Cacao or Cocoa: What’s the difference?

Chocolate is healthy – right? Not quite, but like most ingredients, how you process them makes a huge difference to their benefits (or indeed their disadvantages). That’s definitely the case when it comes to cacao and cocoa.

The Cacao Tree (Theobroma cacao) is a small evergreen tree native to the deep tropical regions of Central and South America and has been used as a food source since 1900-900 BC. The tree produces fruit called cacao pods, around 15–30 cm long which ripen to a yellow-orange colour weighing about 500g when ripe. It’s within these bright pods that the cacao seeds are found. Each pod may contain 20 to 60 seeds, also known as cacao beans.

So what’s in a name?

Whilst both cacao and cocoa originate from the same seed, with the recent rise in popularity of raw foods, the names have come to distinguish between two cacao products, formed using very different processing methods.

Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. This process keeps the living enzymes in the cocoa whilst removing the fat (cacao butter). There are a large number of benefits associated with raw cacao, with it being reputed to lower insulin resistance, protect your nervous system as well as reducing your risk to cardiovascular disease. Looking for antioxidants? Cacao can repair the damage caused by free radicals and may reduce the risk of certain cancers. In fact, cacao contains far more antioxidants per 100g than acai, goji berries and blueberries.

Cocoa might look the same, but it’s not. Cocoa is raw cacao that has been roasted at high temperatures. Unfortunately, roasting the cacao seeds changes the molecular structure of the cacao seeds, reducing the enzyme content and lowering the overall nutritional value. It’s these roasted seeds that are used to make chocolate, along with varying amounts of cocoa butter and sugar which help make it such a tempting treat.

That’s not to say that raw cacao can’t be tasty too! There are plenty of ways to capture the goodness of raw cacao, without needing to add unhealthy sugars or fats.

Try our cacao nut smoothie for a satisfying treat!

Cacao nut smoothie recipe

3 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk, or plain milk if you prefer

4 tablespoons unsweetened peanut butter (or your favourite nut butter)

2 soft avocados

1/4 cup raw cacao powder

Granulated stevia or agave syrup to taste

2 large handfuls of ice cubes

About the Author


As an animal lover and baking enthusiast, Georgia can often be found experimenting with plant-based recipes in her kitchen.

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