Cacao, cocoa, chocolate: What the hell is the difference?

When I first saw the word cacao, I just thought it was cocoa spelled wrong! But I delved a little deeper.

Cacao comes from the same South American plant as cocoa, the cacao plant. But the major difference between cacao and cocoa is the way the pods on the plant have been processed.

Its claimed cacao is ‘the purest form of chocolate’ and may be higher in antioxidants and some minerals than more processed varieties of the plant.  

You might see cacao beans, nibs and powder around in shops and cafes and wonder what’s the difference between these products, the cocoa we use in cooking and good old fashioned chocolate? Let me break it down for you.

Cacao bean: If you open up one of these pods and you’ll find the cacao bean - it tastes like bitter chocolate

Cacao nibs: Peel off the outer shell of the cacao bean, roast it and crumbled it in to small pieces and you’re left with cacao nibs. You get the chocolatey taste, but it’s not very sweet. The flavour can vary depending on how they’re roasted and if anything is added in the processing. You can snack on them straight out of the pack or add them to yogurt, smoothies or sprinkle on top of your acai bowl.

Cacao powder: This is when the beans are processed at low heat to separate the cacao butter from the beans. Once that’s been removed, the beans are ground up in to a fine powder. This is the most common form of cacao. The idea is that because the beans are processed at low temperatures, much of the nutrition is retained.

Cocoa powder: Almost the same as cacao powder. The butter and oils are separated, and the leftover beans are crushed. The difference seems to be in the temperature. Cocoa is heated to a higher temperature, which means you’re left with a less bitter taste, but also alters the nutrient profile. You might also find some brands add powdered milk or sugar to give it a sweeter taste.

Dark chocolate: It does have a higher cocoa content than milk or white chocolate. And while that normally means less sugar – it’s best to check the labels!

Milk chocolate: Has a lower cocoa content than dark chocolate, and this usually means a higher sugar content. 

person making chocolate

What’s the healthier choice cacao, cocoa or chocolate?

While cacao itself is said to be higher in nutrients, it’s not necessarily healthy - depending on how it is served. If you’re adding more sugar and fat to improve the taste then I think there are better ways to get your daily dose of antioxidants like fresh fruit and veggies and nuts. Cocoa powder might not be as high in antioxidants – and it can contain added sugar.

Can you just swap cocoa powder for cacao powder in your brownie recipe? Mmm probably not. Cacao powder is not as sweet, and the consistency will also be different.

As for chocolate, on the upside dark varieties have less sugar, which can sometimes mean we eat less of it, and it may have a higher percentage of antioxidants than milk or white chocolate. On the downside, you’re still getting a dose of saturated fat.

For the chocolate lovers out there sadly there are no free kicks - enjoy it in moderation and don’t overdo it!

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