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 one of them refers to a plant, and the other refers to products made from its beans. 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. It can also refer to the beans of this plant. 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

When to Use Cocoa

cocoa powder vs cacaoWhat does cocoa mean? Cocoa is a chocolate powder made from roasted and ground cacao seeds. So, while cacao refers to the plant itself, cocoa is the powder that is made from its seeds.

The standard terms are,

  • Cocoa butter.
  • Cacao bean.


  • 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

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 or its beans.
  • Cocoa is refers to products derived from them.

Since cacao plants are native to South America, remember that cacao contains two A’s, like America.


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.
  • Cocoa is a drink made from the powdered beans of this tree, or several other products.

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