuts and seeds that humans can’t properly digest. This isn’t good news because phytic acid can bind to minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc, and keep them from being absorbed.
While cocoa does have a high concentration of antioxidants, it’s also one of the most concentrated sources of phytic acid, containing more than oats, almonds, peanuts, corn and popular legumes.
Phytic acid isn’t inherently bad, but – when overconsumed, it can be a problem, especially for those dealing with gut related issues. Phytic acid can be reduced through preparation techniques like fermentation – so purchasing raw cacao that comes from fermented beans is best. (I use Heathworks Organic Raw Cacao Powder, which the company confirmed comes from fermented cacao beans.)
Phytic acid can also be reduced through roasting, suggesting that cocoa may have significantly less phytic acid than raw cacao. This means, cocoa may actually be the superior choice for certain people.
To add to this, many of the studies that show chocolate’s health benefits use concentrated doses of chocolate – typically around 100g (or 3.5 ounces). That would require you to consume 20 tbsp of cocoa, or an entire bar of Green & Black’s Dark Chocolate per day, which also provides 600 calories and added sugar.
Even for a chocolate lover like me, that sort-of-sounds-nauseating.
In short, while there are definitely upsides to consuming the cacao bean, doing so in the concentrated doses required to see significant health benefits may also provide downsides that challenge its “superfood” status. However, as part of a nutrient-dense diet rich in complimentary sources of vitamins, minerals, and flavonols – I think it can absolutely benefit your overall health, both emotionally and physically.
So, here’s my take. Eat dark chocolate. Don’t overdo it. Enjoy it. Live happy.
What’s your take on cocoa vs cacao? Do you consume chocolate daily – and if so, what kind?
Keepin’ it human,