Difference Between Cocoa and Cacao

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on July 07, 2023
4 min read

Who doesn’t love chocolate? It’s an incredibly popular food, used in everything from festive holiday treats to everyday snacks and baked goods.

You might have seen some healthier variations of this much-loved confection popping up in grocery stores and online labeled as cacao. But what is cacao, and how is it different from the cocoa you know and love?

The answer: it depends on the stage of processing. 

Cacao is cocoa in its raw, less-processed form. Cacao grows from trees called Theobroma cacao. Cacao trees are native to South America, West Africa, and some countries in Asia. More than half the world’s cacao comes from countries in West Africa, including Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

Cacao pods are harvested from the trees and are turned into cocoa — then eventually chocolate — through a multi-step process.

Harvesting. Cacao pods are yellow, oval-shaped pods that contain a white pulp and seeds. The pods are cracked open and the seeds scooped out, with the pulp still clinging on, for the next step.

Fermenting. Fermentation is crucial for the chocolate flavor to develop and intensify. The seeds are left in their pulp to ferment from 36 hours to as long as seven days.

Drying. The fermented beans are then left in the sun to dry out. This process can take up to a week.

Roasting. The flavor that was developed during fermentation is now completed through roasting. Different manufacturers have their own techniques for roasting to achieve their own flavor profiles.

Extracting. After roasting is complete, extraction is next. This process is also called winnowing. The nib, or the actual center of the bean, is extracted from the shell.

Grinding. The nibs are ground up to make an alcohol-free liquor. Cocoa butter — the main ingredient in chocolate — can be extracted from this liquor. Cocoa butter is also used in some medicines and cosmetics.

Making cocoa powder. After separating the cocoa butter from the liquor, the remainder of the liquor is dried and ground into cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is used for baking and making other delicious treats.

Making chocolate. Chocolate is made from combining cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, and sugar. The amount of cocoa liquor inside determines how dark the chocolate will be. The amount of cocoa liquor is also what is referred to as “percent cacao” on the packaging. Milk powder or condensed milk is added to make milk chocolate. 

Did you know it can take 3 to 5 years for a cacao tree to produce its fruit? That’s a long time to wait for a chocolate bar.

Chocolate is often viewed as a food that’s not good for you. But in its purest forms, it contains quite a bit of nutrients. Dark chocolate has more nutrients than milk chocolate, due to its higher concentration of cocoa liquor.

Cacao products contain the following nutrients:

  • Iron. Dark chocolate can contain more than 10 milligrams (mg) of iron in a 100-gram serving.
  • Magnesium. There’s more than 250mg of magnesium in 100 grams of dark chocolate.
  • Zinc. Zinc can be found in chocolate with a 90% cocoa content. This mineral helps support your immune system. 
  • Flavonols. Flavonols are nutrient compounds that are found in plants. They have antioxidant properties, help fight certain cancers, and promote a healthy heart.
  • Amino acid. Dark chocolate has an amino acid called tryptophan, which sends signals to your brain that help you relax.
  • Copper. Copper is essential for brain development, helps your body take in iron, and assists your body in metabolizing glucose. A 100-gram serving of dark chocolate has 1.08 mg (1080 mcg) copper which is over 100% of the RDA for Copper.

Choosing dark chocolate is the best way to take advantage of these nutrients, but eat it in moderation. Chocolate can be high in sugar and unhealthy saturated fat.

Try raw, unroasted cacao nibs to satisfy your chocolate cravings. They taste a little different than chocolate because they’re less processed. But they provide more health benefits and can squash your chocolate cravings all at once.

Cacao is the raw, unprocessed version of cocoa. Both can benefit your health, but it’s best to stick to either the raw version, cacao, or a chocolate product that has a high chocolate liquor content.

Raw cacao can take some getting used to. It tastes a little different than cocoa products and can be slightly bitter. Try mixing it with another snack, like mixed nuts, to ease it into your diet.

The level of nutrients in cacao and cocoa products can vary, based on how they were made. Go for a product made with minimal processing to enjoy the full benefits.