Although these two chocolatey substances are spelled nearly identically, there is a significant difference between cocoa and cacao, especially when you’re using it in a recipe. Both cocoa and cacao come from the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), which is found in tropical regions of Central and South America.
The fruit of the tree is called a cacao pod, which contains roughly 40 beans (which are then processed). The outer lining of the inside of the cacao bean is the fattiest part, referred to as cacao butter, which is taken out during the processing and separated from the cacao nibs, which are the tiny edible parts of the bean. You can purchase cacao nibs, cacao paste (which is made by heating and grinding cacao nibs to make a rich paste that is dried and contains all of the nutrients and flavors of raw cacao), and cacao powder.
Cacao is essentially the purest form of chocolate that you can eat. It is an excellent source of antioxidants, fiber, monounsaturated fats, and contains high levels of magnesium. The key difference between cacao and cocoa? Heat. Cocoa powder is almost identical to cacao powder, except for that it has been processed at a much higher temperature heat. The higher heat destroys some of the nutritional value, and often packaged cocoa that you can purchase in supermarkets contains added sugar.
Some cocoa powder goes through a process called Dutch processing, where the cocoa powder is processed with an alkalized solution, which reduces the bitterness and makes it less acidic. Dutch-processed cocoa is the preferred type for making hot chocolate, but is often called for in recipes for baked goods as well. Dutched cocoa powder has a reduced acidity (7 on the pH scale) and one thing you need to watch out for when baking with it is whether or not your recipe contains baking soda and/or baking powder. Recipes using Dutch-processed cocoa powder often only call for baking powder, which has a neutral pH.
Tired of reading about cacao and want to taste the difference yourself? Check out these 7 recipes for some cocoa and cacoa-filled treats.
1. Dark Chocolate Avocado Mousse with Coconut Cream
A rich chocolate mousse made with avocados? Believe it. This is a truly decadent vegan dessert that you can feel good about since it contains two whole avocados. Get our Dark Chocolate Avocado Mousse with Coconut Cream recipe.
2. Chocolate-Peanut Butter Cake
This chocolate Bundt cake has a swirl of creamy peanut butter and is topped with a shiny, bittersweet chocolate glaze. It doesn’t get much better than this chocolate-peanut butter combo. Get our Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake recipe.
3. Tropical Fruit Salad with Cacao Nibs
This tropical fruit salad is a quick dessert that you can serve with very little preparation. Bananas, kiwi, mango, papaya, and lime juice are combined with crunchy cacao nibs and toasted hazelnuts for added texture. Get our Tropical Fruit Salad recipe.
4. Superseed Bar
Cocoa powder isn’t just for desserts; these superseed bars are packed full of nutritious ingredients like almonds, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, chia seeds, Medjool dates, and flax seed meal. You can store these bars at room temperature for up to three days in an airtight container or keep them wrapped individually in the freezer for a grab-and-go snack. Get our Superseed Bar recipe.
5. Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes
With a full bottle of Guinness stout in the batter and almost a cup of sour cream, these are some extremely rich cupcakes. Combined with the cream cheese frosting, these chocolate cupcakes are a real showstopper and are great paired with an Irish coffee for a St. Paddy’s Day-inspired dessert. Get our Chocolate Guinness Cupcakes recipe.
6. Cocoa-Cayenne Pepper Balls
Cayenne pepper, orange zest, cocoa powder, and vanilla make for a flavorful popcorn ball that that only takes minutes to assemble. You can make 3-inch rounds as the recipe suggests or make a series of small, miniature balls and double your fun (they make great gifts too!). Get our Cocoa-Cayenne Pepper Balls recipe.
7. Devil’s Food Cake
A perfect birthday cake, this Devil’s Food layer cake is made with almost a full cup of unsweetened cocoa powder and ¾ cup of hot coffee (or espresso) to bring out the chocolate flavor. Get our Devil's Food Cake recipe.