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Cacao vs. Cocoa: How They’re Different

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How are cacao and cocoa different? Which is healthier, cocoa or cacao? Do cocoa and cacao taste the same? As a chocolate writer, I get these questions all the time, and the answer is quite simple: cacao and cocoa are the same word, in different languages.

It’s a bit of a debate in the craft chocolate industry as to the functional differences between the words, but in common usage the difference is difficult to neatly define. This is because legally, cacao and cocoa have the same meaning, and if anyone tells you differently then they’re either trying to sell you on the benefits of cacao as a super food, or they don’t know what they’re talking about. Guaranteed.

The only real difference between cocoa and cacao is in the implication & context of each word in their respective languages. As a result, there can be rather large differences surrounding the common usage of the two words, depending largely on the country. In this article, we dig into how different cultures have changed the implied meaning of cacao or cocoa in various contexts.

Cacao beans drying on a farm on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Cacao vs Cocoa: Etymology

The original name of the fruit Theobroma cacao, long before it was dubbed cacao or cocoa, was derived from the word cacahuatl, meaning “bitter or acidic water.” The word comes from the Aztec language of Nahuatl, and the plant was known by a similar-sounding name throughout the Americas (the fruit is called cacau in Portuguese). Despite being native to South America, the cacao plant is believed to have been consumed much more in Central America, from modern-day central Mexico down to Honduras.

The genus name roughly translates as “food of the Gods” or “nectar of the Gods” in Greek. The plant was named as such by Swedish explorer Carl Linnaeus in the late 18th century. As you may recall, Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to invade modern-day Central America, and in the process they found a delightful food which the locals called cacao. At the time they thought it was some kind of New World almond.

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Vietnamese cacao I used to make chocolate at home in September 2017.

Each native group had their own name for the plant, but the most relevant name in the modern era is the Nahuatl name. This is the version taken and mangled by those Spanish invaders, and eventually brought back to Europe as “cacao.” Though strangely, the more commonly-known term these days is the Mayan word kakaw, the glyph of which has become rather famous.

In turn, “cacao” was once again transformed when it made its way into the English lexicon, becoming “cocoa.” According to legend, the initial difference between cocoa and cacao may even come down to an incorrectly written ledger on a cargo ship. Since the Nahuatl word is little-known— much less used— outside of present-day Mexico, the two paths which the term has taken are as follows: Spanish, and English/French.

If you listen to how to pronounce cacao in other languages, it inevitably sounds similar to the basic “kah-kow.” But within the pronunciation you may be given a clue as to whether the word was added to their language via English or Spanish. As evidenced by the name of this site (Dame Cacao), I have a preference for the latter.

Cocoa pronunciation: “co-co,” just like in “coconut,” because the “a” is silent in English.

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Cocoa vs Cacao: What Is Cacao?

As mentioned above, “cacao” is Theobroma cacao, a plant in the Theobroma family, native to South America and grown in Central America for millennia. This cultivation didn’t stop when the plant was taken to new lands and grown elsewhere. Cacao is still a very important food throughout the Americas, not to mention in Africa & Asia. But since cacao is the Spanish butchering of the word, and the former Spanish colonies are the epicenter of cacao culture, it’s their word which has become elevated in recent years.

The Spanish brought a more nuanced cacao varietal to their former colonies, including the Philippines and throughout the Americas. The criollo varietals have a less bitter & more floral and nutty flavor than their hardier forastero counterpart (discussed below). At the time that they were bringing criollo cacao abroad, the Spaniards may not yet have discovered other varietals, but that doesn’t change the impact their choice has had.

It’s led to entirely different consumption patterns, and in general less processing necessary to make it palatable. For roughly a century, in fact, the Spanish managed to keep cacao a secret from the other European powers. Until one day, it all spilled out.

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“Cacao” written in simplified Chinese.

The Spanish had been consuming cacao almost exclusively in the form of an unsweetened spiced cacao beverage, thought to be an aphrodisiac and generally seen as a show of wealth. In Spain and its colonies, in fact, the consumption of cacao was largely either in the form of a prepared cacao drink or on the plantation in the form of a fruit or fruit liquor. In all forms it was very expensive, making it a highly coveted & specialty food.

To this day, Spain’s consumption of cacao is still mostly in the form of liquids, either drinks or sauces. Even in former Spanish colonies, like the Philippines or Guatemala, most cacao-based products are consumed as less-processed drinks. Chocolate, on the other hand, is the name of a sweet imported treat, primarily made of sugar. The irony of this is that thousands of their countrymen make their living growing cacao, only to export it at (almost always) a criminally low price.

The cacao fruit and the products made from lightly-processed cacao seeds taste completely different from the chocolate-flavored candy bars you find in the US and other Western countries. Even though they come from the same plant, on the backs of those bars you’d also most likely see the ingredient “cocoa mass,” not “cacao beans.” These cacao fruits actually taste more like lychee and strawberry, while lightly-processed cacao products taste a little more bitter and much less flat & sweet than grocery store chocolate bars.

Cacao growing on a tree in the Philippines, each pod wrapped in plastic to protect it from pests.

Cacao vs Cocoa: What Is Cocoa?

Just like cacao, “cocoa” is the fruit and seeds of Theobroma cacao, a tropical plant native to South America. However, “cocoa” is the English word for the plant, a mangled interpretation of the Spanish word “cacao.” “Cocoa” entered the languages when the plant itself did, also via the Spanish Empire. Since Theobroma cacao is native to the Americas, once the French & British got their hands on parts of the it, they promptly began taking the plant to their other colonies.

But for the most part, in those first few hundred years only the hardier varietal known as forastero, most common in South America, successfully made it across oceans. Eventually cacao made it to Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific, where French, Spanish, British, and Dutch colonies were established. Since they were raising a varietal that was naturally a bit more flat and strong in flavor (not to mention more bitter), their inclination was not towards drinking.

They needed to add something to their hot chocolate to make a heartier product, particularly to counteract the seed’s bitter properties. So they turned to corn starch and other thickeners, as well as a healthy dose of sugar or honey. In many ways this cheapened the product, but it also increased how long each cacao fruit and each bag of cacao beans could last. The French and the British brought cocoa from a high-class beverage to an accessible indulgence for people of most classes.

Europeans’ motivations for consuming cocoa in both liquid and solid forms were very similar to those of the Spanish, but for a host of reasons, the situation surrounding cocoa slowly changed. In the 1800’s, an Englishman named Joseph Fry created the first chocolate bar. While other ingredients were added to the drink, like milk and spices, the food version was just an unsweetened cocoa powder with some sugar & extra cacao butter added in.

Cacao or cocoa, whatever you call it, is about half fat in its natural state. This fat is often pressed out of the cocoa beans and sold as cocoa butter, which is used to make white chocolate and otherwise highly prized in the cosmetics industry. The rest of this cocoa cake is mostly made up of cocoa solids, which are ground into cocoa powder for making chocolate drinks. Later in history, this powder was also added to other desserts as a prized flavoring.

Cocoa slowly shifted from the English word for a fruit grown in the Spanish colonies to an ingredient used to flavor treats. 

Because of these differing consumption patterns and cultivation choices of the European powers, the connotations of the words “cocoa” and “cacao” have themselves changed. When you think of cacao you likely think of the fruit and the cacao nib. But when you think of cocoa you likely think of cheap chocolate and sweet cocoa drinks, furthering the implied difference between cocoa and cacao.

So…. is cacao actually good for you? Well, that depends completely upon how it was grown and processed. Health food stores would have you believe that the debate is cacao powder vs cocoa powder, villainizing one over the other, when in reality you could call your product either name and be correct. Legally, switching cocoa and cacao doesn’t change the origin or processing of the ingredient. It’s just a stylistic choice.

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Cacao trees on Taiwan, just outside of Taichung city.

What Makes Cacao and Cocoa Different (Usage)?

Anyone who tells you that “cocoa often contains sugar or hydrogenated oils is very ill-informed. It’s like saying that peanuts contains salt and sugar just because some peanut butter does. Just as not all products labelled “cacao” should be prized, not should all those labelled “cocoa” be rebuked. The difference between cacao and cocoa is purely linguistic & stylistic.

Because of the British, French, and American origins of most chocolate products throughout the 20th century, most people think of cocoa as the base material for dark chocolate. It’s even in the name of that sweet, warm beverage you slurp on cold winter nights, and on the ingredients list of every brownie recipe. But hot cocoa and cocoa powder are not the only products we consume made from Theobroma cacao; they’re just some of the most common.

In fact, the most commonly consumed form of cacao is probably in the form of chocolate (another industry in which the cocoa vs. cacao debate lives on). In my experience, a chocolate maker who refers to the beans as cacao often bought their beans from a Latin American country, where most of the world’s organic and high-quality cacao comes from. This has changed over the last few years, however, as more & more craft chocolate makers have started their businesses.

On the other hand, makers who call the beans “cocoa” are often buying beans from Africa or Asia, or possibly grew up in a country where the tree was called “cocoa,” and “cacao” was its scientific name.

People tend to think of cocoa and cacao as being different products of the cacao bean, when really they’re just different names and implications for the same product.

Smaller chocolate makers tend to call their ingredient cacao and source from smaller cacao plantations with more careful processing and attention to detail. They then turn said cacao into less-processed chocolate products, and maybe even a variety of cocoa products featuring bits of cacao beans (called nibs). On the other hand, bigger chocolate manufacturers tend to call their ingredient cocoa and source from massive cocoa traders in West Africa or Indonesia. They sometimes work from chocolate liquor, are more focused on quantity over quality, and continue to use the English word “cocoa” throughout their processing.

Therefore, products calling themselves “cacao” something or other tend to be less-processed and use less added sugar, though many natural food companies are using this as marketing leverage. “Cocoa” is not necessarily an over-processed version of the cacao fruit, but it often is. What the consumer needs to know is that cacao and cocoa have different implications, yes, but it’s still their job to look at labels and see whether that product fits in with the implications of its word choice. For example, cocoa powder and cacao powder are the same food, even if Googling this question seems to tell you different.

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Overview: The Difference Between Cocoa and Cacao

Once you dive into their understandings of the two words in most people’s minds, it’s easy to see why most people are so confused.

Linguistically, the two words are entirely interchangeable. But due to the etymological connection of cacao, it has a much more healthy and natural connotation. Cocoa, on the other hand, thanks to its historical usage in Africa and Asia, where mostly low-quality cacao is grown, has a cheaper and less healthy reputation.

Even within the chocolate industry, “cacao” is usually used to refer to the raw product, from the tree to the roasted cacao seeds, which some people will then refer to as “cocoa beans.” Some makers still call them “cacao beans” even after roasting, however (though the irony continues in the fact that they’re seeds, not beans). There’s now a public understanding of cacao as a “super food,” which it can be— but only to a point.

The problem is that most people still don’t associate cacao with chocolate, adding to the confusion. Therefore depending on the origin of a chocolate or cocoa product, they may list the ingredients as cocoa or cacao. Depending on the image a product wants to portray, they may market it as cacao-based or cocoa-based. And depending on how thoroughly you read this article, you may now consider yourself educated on both cacao and cocoa.

I reiterate, the dictionary definition of cacao and cocoa, and the product itself, are the same. It’s the way that people use the words that’s different. “Cacao” is often used in reference to the raw material of and from the Theobroma cacao tree, as well as cacao products which want to appear more healthy or natural to consumers. “Cocoa” is often shown alongside marshmallows and other sweets, and used to sell cheap chocolate-flavored snacks.

To read more about the health benefits of cacao and quality chocolate, click here.


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Fern

Thursday 13th of August 2020

This was an interesting read. Answered my questions for sure. Although I am bilingual French and English since birth. I always knew cacao to be French and cocoa to be English. That's why I was confused when I started hearing people saying cacao in English. That is the only issue I have with your article, as you say that in French it is still cocoa, not the way I have ever known it to be. In my French experience, cocoa refers to coco, or noix de coco; coconut in English.

Still, I appreciate the work you put into giving us the history and all.

Max

Thursday 13th of August 2020

Sure, Fern; it's my pleasure! From my experience in a variety of French-speaking countries, cocoa seems to be more popular, though cacao has become the norm in all bean to bar circles. Admittedly, most of my experience with French speakers who trade in cocoa comes via Africa, where cocoa is definitely the preferred term, in my experience. So it's fully possible that in French-speaking Europe, cocoa isn't as common as in other Francophone regions, and cacao is more the norm. I could certainly see the confusion with noix de coco, too, though interestingly when Spanish-speakers use the word "cocoa," they pronounce it like "co-co-ah"!

Is Cacao Vegan? (& Is Cocoa Vegan?) - Vegan Chocolate

Wednesday 22nd of July 2020

[…] Alternatively, you may see the word “cocoa,” but rest assured that both words mean the same thing: Theobroma cacao. That is the scientific name for the tropical cacao tree, which produces the base […]

Jonah

Saturday 28th of March 2020

This was what I was looking to learn. You have performed a fantastic job on this matter!

Max

Saturday 28th of March 2020

Oh, thank you! Haha

Peter Richards

Monday 2nd of December 2019

Cocoa is a healthy ingredient if we take it in limits. It has much stronger antioxidants than fruits with some of the highest antioxidant properties, such as blueberries and acai berries. There is also an endless variety of mouthwatering chocolates to choose from; truffles, nibs, bars, chocolate covered nuts, fruit-filled chocolate, and more!

Max

Monday 2nd of December 2019

Indeed! Lots of ways to enjoy antioxidant-heavy chocolates.

Celestino Trono IV

Thursday 12th of September 2019

My wife has cancer. She drinks cacao sometimes during breakfast.

Max

Friday 13th of September 2019

I'm so sorry to hear about your wife, Celestino, but I'm glad she has someone to support her during this incredibly difficult time. I hope she's drinking a high percentage cacao without any milk, for optimum benefits (and smiles)!

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