Difference between cacao and cocoa
We view cacao as sacred. Traditional. To be handled with special care. Cacao is something we see many people doing ceremonies with because it is said to bring about feelings of happiness and sheer openness. Yes, openness! They call cacao a true heart opener. This is not because it is so good for the heart (it is) but because of the effect of serotonin it can have on the body. It really is a beautiful thing.
The cacao world can be controversial, that is why above all you always want to source from a company that uses sustainable and ethical farming and goes beyond fair trade. Cacao is meant to carry energy, and you want it to arrive to you knowing it came from Farmers who were paid well, treated the land with much respect, and gave their cacao beans all the love it deserves.
When our Founder, Karen, first entered the portion of the processing facility where our own Peruvian Criollo cacao is prepared, she described it like “walking into a chocolate dream.” Everything from start to finish is so meticulously cared for.
One of the questions that frequently arises when talking about cacao is this: is cacao the same thing as cocoa? The short answer is not really, no. The long answer? It starts from the same place, and it all has to do with processing. Everything we know as chocolate starts off in the same place--it starts with the Theobroma cacao tree. The tree is native to South America, and grows throughout places in Mexico, along the Amazon, and of course in our native Peru.
The most sacred of all the cacaos is Criollo Cacao.
Most people are very familiar with cocoa powder. It is a staple in kitchen pantries and is used for baking. Cocoa powder is the base for hot cocoa, chocolate cake, even chocolate milk. It is typically roasted, ground, and then infused with other ingredients for preservation and to extend the shelf-life. Cocoa powder can live for a long time in your pantry without any off-flavors or issues.
Cocoa powder is heat-processed in order to produce the flavor profile most of us are looking for when we bake or use cocoa products. The cacao beans are roasted at higher temperatures for longer periods of time. This not only changes the taste, but actually changes the beans on a molecular level. A lot of the health benefits, then, are lost through the roasting process.
Are there any benefits to cocoa?
Many of the antioxidant benefits of cacao is lost during this process. That's not to say that cocoa powder is inherently bad. Some cocoa powders are better than others. For example, Dutch processed cocoa is further processed to remove some of the acidity from the product. With Dutch processed cocoa, you lose even more of the health benefits of the raw product. Natural cocoa is slightly less processed, though it is slightly more acidic. Many recipes that call for natural cocoa powder have added baking soda to neutralize the acidity of the finished product. Additionally, cocoa powder will often contain other additives such as hydrogenated oils, dairy products, and even refined sugars.
Something to note: it is so easy to swap out cocoa for cacao! Truly, you can just swap it out gram for gram and if you are missing a sweetness you can simply add in maple syrup or honey. That will give you extra benefits as well.
Cacao powder is derived from minimally processed cacao beans. It is essentially the purest form of chocolate you can consume. Cacao powder contains more fiber and calories than standard cocoa powder, but it is also loaded with antioxidants and flavonoids. The health benefits of cacao powder have been very thoroughly studied and are well documented. One of the key ingredients, theobromine, is noted for the ability to help focus, keep weight at a healthy place, and reduce cell oxidation. It's quite extraordinary that a food we see as indulgent can have such incredible benefits to our overall health and wellness!
Processing cacao beans into cacao powder involves a lower-temperature roasting process than for traditional cocoa powder. A 2011 study has found cacao seeds to be a "super fruit" in part because of this minimal processing. By limiting exposure to high temperatures, the healthiest parts of the cacao seeds are left intact. The resulting product is one that is incredibly high in fiber, phytonutrients, magnesium, antioxidants, and is incredibly good for you.
Benefits of Cacao Powder
Cacao offers many additional benefits over cocoa, and much of the benefit is a result of less heat. The heat that treats cocoa beans for regular cocoa breaks down some of the molecules that make it a superfood. We see that once the cocoa beans have been exposed to high temperatures, it loses some of its phytonutrients as well as some of the magnesium and fiber.
So how does cacao get turned into a powder? Just like cocoa, it starts with the beans. The cacao beans are either lightly roasted or left wholly unroasted. The beans are then pressed to remove the fattiest parts (we see the by-product of cacao butter) and then the beans are crushed into smaller pieces (nibs) or ground into a powder (cacao powder). In the coming months, we will be bringing all of these cacao products into the United States as well!
Using cacao instead of cocoa
If you're looking for healthier options that are indulgent and better for you, you can absolutely substitute cocoa powder for cacao powder. The finished product will be similar in texture and taste, but have greater health benefits for you along the way. That means you can indulge without the guilt. While raw cacao may be slightly less versatile in bean form than processed cocoa, its health benefits are far greater. When working specifically with cocoa powder versus cacao powder, you can do a simple swap to make your chocolate dishes healthier and more guilt-free!
Other fun notes about cacao
-Cacao is especially important for vegans and vegetarians to get in because gram for gram it is higher in Iron than anything else on the planet. What you will want to do is pair it with a Vitamin C (like Camu Camu) so that it is more bioavailable. Unfortunately all plant based iron is non-heme so you do need the Vitamin C to increase potency of the iron.
-Criollo Cacao from Peru is extra special because Peru houses the most diverse microclimates in the world! This means more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants!
-Due to the fiber in cacao, it is also great for gut health! Cacao is so much more than a decadent treat- it houses so many vitamins and minerals that the gut loves and that in and of itself makes it a true longevity food.