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Cacao vs. Cocoa: What's the Difference?

Despite the similarities in their spelling, cacao and cocoa are two very different ingredients. All of the chocolate products you eat are derived from cacao seeds in some form or another, which are derived from the cacao plant — an evergreen tree that grows in South America and West Africa. Cacao seeds grow in large pods on the trunks of these trees.

But Not All that Glitters is Cacao

Dark chocolate may look like cacao, but it's actually not.

Despite coming from the same plant, cacao and cocoa have numerous differences. Cacao is a pure form of chocolate that comes very close to the raw and natural state in which it is harvested (One Green Planet, n.d.). While the natural nature of cacao would seem to limit its versatility, the product actually comes in several forms.

When the cacao beans are released from their pods, they are sometimes blended into cacao butter. Cacao butter contains the fatty part of the cacao fruit and is white in color. The remainder of the fruit is used to make raw cacao powder. It is also possible to purchase cacao nibs, which are cacao beans that have been chopped into smaller pieces. These are similar to chocolate chips although much more intense in their chocolatey flavor.

So, if it's possible to process the seeds and still call it cacao then what change draws the distinction between this natural food and the more-common cacoa? The answer is simple: cocoa has been processed with high heat.

Cocoa refers to the powder that is commonly seen in American supermarkets and stirred into beverages. The process used to create cocoa entails applying high heat to raw cacao, which destroys some of the beneficial nutrients it contains. However, even after this process, cocoa still has several beneficial nutritional properties (One Green Planet, n.d.).

One concern to watch out for when seeking these benefits, however, is the way in which many manufacturers supplement their cocoa powder with added sugar, oil, or milk fat. Be sure to seek out cocoa products have little or no added ingredients.

So, What Exactly ARE the Benefits of Raw Cacao?

I would eat this batter, which contains— but is not itself— raw cacao.

Because they come from a seed, both cocoa and cacao are excellent sources of fiber. They also contain some protein while having relatively low fat content. Although cocoa has some nutritional benefits, they are far outweighed by the nutritional properties of raw cacao (Menato, 2016).

Cacao Can Mitigate Risk of Diabetes, Hypertension and More

Raw cacao is an excellent source of magnesium. Getting enough magnesium is not only associated with lower risk of diabetes, but it also healthy blood pressure, strong bones, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and healthy nervous system activity (Volpe, 2014).

It Can Reduce Inflammation and Support Heart Health

Flavonoids are a class of antioxidants that are abundant in both cacao and cocoa powder. Flavonoids inhibit pro-inflammatory enzymes in the body, meaning that they have a widespread anti-inflammatory effect (WHFoods, 2014). Additionally, flavonoids have been associated with higher levels of “healthy” HDL cholesterol and better overall cardiovascular health (Menato, 2016).

Eating More Can Help You Meet Your Dietary Iron Needs

Cacao is a great source of iron, which helps your body transport oxygen molecules to your tissue.

Eating More Cacao Can Improve Your Mood

Cacao contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which is sometimes known as a “love drug.” Although PEA cannot technically make you fall in love, it is associated with elevated mood and higher energy levels. This is thought to be due to the interaction between PEA and the neurotransmitter dopamine, which regulates the brain’s reward response (Menato, 2016).

So, cacao and cocoa can support your wellbeing, but is eating cocoa in chocolate bars really good for your health?

What Are the Healthiest Ways to Enjoy Cacao and Cocoa?

Baking coffee muffins is just one way to use cacao!

Cacao and cocoa are both excellent additions to your diet because of their nutritional qualities. There are several ways to use these forms of chocolate:

  • Baked goods. Raw cacao powder and cocoa powder can be used interchangeably in baked goods, so swapping out cocoa for the more healthsome cacao can help keep your desserts healthy. Just one or two tablespoons go a long way toward adding an intense chocolate flavor to your brownies or cakes.
  • Smoothies. Raw cacao nibs are excellent when blended into smoothies. Add a heaping spoonful of the nibs to your favorite fruit smoothie for a chocolatey treat that supports your health goals.
  • Snack mix. The slightly bitter taste of cacao makes a great counterpart to the sweetness of dried fruits. Toss together your favorite nuts, dried fruits, and a small handful of cacao nibs for an antioxidant-rich snack.
  • Homemade coffee drinks. Craving some caffeine but trying to avoid the sugary drinks at your local coffeeshop? Cacao powder is a fantastic addition to your favorite coffee beverage, creating a chocolatey mocha without a lot of added sugar.
  • Dairy-free chocolate ice cream. When blended, frozen bananas create a creamy, dairy-free treat that is very similar in texture to regular ice cream. Adding cacao or cocoa powder to your blender with the bananas makes an excellent ice cream. Check out our cacao and cocoa recipes below for two delectable varieties that put cacao to good use!

Cacao and Cocoa Recipes

Check out these recipes that make use of that superbly rich cacao as nibs or powder for a chocolatey treat that will make your tastebuds say “Wow!”

Matcha Green Tea Pancakes

Matcha Green Tea Pancakes Recipe {gluten-free}

Cocao powder is blended with maple syrup and coconut oil to create a sweet chocolate syrup that perfectly complements the surprising savor of these potent matcha pancakes. Its quick 15 minute cook time also ensures you can wake up with this sweet treat any day!
Ingredients: Almond milk, brown rice flour, egg, sugar, coconut oil, matcha green tea powder, hemp protein powder, butter, greek yogurt, walnuts, almonds, banana chips, cranberries, golden raisins, maple syrup, cacao powder, baking powder.
Total Time: 15 minutes | Yield: 9-10 pancakes

Healthy Vegan Chocolate Truffle

Healthy Vegan Chocolate Truffle Recipe

We all love the succulence of a good chocolate truffle. With these date-based truffles, you can enjoy that same saturated savor without the guilt! Enjoy the chocolate taste offered by two helpings of cacao powder as part of the base and a delightful coating!
Ingredients: Jumbo Mejdool dates, almond flour, chia seeds, flaxseed meal, cacao powder, agave or maple syrup, almond milk, unsweetened shredded coconut.
Total Time: 15 minutes | Yield: 24 truffles

No-Bake Cheesecake Bites {gluten-free}

No-Bake Cheesecake Bites Recipe {gluten-free}

Another dessert that is surprisingly wholesome, this decadent dessert pairs the potent palate of cocoa powder with the piquant spice of pumpkin. The resulting taste is enough to transcend seasons with a rich flavor you’re sure to love!
Ingredients: Pitted dates, almond flour, cacao powder, vanilla extract, almond milk, raw cashews, maple syrup, canned pumpkin, pumpkin spice.
Total Time: 20 minutes | Yield: 16 - 20 squares

Spirulina Ice Cream {gluten-free}

Spirulina Ice Cream Recipe {gluten-free}

Searching for the more robust version of cacao? Discover the powerful sensation of raw cacao nibs in this wholesome alternative to standard ice creams. Spirulina also supplies a wealth of nutrients to offer a health boost that will have you reaching for seconds!
Ingredients: Full fat coconut milk, agave syrup, spirulina, cacao nibs.
Total Time: 10 minutes | Yield: 4 servings

Blueberry Chia Jam Bars {gluten-free, vegan}

Blueberry Chia Jam Bars Recipe {gluten-free, vegan}

These bars make a great snack for anytime with its sweet savors offset by a savory base. The sugary jam of which the surface of the bar consists melds together perfectly with the cocoa savor in the crumbly base of the bar. Try this scrumptious snack today!
Ingredients: Raw almonds, gluten-free rolled oats, chia seeds, maple syrup, water, vanilla or almond extract, blueberries, cacao powder, coconut oil.
Total Time: 30 minutes | Yield: 16 mini bars

Mint Chocolate Popsicles

Mint Chocolate Popsicle Recipe {vegan}

Specks of whole cacao nibs and cacao powder spread throughout the mint body of the pop offer the perfect pairing of the classic combination. Dark chocolate chips also add even more chocolate to the mix with a luscious coating that will drive you wild!
Ingredients: Coconut cream, cacao powder, cacao nibs, maple syrup, spirulina, mint extract, coconut oil, dark chocolate chips (vegan)
Total Time: 30 minutes | Yield: 7 popsicles

Chocolate Cake {gluten-free}

Chocolate Cake Recipe {gluten-free}

This rich chocolate cake offers the ideal taste to suit your palate with a half cup of cacao powder combined with two types of wholesome flours. The cake is also laden with hazelnuts to your liking so that you can enjoy an added crunch in an otherwise moist treat.
Ingredients: Almond flour, brown rice flour, cacao powder, eggs, almond milk, coconut oil, unrefined sugar, vanilla extract, baking powder, baking soda, hazelnuts.
Total Time: 1 hour | Yield: 8 servings

Cacao and Cocoa Products

Whether you’re searching for something a little sweeter or for the pure and unadulterated palate of cacao, these products offer everything along the spectrum of chocolate sensation to treat you to your perfect fit.


Menato, F. (2016). Why you should be eating raw cacao. Women's Health. Retrieved from

One Green Planet (n.d.). Cacao vs. cocoa. Retrieved from

Volpe, S. (2004). Linus Pauling Institute. Retrieved from

WHFoods (2014). Flavonoids. Retrieved from