Cacao and cocoa do sound similar but if you listen carefully, you might just tell that there is a difference between cocoa and cacao.
The difference in the way cocoa vs cacao roll of the tongue may be subtle but there is a distinction in their make-up and constitution.
First, let’s learn a thing or two about how cacao is sourced before we talk about the cacao vs cocoa difference.
Cacao and cocoa come from the same parent plant. The scientific name of the plant from which cocoa or cacao beans come from is Theobroma Cacao.
This Theobroma cacao is the source of all the chocolate and chocolate-related products that you love so much. You need to be grateful for its existence.
The parent plant is a cacao fruit tree. This cacao fruit tree grows usually in tropical parts of the world. The cacao plant and cacao fruit yield is affected by ambient temperature as well as flooding events per growing season.
Cacao is a major foreign exchange earner for a lot of these 3rd world countries in the field of commodity trading.
Tropical countries in West Africa and South America are thankful to the Western world for the increased demand for cacao products which of course includes chocolate. This increase in demand has been on-going since 2006. Increased demand means an evergreen market translating to good business for these poor farmers in these countries.
When you eat chocolate (within reason that is), you are in fact helping one or two farmers in those countries.
What is Cacao?
Cacao is any derivative product that originates from the cacao bean. The cacao bean is harvested from the inside of the cacao fruit. Each cacao fruit is a pod and each cacao pod can contain between 20 to 60 cacao beans.
In answering the question on how many cacao beans in a pod, the answer would be an average of 50 cacao beans based on the above observation.
A 400-gm cacao pod (the average weight of the pod) is capable of yielding about 40 gm of dried cacao beans and this will in turn yield a 2-ounce bar of 70% dark chocolate.
> Derivatives of the cacao bean will include cacao powder, cacao paste, cacao butter and cacao nibs.
Cacao is made from the cacao bean. Cacao is the raw form of the cacao bean that has been cold pressed to release the powder. This cold pressing process separates the powder from the outer layer of the cacao bean.
This outer layer of the bean is where the fat in cacao bean is stored. This outer layer is creamy in texture, whitish in colour and it is from this layer that cacao butter is made.
> Cold pressing the cacao bean preserves 100% of the nutritional value of the bean, hence if you were to have a choice of cacao vs cocoa, the obvious pick of the day would have to be cacao.
Cacao is untouched, unprocessed and natural with the nourishing elements intact.
What is Cocoa?
If you have been to your supermarket and picked up some powder from the cacao family, then it is likely you bought the cocoa powder. That said, these days some stores are now selling the original cacao powder in the organic form.
Cocoa powder is a derivative of cacao bean that has been processed. When you heat cacao powder to very high temperatures, the end product is cocoa powder.
The cacao powder develops a lighter colour and flavour through a process of roasting the cacao beans to make the cocoa powder.
How much moisture is retained, what temperature to roast the beans and the duration of roasting is determined by the type of end-product that is desired.
> This process of roasting does lead to changes in the constitution of the original cacao bean which means loss of some of the phytonutrients essential for optimal health.
Here is what we can deduct from this. As far as the cacao vs cocoa debate is concerned, Cacao is way more nutritionally superior to cocoa. Cacao is unprocessed whilst cocoa is processed. The processing is what makes the difference between cacao and cocoa.
Something to wary of is the type of cocoa powder you purchase from your local supermarket. You need to look at the nutritional information that is on the packet. As you probably know, any food that is processed usually means something else has been added.
That something else added may include sugars, preservatives, trans fat oils, dairy and saturated fat. Once you have any of those ingredients, it is no longer pure cocoa powder. The choice to proceed with the purchase would then depend on how health conscious you are.
What are cacao nibs?
Cacao nibs refer to the original cacao bean that has been split up into smaller chips. It is still cacao that is unprocessed and therefore has all the nutritional value of cacao including fiber and other phytonutrients.
If you bite on the cacao nibs, you will experience the regular bitter taste that unprocessed cacao powder possesses.
When cacao nibs are used in the making of cacao products, the nibs have to go through a process of alkalisation using potassium carbonate to intensify the depth of the flavour and colour.
What is Cacao butter?
As said earlier cold pressing of the cacao bean usually results in the production of cacao butter, although most people will unwittingly refer to this as cocoa butter. Strictly speaking, it is cacao butter.
> The cacao is first liquidized and subjected to cold pressing. This cold pressing separates the butter in the bean from the rest of the solid component called cacao presscake.
This is the stage where cocoa product manufacturers get a little crafty. Some manufacturers will press hard enough to remove all of the butter but some others will press a little bit less to retain some of the buttery fat in the cacao presscake.
If you taste the cacao butter, it tastes just like white chocolate and it is creamy both in taste and texture.
Hence you can eat the cacao butter by using it to cook or bake and you can also use it for your skin as a nice moisturiser. Talk about multi-use!
Cacao vs Cocoa and cacao powder vs cocoa powder ?
As stated earlier cacao powder made from cacao bean that is largely untouched and unprocessed unlike cocoa powder that has been processed by alkalisation, fermenting and heating.
That means cacao powder will still have all the natural calories and nutrients available when consumed compared to cocoa powder which in essence is a reduced form of cacao.
> You get all the nutrients in cacao powder – the carbs, the protein, the fat mainly unsaturated fat, the vitamins and the minerals. Cocoa powder will still have some of those nutrient but in significantly less amounts.
Which brings us nicely to the health benefits of cacao.
What are the Health benefits of cacao?
When it comes to the health benefits of cacao, it is very easy to get carried away by the potential advantages of using cacao.
Yes, it is true that cacao has some proven health benefits but it is important to point out that these studies quoted in your newspapers, magazines, health websites are studies of the unprocessed cacao products.
>> The regular cacao products you get in your local supermarket are not the foods used in these studies. So, there’s some extrapolation going on.
Why does this matter?
Well, let’s just say the “cacao products” on your supermarket shelf are actually processed products, so they are not the original cacao, if you get my drift. They are cocoa products not cacao.
The devil is in the detail!
That said, here are the health benefits of cacao.
Cacao slows down aging
Oxidative agents and free radicals accelerate the ageing process and if you can find something that attacks and neutralizes these free radicals, then you have yourself a recipe for slowing down or at least prevent premature aging.
Anti-oxidants perform this function very well and cacao has been analysed to contain more anti-oxidants than your green tea, your black tea and your red wine. This is confirmed by the analytical study here
Cacao is the boss when it comes to anti-oxidants.
Cacao Increases Insulin Sensitivity
Epicatechin and Cocoa phenolic extract were studied in this research activity to see if cacao will have an effect on glucose tolerance. Turns out cacao does promote insulin sensitivity.
Cacao performs its glucose metabolism effect at the level of the liver. Cacao activates the insulin signalling process in the liver cells by boosting the activity of the proteins that stop the unnecessary production of glucose in the liver.
> Stopping the unnecessary production of glucose by the liver cells is one of the pathways that regulates how much glucose is available in the blood circulation. The overall effect is low normal blood glucose.
This step is particularly important in the reversal of insulin resistance, prevention and management of type 2 diabetes.
Cacao prevents heart attacks and reduces blood pressure
Aging hardens our arteries, hence the incidence of high blood pressure is higher in the older age group.
The flavonols in cacao have been studied in the past and have been shown to improve blood vessel elasticity in the high-risk group of patients.
Patients known to have high blood pressure, those who smoke and people who have had hardening of the blood vessels that supply the heart muscle have been studied and cacao flavonols were proven to relax blood vessels in those group of individuals.
The question that hasn’t been answered in studies was whether cacao flavonols would help individuals in the low risk i.e more of the general population.
Well, this review showed a study that gave cacao-flavonol containing drinks to a younger age group < 35 years of age and an older age group (50-80 years old) and matched them with similar age group controls.
The control group were given flavonol-free drinks.
The study demonstrated that cacao flavonol was capable of relaxing the blood vessels in both the younger and older age groups. That’s pretty much the general population.
Relaxed blood vessels lead to better blood flow through our blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure and in turn reduces your risk of having a heart attack.
Here is one study conclusion:
> “In addition, taking flavanols decreased blood pressure (systolic by 4.4 mmHg, diastolic by 3.9 mmHg), and improved the blood cholesterol profile by decreasing total cholesterol (by 0.2 mmol/L), decreasing LDL cholesterol (by 0.17 mmol/L), and increasing HDL cholesterol (by 0.1 mmol/L)”
This view that cacao protects you against heart attacks by virtue of the flavonol content of cacao is also supported by this study.
Cacao prevents and lifts up low mood
It is not a myth when people say “Have a chocolate” when your mood is somewhat low. It is based on previous studies. This is a bit of a stretch of the truth though.
Why…because cacao is what is proven to prevent and lift up low mood, not chocolate. Remember, chocolate is a processed food – a processed form of cacao, not the real cacao.
However, the theory behind the saying is that cacao contains a compound called phenylethylamine. Phenylethylamine is very good for mood as it supports the production of dopamine (the “feel good” neurotransmitter) in the brain.
More dopamine availability in the brain results in a happier disposition. Also, have you noticed that when you feel happy, you have more energy too? Talk about a double whammy!
Cacao may lower the risk of cancer, alzheimer, multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune conditions like arthritis
We have already established that cacao has lots of anti-oxidants like flavonoids. The use of oxygen which is necessary for our existence through the process of metabolism inevitably results in the production of oxidants called reactive oxygen species (ROS).
The Reactive Oxygen Species in low amounts is not usually a problem but in high amounts cause inflammatory reaction in the body. This is one mechanism how cancer, neurodegenerative diseases like alzheimers, parkinsons, multiple sclerosis and autoimmune diseases like rhematoid arthritis come about.
Beta-amyloid is a destructive protein found in the brains of alzheimer patients and research has proven conclusively that oxidative stress does lead to the production of beta-amyloid. Mop up these oxidative free radicals and you will be protecting your brain. Not only that, you will reduce your risk of developing inflammatory conditions too.
Anti-oxidants like flavonols from cacao do a good job of mopping up these free radicals which ultimately reduces your risk of developing these disabling chronic diseases.
So, consuming cacao regularly puts you in the driving seat of keeping these chronic diseases off your door step.
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