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Cacao and Cocoa: Is there a Difference?

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

The two words are so similar that if you read them quickly you might not even notice they’re spelled differently.  Some websites use them interchangeably, and a Google search for “cacao” will turn up results that include the term “cocoa.”  On the other hand, some health blogs assert that there is a difference between the two, leaving a lot of room for confusion.  Are they two separate things?  Is one better than the other?  It turns out, while “cacao” is usually used to refer to a product that comes out of an earlier stage in the chocolate-making process, there is not technically any difference between the two words, and it’s possible that the only reason there are two terms at all was a simple spelling mistake.1

All chocolate originates from the tropical cacao tree Theobroma cacao.  These trees produce football-sized pods, which have a hard outer shell and are full of cacao beans surrounded by a sweet pulp.  To begin the chocolate-making process, the pods are harvested and cracked open.  The beans and pulp are then removed and fermented for up to six days, after which the outer shell of the beans is removed and they are roasted.  The fermentation and roasting process causes the chocolate flavor to become richer.2

At this point the product may be sold as a cacao nib, cocoa nib, or cracked cocoa.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines these terms and states that they all refer to the same thing.3 The cacao nib can be sold unroasted, or it might be heated again after the fermentation stage to improve its flavor.3 Cacao nibs have about 180 calories, 4 grams protein, 14 grams fat, 8 grams carbohydrate, and 6 grams fiber per 1-ounce serving.4 They are also high in several different antioxidants, which explains why they are known to improve blood pressure and promote heart health.  Antioxidants break down when exposed to heat, so some people recommend looking for “raw” cacao nibs to get the most health benefits from a chocolate product.5,6

In the next step in the chocolate-making process, the cacao nib is ground into something known as chocolate liquor.2,3 This paste may be further separated into cocoa butter (the fat in the cocoa bean) and cocoa powder (the powder you are likely familiar with used in baking and hot chocolate), and each product may go on to be used as an ingredient in another item.  The paste could also be sold as unsweetened chocolate or baking chocolate, or it may be ground up, heated, and mixed with sugar, milk, and vanilla to form a chocolate bar.2

Many health websites recommend eating cacao instead of cocoa on the assumption that cacao is less processed.  This recommendation only adds to confusion, however, because the terms “cacao” and “cocoa” are legally allowed to refer to the same product.  Instead of getting caught up on the difference between cocoa and cacao, look for a less-processed form of chocolate, such as raw cocoa or cacao nibs, which will contain more antioxidants because they have been exposed to less heat.6 This is also a great way to enjoy some chocolate without getting all of the added sugar from a chocolate bar!


  1.  Coles T. Cacao Nibs: Even Better For You Than Dark Chocolate. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/08/02/cacao-nibs_n_3695571.html. Published August 2, 2013. Accessed March 19, 2017.
  2.  From Bean to Bar | Equal Exchange. http://equalexchange.coop/products/chocolate/steps. Accessed March 20, 2017.
  3.  CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?CFRPart=163&showFR=1&subpartNode=21: Accessed March 20, 2017.
  4.  USDA. 45010024, SUNFOODS, RAW ORGANIC CACAO NIBS, UPC: 803813030208. USDA Branded Food Products Database. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/18331?fgcd=&manu=&lfacet=&format=&count=&max=50&offset=&sort=default&order=asc&qlookup=cacao+nibs&ds=&qt=&qp=&qa=&qn=&q=&ing=. Accessed March 20, 2017.
  5.  Health Benefits of Raw Cacao Nibs. http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/health-benefits-raw-cacao-nibs-7364.html. Accessed March 20, 2017.
  6.  Hu S, Kim B-Y, Baik M-Y. Physicochemical properties and antioxidant capacity of raw, roasted and puffed cacao beans. Food Chem. 2016;194:1089-1094. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.08.126.

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