On initial impressions it might seem like the only real difference between cacao and cocoa is the spelling. But there’s a little more to it than that…
What is cacao?
Cacao can refer to any of the food products derived from cacao beans – the seeds or nuts of the cacao tree. These include cacao nibs, cacao butter, cacao mass or paste and (probably the most common) cacao powder.
Cacao v cocoa powder.
Raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. This process keeps the 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.
The studies that boast of chocolate’s amazing health benefits are likely not referring to your average store-bought chocolate bar (damn misleading researchers). The chocolate that they’re referring to has properties closer to raw cacao.
What are the health benefits of cacao?
Cacao powder is known to have a higher antioxidant content than cocoa, and has been linked to a variety of benefits. (Note: many scientific studies, like those below, refer to the superior health benefits of “cocoa”. However, most of these use isolated and purified compounds from cocoa. These compounds don’t resemble sugary supermarket cocoa, and are very similar to raw cacao in form.)
These studies have shown that the compounds:
- Lower insulin resistance.
- Protect 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.
- Shield nerve cells from damage.
- Cut your risk of stroke.
- Lower blood pressure.
- Reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease: The antioxidants found in cacao help to maintain healthy levels of nitric oxide (NO) in the body. Although NO has heart-benefiting qualities, such as relaxing blood vessels and reducing blood pressure, it also produces toxins. The antioxidants in cacao neutralise these toxins, protecting your heart and preventing disease.
- Guard 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 per cent of the weight of raw cacao.
- Boost your mood: Cacao can increase levels of certain neurotransmitters that promote a sense of wellbeing. And the same brain chemical that is released when we experience deep feelings of love – phenylethylamine – is found in chocolate.
- Provide 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. There is no current research 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 starting off with the product in its raw form, has to be more beneficial than starting with an already heated and processed equivalent.
Let’s end with an interesting tidbit.
We originally published this article in February 2014. We updated it in May 2016.