Cacao. Cacao. Cacao. What is the difference between Cacao and Cocoa?

Have you ever wondered what the difference was between Cacao (pronounced “kuh-kowl”) and Cocoa (pronounced “ko-ko”)?  Well, I am here to tell you. And as a nod to my Portland friend, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with cacao, the scene above from the TV show Portlandia is absolutely hilarious.

Cacao beans, dried in their raw state.

Cacao beans, harvested, fermented and dried, in its raw state.

So, what is the difference between the two? The cacao bean is the ultimate source of both cacao and cocoa powders. The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) produces pods (the fruit) about the size of a football, in which the cacao beans are found. Cocoa is always heat processed (which destroys antioxidants), while cacao is ‘cold’ processed and is a raw organic product that has more (much more) antioxidants and nutrients.

Actual cacao beans are found inside the fruit of the tree in fleshy, oval-shaped pods. The beans are harvested, fermented, and dried. When you see cacao nibs or cacao powder stores, it means that the bean is in its raw state—uncooked, additive free, and unprocessed. Cacao contains an abundance of antioxidants, because it’s raw and pure. Cacao is considered a Mayan superfood. In ancient Mayan culture cacao was revered as the drink of the gods. Only the elite of Mayan society could afford to drink it as the seeds were used as currency. Only rich people can afford to drink their money. Colonists discovered the cacao drink and brought it back to Europe where it became a fashionable drink among the high society. In the present cacao is sold worldwide as the main ingredient in chocolate and hot cocoa powder, but the Mayan still prepare it and drink it the way their ancestors used to. Cacao is also a superb source of fiber, magnesium, essential fatty acids, iron, copper, zinc, sulfur, and calcium.

Cacao has many health benefits. For example, Cacao:

1) Lowers blood pressure & improve circulation

Flavanols, theobromine, and other components found in cacao may lower blood pressure and enhance circulation by promoting dilation, strength, and health of blood vessels

2) Promotes cardiovascular function & health

The antioxidant power of flavonoids and essential minerals and vitamins found in cacao can support healthy heart functioning by lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow, lowering LDL cholesterol, and reducing plaque buildup on artery walls.

3) Neutralizes free radicals

High levels of antioxidants protect the body from a buildup of free radicals from sun exposure, pollution, cigarette smoking, etc., which may damage healthy body tissue giving rise to cancer and cardiovascular disease. Our bodies need antioxidants to ‘mop up’ free radicals that can damage our cells. Scientists from Cornell University recently discovered that raw cacao powder contains nearly twice the antioxidants of red wine, and up to three times the antioxidants found in green tea.

4)Raw Chocolate can improve digestion

A sufficient amount of fiber delivered with each serving of cacao supports digestion while cacao stimulates the body’s production of digestive enzymes.

5) Raw chocolate can enhance physical and mental well-being

There are many components of cacao including alkaloids, proteins, beta-carotene, leucine, linoleic, lipase, lysine, and theobromine, that all work together to improve physical and mental health. For example, theombromine helps to stimulate the central nervous system, relax smooth muscles, and dilate blood vessels, giving the body a boost of energy; “bliss” chemicals found in cacao help to increase circulation and availability of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in brain, improving mood and combating depression.

6) Appetite suppressant

Yes, that’s right! Raw chocolate actually has appetite-suppressant properties and often added to weight loss products to help control hunger!

7) Cacao is an aphrodisiac

Chocolate has long been the food for lovers and is a symbol of sensuality and sexuality. The ancient Aztecs gave chocolate as wedding presents and other South American civilizations believed that chocolate was the food of the heart.

8) Raw chocolate gives a sense of well being

Long considered a ‘happy food’, chocolate is a popular treat when we need ‘cheering up’, recent research has discovered that cacao contains chemicals (such as Phenylethylamine and Serotonine) which are scientifically proven to be present in the brains of people when they are happy, more relaxed, playful and creative.

cocoa-powderSo what about cocoa? Not until after the cacao beans are roasted and processed that they are called cocoa. Cocoa looks the same as cacao, but it’s not. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted and processed at high temperatures. Sadly, roasting changes the molecular structure of the cocoa bean, reducing the enzyme content and lowering the overall nutritional value. Most cocoa powders have additives like sweeteners or cocoa butter. There are two types of cocoa powder. Dutch-process cocoa powder is made from cacao beans that have been washed with a potassium carbonate solution, to alkalize the pH and to neutralize their acidity. Dutch-process is dark brown in color. Natural cocoa powder is reddish-brown and is made from cocoa beans that are simply roasted and ground into a fine powder.

Natural unsweetened cocoa powder is actually very similar to raw cacao powder except for experiencing higher temperatures during production, which decreases antioxidant activity.

So, what happens if you heat up cacao to use in recipes, such as a cookie or a cake? We don’t know. There is inconclusive evidence that heated cacao turns to cocoa loosing its fantastic health benefits. One thing we do know, it is better to start with raw cacao powder than cocoa powder. It makes sense, you have more antioxidants there to begin with. Also, it is important to know that studies have shown that the antioxidants in cacao are not absorbed well with dairy products. So, if you plan on using cacao instead of cocoa in a recipe, use an alternative milk product, such as almond milk or coconut milk.

So, next time you are in the mood for chocolate, look to see where it came from. Is it cacao or cocoa? Opt for cacao, its much more healthier and a lot more fun to say 🙂



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