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Raw cacao vs cocoa: what’s the difference?

Blog Posts - cacao
Photo by: Image via Thinkstock

You guys have been asking the question, so we thought we’d clear a few things up for you.

Is there a difference between the two aside from a few vowels?

The studies that boast of chocolate’s amazing health benefits are not referring to your average store-bought chocolate bar (damn misleading researchers). The chocolate that they’re referring to is raw cacao.

Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cocoa and removes the fat (cacao butter).

Cocoa looks the same but it’s not. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures. Sadly, roasting changes the molecular structure of the cocoa bean, reducing the enzyme content and lowering the overall nutritional value.

What are the health benefits of raw cacao?

  • Lowers insulin resistance.
  • Protects your nervous system: Cacao is high in resveratrol, a potent antioxidant also found in red wine, known for its ability to cross your blood-brain barrier to help protect your nervous system.
  • Shields nerve cells from damage.
  • Reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Reduces your risk of stroke.
  • Reduces blood pressure.
  • Slows the ageing process by assisting with nitric oxide metabolism: Nitric oxide protects your heart by relaxing your blood vessels and thereby lowering your blood pressure. However, nitric oxide production produces adverse reactions and toxic metabolites, which must be neutralised by your body so they don’t result in oxidative damage to your blood vessel lining. Cocoa polyphenols protect your body from these metabolites and help counter the typical age-related decline in nitric oxide production.
  • Guards against toxins: as a potent antioxidant, 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. Antioxidants are responsible for 10% of the weight of raw cacao.
  • Boosts your mood: cocoa can increase levels of certain neurotransmitters that promote a sense of well-being. And the same brain chemical that is released when we experience deep feelings of love – phenylethylamine – is found in chocolate.
  • It is rich in minerals: magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper and manganese.

If cacao is more beneficial than cocoa because it’s raw, what happens when we cook it?

Very good question, and we’re glad you asked… unfortunately there is no science on whether or not heating raw cacao destroys its antioxidant level making it more akin to its heated and processed cousin cocoa. BUT we figure if you start off with the product in its raw form, it has to be more beneficial than starting with an already heated and processed equivalent.

Let’s end with an interesting tid-bit…

Research shows that dairy inhibits the absorption of antioxidants from raw cacao.

So if you’re making a cacao shake you’re better off using a non-dairy milk like almond or coconut in order to reap all of the antioxidant benefits. Fact!

Keen to introduce more cacao into your kitchen repertoire? Check out our Chocolate Cookbook for some delicious chocolate treats and some recipes that are so good for you they can be eaten for breakfast! Speaking of dessert for breakfast have you seen what our nutritionist Kate eats most mornings?

What’s your favourite use for raw cacao? 

Please be respectful of other participants in the conversation. We'd love you to keep your comments respectful, friendly and relevant. Differences of opinion are welcome, but trolling and abuse of other commentators and the IQS editorial team is not and will result in blacklisting.

  • Tania Chaplain

    Just made some goody balls – almonds, raw cacoa powder, coconut and medjool dates – YUMMY!

    • ConnieBennett

      Sounds wonderful. Need to make this!

  • Carla

    How ironic, I was feeling a little under the weather this morning so I made a smoothie using cacao, coconut milk, almond milk and a few other gorgeous ingredients for a giant antioxidant hit and pick me up…then I got this site for my daily IQS hit and cacao is the star of the day :)

  • Emily Hawkes

    Mmm..I was using raw cacao in my blackforest smoothie yesterday morning – I’ll have to sub out the dairy now.

    • IQS_Team

      Try almond milk Emily! Delicious!

      • Gabriella

        Can almond milk – or any nut milk for that matter – be frozen? How long do they keep for in the fridge? Also, do hazelnuts have to be soaked to make hazelnut milk? You should do a post related to all things nut milk me thinks!

        • IQS_Team

          Thats a great idea Gabriella!

  • Bronwyn

    I have read the journal articles linked to about the benefits of cocoa – not one of them is specifically about raw cocoa – in fact they all seem to be about dark chocolate or different strains of cocoa beans with more flavanols. Could it not be a little dangerous to promote something raw as a better option simply because its not roasted, when there is no evidence? In all likelihood, the roasting may in fact be necessary to making the product fit for consumption and safe from mould… There are several vegetables out there which are quite unsafe to eat unless cooked. Why take the risk with cocoa? I for one won’t be handing over wads of cash for a raw version of something with no evidence, or security, behind it. Raw is not always best!

    • Carla

      …except when it is. Oh and if something doesn’t grow mould then you shouldn’t eat it because all living foods do grow mould and given we are living beings then we should also be consuming living foods that ‘enliven’ us. I would rather ‘take a risk’ as you say with raw living cacao then cooked and commercialised cocoa (that’s generally loaded with sugar). But that’s just my opinion :)

      • Bronwyn

        I generally share your view about most foods being that way Carla, fresh foods that you intend to eat straight away of course would go mouldy eventually, and this is a sign of a healthy food, but you eat them before it is even a concern. I’m all for eating living, fresh foods when you can get them. I would probably try raw cacao beans if I visited a plantation….

        but I live a very, very long way away from any cacao trees, and the beans I see for sale, sure aren’t fresh :)

        ( and I too would never buy a sugar- laden cocoa powder – I simply mean the standard stuff from the health food shop that is not badged as ‘raw’. )

      • Rhi

        Then you shouldn’t eat cashews. They have to be pasteurized to destroy a carcinogenic fungus that resides within it. Whenever someone purchases “raw” cashews they are actually “pasteurized” but not roasted.

        I agree if something doesn’t get moldy it should be avoided (preservatives are likely all that is keeping it together) but many foods need to be cooked in some manner to prevent them from being poisonous to us.

        • Carla

          Hi Rhi and Bronwyn,

          Completely agree to an extent that certain foods need to be cooked, my point I was trying to make was that too many foods are overly processed, sprayed with chemicals and full of preservatives to give a longer shelf life and also using cheap ingredients and fillers make them cheaper to make but worse for the consumer. Eg Kraft peanut butter vs home made or organic peanut butter.

    • D

      “There are several vegetables out there which are quite unsafe to eat unless cooked.” huh?

      • Bronwyn

        Kidney beans, cassava …

      • Kimberley

        Taro, Potatoes, Rhubarb… List goes on. There are plenty of veggies which you shouldn’t eat raw

        • Tetris

          I eat raw potatoes. I’m still fit and healthy :)

      • mvhyde

        Raw casava of certain varieties that are very popular in my home country is poisonous. You need to soak and cook it to make it healthy to eat as a staple. I suppose if you ate it raw occasionally it would be ok, but we use casava as a staple

    • IQS_Team

      Hey Bronwyn,

      We would never advocate somebody spending money on a product they don’t see the worth in. On the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) scale, which is a way of measuring antioxidants raw cacao has an ORAC of 95,500 where as roasted cocoa powder has an ORAC of 26,000. By all means keep eating cocoa it still rates quite well we just prefer to use the product that has 3.5 times more antioxidants. Cocoa is still a fine choice though Bronwyn and it can be substituted in any of our chocolate recipes. Have a beautiful day.

  • CM

    I have always used very good quality dutch cocoa but was keen to get on the raw cacao bandwagon. I was very disappointed to find that it makes me feel horribly nauseous whenever I eat it… even in small amounts as an ingredient in something. Any ideas as to why this might be happening or if there is any way to mitigate this effect?

    • IQS_Team

      Hey CM, we always say that if something doesn’t make you feel good don’t force it.

    • Sarah

      Just a thought.. it could be the enzymes. I find when I eat kiwi or pineapple (High in enzymes- even used to tenderize meat) I get terrible stomach pains, and have always put this down to the enzyme content. But either way, trust your body as IQS team says.

  • Sara

    Where can we buy cacao from? Do supermarkets stock it?

    • IQS_Team

      Hey Sara, You can get cacao from health food stores or order it online.

  • Hailz

    Hi there,
    I’m just a bit confused about the “Raw” part, by definition of ‘raw’ the cacao bean/nib cannot go above 49 degrees, & given that the cacao trees thrive in hot/humid countries, how do we know for sure that the cacao bean dosent go above 49 degrees in the drying/fermenting stage, before it gets cold pressed??

    • Jim

      49 degrees likely refers to Celsius Not Farenheit which is 120 degrees This makes more sense when discussing hot tropical countries.

  • Desiree

    Silly question. A speciality hot chocolate group is using cacao for customers. Does this mean I can enjoy a hot chocolate? sugar free?

    • IQS_Team

      Hi Desiree. Sounds delicious but we’d love to now everything that goes into it before we make comment.

  • Lynne Sharon

    Hi, I’m interested in knowing if there are health benefits of raw cacao vs organic cocoa, mainly in a protein shake made with almond milk.

  • Niikii


    Does raw cacao still contain stimulants like caffeine? as this is a complete no-no for anyone with cortisol issues.

    can someone shed some light please?

  • Rebekah

    Great article Sarah I have actually done lots of research into this and most companies don’t actually sell raw cacao even though they say it is on the label, I live in New Zealand and the only company that sell genuine raw cacao is Lifefoods, which I believe is from Ecuador as most of the stuff from other countries is unfortunately not really raw.

  • Sabrina

    Hi, I’ve read some studies that raw chocolate is actually not as healthy as we all think it is, because of the high level of cadmium it contains. Can anyone comment on that?

  • Amy

    I was just trying to get to the bottom of the raw vs roasted cacao/cocoa debate and came across the website of Big Tree Farms – a chocolate factory in Bali that I did a tour round a couple of years ago. They sell both raw and cooked cacao and say that there is a major difference in taste. Apparently the raw stuff doesn’t really taste like chocolate – you basically just eat it for the goodness. In order to get the chocolate taste it HAS to be roasted. Which means that all the separated ‘raw’ cacao butter and power I’ve been buying to make chocolate was actually roasted!!
    In answer to somebody’s comment about caffeine – I believe that it all has caffeine in and it actually affects me more than tea or coffee! In chinese medicine they do not recommend chocolate as it has a bad effect on the body, but who knows what type of chocolate they’re talking about! Bottom line, as most people seem to be saying, is to get it as pure and unprocessed as you can – cut out all the sugar (I just make it by gently melting cacao butter and mixing in powder, then adding honey and maybe squeezing some ginger juice in) and eating in moderation. Can’t go far wrong with that, hey?!

  • Alexandra A

    HI Sarah,
    Where can I get cheaper cacao butter? Its around $17 for 250 grams! thanks

    • Jordanna – IQS Community Editor

      Bulk health food stores are great places to pick up a bargain.

    • IQS_Team

      Hey Alexandra,

      Cacao butter is quite expensive, but you shouldn’t need to use large amounts at once. Perhaps try looking for an online wholesale distributor that ships to you? You could even get a group together to order it in bulk so it makes it cheaper.

      • Amy

        Is cacao butter ok to have? are there health benefits?

  • ConnieBennett

    What a fascinating post. Thanks so much! My favorite use? I use cacao every morning in a Chia-Cacao-Flax Protein Shake. Oh, and yesterday I made some really awesome sugar-free mousse with cacao. Still playing with the recipe.

  • Dagmar Dvorska ANutr

    The FACT inserted as a hyperlink in the article led me to the introduction of the summary of the study. I would like to ask: did Sarah read the whole article or only the free accessible Introduction? I have read the whole summary, but there might be the study of a proper length and detailed data, including a more comprehensive discussion and potential limitations of it.
    I have read the whole summary of the study and I found out that they only measured one antioxidant: epicatechin, while there is more antioxidants in it. Moreover, the cacao went through several steps of chemical processing. Could this influence the bioavailability of the antioxidant? I am not saying that dairy does not reduce the absorption of flavonoids from cacao, I am questioning the suggestion, that we should substitute plant ‘milks’ for dairy and this effect would not occur. While coconut substitution might be fine, the soya or other beans or nut substitution might show similar effect to dairy. The study summary suggests that the possible mechanism for this reduced absorption is due to the dairy proteins that might bind the flavonoids. So how about the substitutes also containing some proteins? Has the study (or rather studies) been done? Has it been compared to dairy? And how about delayed digestion and absorption due to the presence of dairy proteins? These milk proteins are also broken down and absorbed, unless something prevents their absorption for whatever reason and still, they can have some activity in the large intestine when fermented by gut bacteria, together with the bound and unabsorbed antioxidants, more than four hours after digestion, which was the period assessed in the study – perhaps preventing the cancer promoting effect of fermented proteins and protecting gut health? The study summary ended with the need to take into account the overall dietary habits in order to assess the association between “flavonoids rich food, antioxidant activity and degenerative diseases.” I consider cancer as a sort of degenerative disease. About 80% of our immune system resides in our intestines therefore it should not be forgotten about when assessing the antioxidant activity of foods. Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the world.

    Therefore I consider this article of Sarah as flawed. One cannot make a conclusion based on one study of 12 volunteers and make dietary recommendations to public without having a complete data, at least how the cacao flavonoids behave when ingested with milk other than dairy… If you have the data, then ignore this input and please share the FACTS, not fiction.

    • Diet Advice

      I love your input Dagmar. Science of nutrition is more complicated than what we really know. However, everyone seems to know it all.

  • marilyn

    what is the ingredient in the pancakes called coco quench? I also do a lot of “raw” foods, so i already do use the correct cocoa powder, thanks to daradubinet on facebook (raw foods chef). marilyn.

    • IQS_Team

      Coco quench is an Australian product that is a blend of coconut and rice. You can substitute it for regular coconut milk.

  • Esz

    I was just about to post the same article. :-D

    • JenniferZ

      I’m sure Stirring Change’s ‘what to eat’ program has some answers. Looks awesome to me :)

  • Ben Purdie

    From my research there is only one company in the world that presses truly raw cacao powder and butter and that is Big Tree Farms based in Bali. All the south American cacao is being pressed on the old cocoa presses which DO NOT cold press. Even David Wolfe has checked out the Big Tree Farms facility on Bali. Check it out as you are more than likely eating cocoa not cacao anyway. Ben

  • Dalek00775

    I mix with coconut oil and honey and peppermint extract for melt in your mouth chocolate.

  • Adina

    I understand the health difference. However when cooking can they be used interchangeably?

    • IQS_Team

      Hello Adina,
      Yes they can be used interchangeably in recipes.

  • San Man

    While eating raw product has benefits, to relate raw potatoes and the like to Cacao is dangerous. The Salmonella content of raw cacao is very high. By not processing (heat) the ingredient you can be exposed at a much higher rate than from more common non-tropical vegetables. As Nestle and the major recall the needed 18 months ago.
    With all due respect to the ORAC opinion, the cost benefit analysis firmly falls into the do not consume category for cacao. Heat processing may not be ideal for some but for the masses it is an insurance policy against turning into a human fountain or worse. Good luck true believers!

  • Leone Loechner

    Hi there
    This is the breakfast I have been having for about four months now:
    1/2 cup almond milk, 1 egg, 20g protein using whey protein powder, 20g walnuts, 2 heaped teaspoons cacao powder, 1 dessert spoon Benefibre, 1 teaspoon stevia, handful of ice cubes – into the NutriBullet for 30 seconds and then enjoy!
    For 15 years I have had a lapband, and still very overweight. Also my hair had fallen out a lot over the years. I am beginning to see my hair grow back, and my inner self is much calmer these days. I am also beginning to lose weight, something that hasn’t happened in a long time.
    The benefits of good nutrition are becoming evident and I wish I had have found this concoction years ago. I hope others out there with failed lap bands can read this and at least try this recipe, they will feel much better for it!

  • Aruna

    can I use raw cacao in brownies and chocolate cakes. If so should I reduce the butter quantity since cocoa butter is not separated from the cacao.

    • IQS_Team

      Hey there Aruna,
      The cacao butter is separated from the cacao powder, which is why you can buy cacao butter, the fat from the cacao bean. In cooking, simply swap cocoa for cacao and leave the remaining ingredients as is!

  • Spyral Storm

    I mix cacao powder in with my coffee, and also make a cacao cinnamon peanut butter banana mush with hemp nuts sprinkled in for a breakfast treat! I know it’s a weird combination, but by George! It is soooooooo geeeerrrrrd mmmmmmmm……..

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