What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

published Feb 14, 2022
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Whether you’re an amateur baker just trying to get cake basics down or a seasoned expert in the kitchen, you’ve probably used cocoa in some form. Among the staples of baking, cocoa powder ranks high on the list. If you’ve thoroughly browsed the baking aisle of your local store, though, you’ve likely also come across cacao, which has become more readily available in recent years.

Because the spelling of cocoa and cacao only differs in the placement of a couple of vowels — and because they come from the same plant — it’s easy to confuse them. But while cocoa and cacao are closely related, it’s important to understand the differences. 

What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa?

Cacao

cacao nibs


Cocoa most commonly refers to the powder that you’re used to baking with. To make cocoa powder, the cacao beans are first fermented and then roasted at a high temperature. After that, they are crushed into small pieces called cocoa nibs, which are then ground into a thick paste called cocoa liquor. From here, the cocoa liquor is pressed to separate both cocoa butter and cocoa solids — these solids (which do still contain a bit of cocoa butter) are then used to make cocoa powder. Cocoa powder comes in different forms, including natural and Dutch-process cocoa powders, as well as black cocoa (which is particularly great for creating rich, intense, chocolatey baked goods).

Which Is Better for Your Health — Cacao or Cocoa?

Although many sources claim that cacao is healthier than cocoa, partially because it’s less processed, more research would be needed to confirm this claim. The good news is that cocoa and chocolate products in general have been linked to various health benefits, including boosting heart health, and improving cognition and mood. (Of course cacao and cocoa are frequently accompanied by sugar, so if you are eating them purely for health reasons, that’s worth taking into consideration.) 

Do Cacao and Cocoa Taste the Same?

Not quite! They both have a noticeable chocolate taste, but cacao has a more earthy flavor, similar to a super-rich dark chocolate. Cocoa is generally sweeter and less bitter than cacao.

Can You Substitute Cacao Powder for Cocoa Powder?

You can substitute cacao powder for cocoa powder in some cases, but you’ll need to take into account their different flavors and attributes. For example, if you’re making hot chocolate, you’ll likely want to use less cacao powder than cocoa powder because of cacao’s more bitter, intense flavor — you might also find you need to add more sweetener if you are using cacao. Cacao powder is a nice addition to smoothies, milkshakes, oatmeal, yogurt, and no-cook puddings (like chia pudding) that don’t require precise measurements.

When it comes to baking, the story is a little more complicated. Kitchn Associate Food Editor Nicole Rufus often swaps cacao for cocoa when baking for friends who follow a Paleo diet, as cacao is considered Paleo (while cocoa often isn’t). She’s had great success with this and says the most noticeable difference is a richer flavor when she uses cacao. That said, we don’t advise arbitrarily swapping cacao powder one-to-one for cocoa powder because it can react differently with ingredients like baking powder than cocoa powder does. So, when you want to make the perfect batch of brownies or the ultimate chocolate cake — and you’re not in the mood for experimentation — we suggest following the recipe as written and reaching for that cocoa powder! 

A Word about Cacao Nibs

In addition to seeing cacao powder, you might also see bags of cacao nibs in the baking section of your grocery store. Cacao nibs are not as sweet as chocolate (since they have no added sugar), but they do have a rich, chocolatey flavor. They’re great sprinkled on oatmeal and added to granola or muesli, and can also be used in baking — try them in place of chocolate chips cookies, granola bars, and more.