Cacao vs. Cocoa – What’s the Difference?

Delicious hot drinks are a staple in many cultures. Coffee, tea, hot buttered rum, and many other drinks make cold nights around the fire more enjoyable.

What’s that chocolate-flavored drink in your mug? Is it cacao or cocoa?

These words are actually very closely related, but they refer to different products. If you are ordering at a trendy, upscale café, there may be little or no difference between them at all, but if you are a careful writer (and I know you are), you will need to know the difference between these confusing words.

What is the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

The cocoa vs. cacao choice is confusing for many writers, so, in this article, I will discuss the important differences between these words.

I will include several example sentences that show how writers likely use both of these words. I’ll also include a mnemonic device that simplifies choosing cocoa or cacao.

When to Use Cacao

cocoa powder vs cacao powderWhat does cacao mean? Cacao refers to a tropical plant that is native to South America: the Theobroma cacao tree.

It can also refer to the beans of this plant and a specific type of product made from the beans. Cacao is also the name of two South American cities.

The beans of the cacao plant are prized the world over for their distinctive flavor and aroma. They are the main ingredient of chocolate and are also used to make cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and other products.

The sentences below show cacao in context.

  • Although the cacao plant is native to South America, African countries represented three of the top five exporters of cacao in 2005.
  • Most of the time, if you want pure cocoa powder, you should make sure the label says “100% cacao.”
  • The integrity of a cherished Brooklyn-based brand of craft chocolate bar has been called into question after a food blogger published a four-part series of posts this month that accused the two brothers who founded it of faking how they learned to grind their cacao beans, the ingredients in their candy and even their beards. –The New York Times

Cacao products: Cacao can also refer to a specific type of product made from the cacao bean. If a product is made by cold pressing non-roasted cacao seeds, it is said to be cacao. This further differentiates it from cocoa (more on this below).

When to Use Cocoa

cocoa powder vs cacaoWhat does cocoa mean? Cocoa is a chocolate powder (among other things) made from roasted and ground cacao seeds.

So, while cacao refers to the plant itself and the products made from non-roasted seeds, cocoa products are made from roasting its seeds.

The standard terms are,

  • Cocoa butter.
  • Cacao bean.

-not-

  • Cacao butter
  • Cocoa bean.

Cocoa powder is what people use to make hot chocolate, among other drinks.

In the English sentence, cocoa can be a noun or an adjective.

As a noun, cocoa usually means a hot, creamy drink flavored with chocolate. The sentences below are examples:

  • Before I go to bed, I like to have a mug of hot cocoa.
  • Cocoa makes a cold winter night feel festive and cozy.

As an adjective, cocoa usually denotes products made from or related to cocoa, like cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and others. You can see more examples in the sentences below.

  • I used cocoa butter to make a batch of cookies, but they didn’t turn out very well.
  • If you mix cocoa powder with hot, frothy milk, you will get a nice, chocolatey drink to enjoy on a cold day.
  • The cost of two crucial ingredients in chocolate, cocoa butter and sugar, has risen sharply this year. –The Wall Street Journal

Difference in Processing

As I briefly mentioned above, there is a technical difference between these two terms from a food processing perspective. While both products come from the cacao plant and its seeds, cacao and cocoa products are made using a different processes.

  • Cacao powder is made by cold pressing non-roasted cacao beans.
  • Cocoa powder is raw cacao that has been roasted at high temperatures.

While the end product of each looks the same to the eye, the heat used in the cocoa-making process affects the cacao beans at the molecular level, removing some of its enzymes. What you have left is a sweeter product that is more commonly used in baking (cocoa).

Cacao retains more of the natural antioxidants of the beans themselves.

Trick to Remember the Difference

cacao versus cocoaIt’s easy to remember cacao vs. cocoa because they refer to different things.

  • Cacao refers to the plant, its beans, or a product using non-roasted beans.
  • Cocoa is refers to products derived from roasted beans.

Since cocoa and roasted only have one A in them, you should be able to remember this easily.

Summary

Is it cacao or cocoa? These terms are beginning to have some overlap, but in general, they have separate usage cases and cannot be substituted for each other.

  • Cacao is a type of evergreen tree native to South America.
    • Cacao products are made from non-roasted beans.
  • Cocoa is a drink made from the powdered beans of this tree, or several other products.
    • Cocoa products are made from roasted beans.

To conclude: South Americans (and Africans) grow cacao; people all over the world drink cocoa.

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