Cacao Vs Cocoa, Top 6 Differences and Similarities

Cacao Vs Cocoa, Top 6 Differences and Similarities

Why Am I Doing This?

There is a lot of inaccurate information about cocoa and chocolate on the Internet. One of my goals is help readers be better consumers of content they run across on sites like YouTube by providing them with more complete information and encouraging skepticism of claims. Including my own. Do the research and don’t take things at face value before sharing a video that might contain inaccurate information on social media.

I am not out to embarrass the producers and writers of this video. My goal is education, and one way to educate is to review what others upload. Often they don’t know what they don’t know – but I will point out when they get things right.


Below is a video I found on YouTube uploaded by SuperfoodEvolution on April 13, 2019. The video has just over 10,000 views and 22 comments with just 525 likes and 12 dislikes – a 44:1 ratio with about 5% of all viewers giving enough s**t to respond.

  1. Watch the video through first without interruption.
  2. Read my comments. The mm:ss number preceding each paragraph is the time (minutes:seconds) of the start of a sequence I comment on.
  3. Re-watch the video, pausing after each of the segments I comment on to take in what I write with what’s in the video.
  4. Add your thoughts in a comment. Am I being too harsh? Do I make a mistake? Is there some point I missed you want to elaborate on?

Let’s go through the video and see what’s up!

00:33 – Cacao is found in far more places than Southeastern Mexico to the Amazon River basin. This “fact” might have been lifted from the Wikipedia article. Cacao can be found in locations roughly 20 degrees north and south of the equator the world ’round. The vast majority of cacao is grown in West Africa.

00:39 – Cacao seeds or cocoa beans are only very rarely referred to – erroneously – as nuts because, botanically speaking, they aren’ nuts. Nuts are “[a] dry hard fruit that does not split open at maturity to release its single seed.[more at]

For many professionals the difference between cacao and cocoa is state. Cacao refers to items in an alive or fresh state: cacao trees, cacao pods, cacao pulp, cacao seeds. Cocoa refers to items in a dead (not able to germinate) or dried/processed state: cocoa beans, cocoa nibs, cocoa liquor, cocoa powder, cocoa butter.

00:55 – The cacao seeds (which, when dry, are called cocoa beans) and the pulp are not the only portions of the cacao fruit that are edible. The pod can be processed to release oil that can be used for culinary purposes, e.g., frying,  and pods can be dried and ground into flour for baking and making fritters and other edibles. In fact, I have a cookbook from one of my trips to Perú with recipes that include both pod oil and flour from pods.

01:08 – The word cacao is not derived from the Mayan word kakaw and the Aztek word cacahautl and meaning “bean of the cacao tree.” I found several sources that are candidates for the version presented here. For an in-depth discussion, I refer you to the entry Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past at Nawatl Scholar.

1:20 – The lore surrounding the reason why cocoa came to be preferred over cacao includes the story that cacao was too close to caca (a term for excrement) and a scribe “fixed” the spelling to make it less scatalogical, easier to pronounce, and easier on the ears. And again with the nuts. What’s up with that?

1:45 – The idea that cacao/cocoa are different things rather than different words for the same thing, is specious. What the writers of this video are looking to do – and many people in the raw/superfoods world also attempt – is to draw the distinction that cacao is less processed than cocoa and therefore cacao is better for you than cocoa. This is a gross oversimplification.

2:00 – Apart from the fact I take issue with calling fresh seeds beans, the writers of this video are correct when they say that fresh seeds do not have a chocolate flavor. They must first be fermented and then dried and then roasted.

2:15 – ”What a properly fermented bean is can vary widely depending on the results each producer wishes to achieve.” This is a very important point not understood by many chocolate makers and consumers. Kudos to the writers for getting this right.

It’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of cacao does not get fermented at all. In Mexico, fresh unfermented cacao beans are washed to remove the pulp and then dried – what is referred to as lavado.  In Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador it’s called cacao rojo. In the Dominican Republic, unfermented cacao spread out to dry without washing the pulp off is referred to as Sanchez after a port. (Fermented cocoa is referred to as Hispaniola, after the island on which the Dominican Republic is located.)

2:25 – And then they omit mention of drying completely. While it may be okay to use beans with the shells on in “raw cacao products” there are strict regulations regarding the maximum amount of shell that can be in chocolate and so-called “whole bean” chocolate cannot actually legally be called chocolate. Also, if you are going to use the shell it has to be tested for heavy metals, pesticide, and bacteriological contamination as they are concentrated in/on the shell and can make you sick.

2:35 – Cacao is unroasted, cocoa is roasted. That’s not the distinction the industry as a whole uses. It’s the distinction the raw/superfood industry wants to make. Most cacao is fermented and then dried. Both of these are processing steps. Suggesting that another distinction is that cacao only needs short fermentation periods is also incorrect. The agenda of the producer of the video becomes clear in this segment (3) – raw cacao is the purest form of chocolate in its most unaltered [sic] state … so-called naked chocolate, probably in homage to the infomercial huckster David Avocado Wolfe.

3:38 – No, technically, cacao beans do not become cocoa beans as a consequence of roasting.

3:50 – Cocoa beans are often roasted at temperatures much higher than 130C. It’s a little awkward to say that a mechanical press grinds the nibs into liquor – there are many devices that can be used to convert nibs into liquor.

Liquor comes from the Latin liquere, meaning “to be fluid.”

4:24 – Cocoa butter and cocoa powder are both made from cocoa liquor. The liquor is put into a hydraulic or expeller (screw) press. In a hydraulic press, what remains after pressing is called a press cake, which usually contains between 10-22% fat. The cake is broken (kibbled) into chunks which are ground into powder.

There is no water in chocolate so the press cakes are not dried. They are left to cool.

6:10 – The comparative nutritional value of various cocoa and chocolate products is dependent on more than just roasting so focusing on roasting as a determiner of nutritional value is simplistic. In addition to the variety itself, the way it is fermented, the way it is dried, the way it is roasted and refined, whether it is alkalized or not, and the addition of other ingredients have an effect on nutritional content.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we put in our mouths, what matters is what is metabolized and ends up in your bloodstream. There is no minimum RDA for antioxidants and there is no way to know how much you actually need to consume and when you will start simply eliminating excess amounts.

My personal approach is that I want to eat chocolate that puts a smile on my face. That makes me relax which reduces blood pressure. The fact there might be other chemical benefits is bonus. I don’t want to stress that I am eating the healthiest chocolate as stress is exactly what I am trying to reduce in my life. 

If you are interested in the health benefits of chocolate, consume it in the form of natural (un-alkalized) cocoa powder, preferably high-fat as research suggests there are benefits in the form of improved blood vessel and skin elasticity from consuming cocoa butter. Add cocoa powder to smoothies, oatmeal, pancake and waffle batter and anything else you can think of. I also like to lightly pan-toast raw cocoa nibs and use them as a crunchy element sprinkled in salads.

The advice to eat high cocoa content chocolate is ultimately about consuming less sugar.

7:55 – There is no evidence that Ecuadorian Nacional is nutritionally superior to other varieties. And criollo is pronounced cree – oh’ – yo (not cree – oh ‘ – lo) and it almost certainly did not originate in Perú. Criollos were mostly likely bred/domesticated in Mayan Central American and re-introduced to South America in pre-Hispanic times.


Rating: 15/12 (15 comments in ~12 minutes of video run-time).


I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the video by the time I reached the reference to David Wolfe. The main issue I have with the video is the didactic approach to using the term cacao over cocoa to differentiate between products – usage that is not common in cocoa and chocolate outside of the raw/superfood communities to take cacao, which is most commonly used to refer to the trees, seeds, and pods and apply it to processed products. One thing I did like about the video, and something sorely lacking in many others, was the inclusion of links to the research papers cited.

Please share your thoughts in a comment down below and let me know if you like this kind of video review “debunking” type of article. If you do and you have videos you’d like me to tackle in the future let me know by providing a link in a comment.

I offer rebuttal space in the form of a standalone article here on TheChocolateLife to any blogger or publisher who thinks I am wrong (or just being mean).

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