If you've heard of cacao and its health benefits, you've probably also wondered, is cacao different than cocoa? Given baking cocoa's prevalence in America for decades, most Americans are familiar with it. But now there is this newcomer superfood, cacao, and it has many confused! So we are here to sort through the noise and bring some clarity.
Cacao v. Cocoa - the plant.
Cacao and cocoa are from the exact same source - both come from the cacao bean of the Theobroma cacao tree. So to be crystal clear here, there is absolutely no difference in the source plant and raw material of products labeled cacao or cocoa.
Cacao v. Cocoa - native languages.
One of the first sources of difference in using cacao v. cocoa is the native language of the speaker.
The original name "cacao" came from the Spanish interpretation of either the Mayan word for it, kakaw, or the Aztec word, cacahuatl (depending on the scholar you ask).
Today, in regions where Spanish is the predominant language, the word "cacao" is used (or cacau in Portuguese), whereas in regions of English dominance, "cocoa".
tldr: cacao came from the Spanish interpretation to native Central American terminology, and cocoa is the anglicized word.
There are even myths that cacao became cocoa in English through misprints in a ship ledger. So it goes...
Cacao v. Cocoa - processing.
Many people say that cacao is less processed and cocoa is over-processed, making cacao good and cocoa bad. This can be the case, but is not the rule! There is no labeling guideline around using cacao v. cocoa, so it is also possible that there is a low-quality product labeled "cacao" and a high-quality product labeled "cocoa".
What is more important to understand is what processing the product you are buying went through. There are amazing chocolate makers, processors, etc. in the US that prefer the name of cocoa, and have wonderful products that are labeled as such.
As a consumer, in our opinion, you want cacao that was grown in bio-diverse environments, in organic and healthy soil, and fermented and dried with care and skill. These factors have far more implications than the terminology of cacao or cocoa on their packaging.
Cacao v. Cocoa - chocolate makers views.
Of the many US-based chocolate makers we've spoken to, the most common term used is cocoa, unless referring to the "cacao tree" or "cacao fruit". Predominantly, once it has been fermented and dried, it has become a "cocoa bean", and all other derivatives from it, i.e. powder, butter, paste, are referred to as cocoa powder, cocoa butter, etc. by chocolate makers.
An important note here is that craft chocolate makers are sourcing the best cacao / cocoa beans in the world. That is their differentiating factor. So if a chocolate maker refers to it as a "cocoa bean", that does not have any indication of the quality!
Linguistically, cacao and cocoa are interchangeable. However, given the low quality and high processing of many legacy cocoa products, cacao has become more commonly associated with high quality and less processed cacao products. That being said, there is no hard and fast rule around it, so the best thing to do as a consumer is research the company and their sourcing to best understand the quality of the cacao / cocoa products you are consuming!
Much love and if you have any questions or thoughts, please let us know in the comments below! 🙏💕🍫