What’s the difference between cacao and cocoa? Apart from a few rearranged letters, your answer would probably be “not much”. And that’s where you’d be wrong. Despite both originating from the same tree, cacao and cocoa are surprisingly different, from their unique processing right down to their taste.
The difference lies in the processing
Studies that reveal the health benefits of chocolate aren’t usually talking about the sugary treats we’re used to. In actual fact, most studies focus on raw cacao. So what makes cacao and cocoa so different?
Let’s start with the similarities. Both cacao and cocoa come from the same plant – the Theobroma cacao tree. Native to South America, the tree produces large seed pods. Harvesters crack these open and remove the seeds, which are commonly called cocoa beans. At this point the processing of cacao and cocoa follows two very different paths.
To create cacao, the cocoa beans are fermented and cold-pressed. This minimal processing ensures the product preserves as many of the plant’s live enzymes as possible. In contrast, the beans are roasted at high temperature to make cocoa. This additional processing changes the molecular structure of the bean, as well as breaking down its natural enzymes.
On top of roasting, the cocoa beans are ground to produce cocoa mass. From this, the butter is extracted to leave cocoa. But the processing doesn’t stop there. To make ‘Dutch’ cocoa, the powder is washed in a potassium solution that neutralizes the product’s natural acidity. While this process creates a smoother product, it also destroys all of the enzymes naturally found in cocoa.
The health benefits
Despite undergoing extensive processing, cocoa still contains some minerals and nutrients, including zinc, calcium, magnesium and polyphenol compounds. However, when combined with milk and sugar the nutritional clout of cocoa decreases dramatically, with studies proving that these ingredients actually block the absorption of antioxidants by the body.
In comparison, raw cacao preserves many of the health benefits of fermented cocoa beans. Here are just a few:
1. Fight inflammation
Packed full of flavonoids, cacao may well reduce the number of pro-inflammatory enzymes in the body.
2. May decrease risk of diabetes
Cacao is chock-full of magnesium – a mineral that has been shown to have a positive effect in reducing the chance of developing diabetes.
3. Boost your mood
Everyone knows that chocolate is a great pick-me-up, but did you know it’s also been proven to improve mood? Studies suggest that phenylethylamine – a chemical found in cacao – may well leave you feeling happier.
4. Antioxidant effects
Cacao beans are packed with flavonoids and phenolic phytochemicals. These antioxidants have been shown to help protect against the damaging effects of free radicals.
The taste difference
When it comes to taste, cacao and cocoa are remarkably different. Whereas cocoa powder has a mellow and smooth taste, cacao offers a more intense flavor. Often described as bitter, fruity and earthy, raw cacao taste slightly different to the chocolate you’re used to. But used in cooking, baking and smoothies, this raw superfood is truly delicious.
Try some of these simple tips to incorporate cacao into your daily routine and see if you can feel the benefits!