Cocoa vs. Cacao: What's the Difference? Chocolate Experts Break it Down

Let’s settle this confectionary quandary

cocoa vs cacao

Whether you’re shopping for hot chocolate mixes or browsing the candy aisle for a sweet treat, you’re almost guaranteed to see "cocoa" or "cacao" on a few product labels. Perhaps curiosity got the best of you as you tried to discern the difference between “unsweetened cocoa powder” and “organic cacao powder.” Or maybe you’ve done the opposite and assumed that they’re slightly different terms for the same thing (totally guilty). So, cocoa vs. cacao—what is the difference, really? 

Determined to get some answers, I consulted a few chocolate experts while attending Grenada’s fun-filled Chocolate Festival—an annual week-long celebration of all things chocolate—and they had quite a bit to say about the age-old question. 


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Grenada Tourism Authority

1. What Is Cacao, Exactly?

Well, it’s not just another synonym for chocolate. Rather, it’s the tangy tropical fruit that chocolate comes from. It happens to be considered a superfood, because it’s loaded with nutrients and antioxidants, including B vitamins, magnesium and flavonoids.

These tasty fruits grow on cacao trees called Theobroma cacao, and the term “cacao” usually refers to the pods in their original form. In those pods is the cacao pulp, which are seeds coated with sticky white mucilage, and they boast a rich flavor profile. For instance, some have a sweet, tangy taste with notes of lychee and pineapple. But since there are four main varieties of cacao, there are different kinds that offer distinct flavors, depending on where they were grown.

“[Cacao] actually has more flavor-forming chemicals than wine, so you can get a lot of complex, nuanced flavors,” Seventy% founder Martin Christy says. “And we're just beginning to explore this because most chocolate has loads of sugar and milk, and it's [made into] candy, and people think chocolate is bad for you. But it's the sugar and the fat that's added, not the cacao.”

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Martin Christy explains the history of cacao and its benefits during a tour of Belmont Estate | Grenada Tourism Authority

2. Where Did the Term ‘Cocoa’ Come From?

Apparently, it all started as a huge misunderstanding that involved coconuts.  

When the English were introduced to Theobroma cacao around 1600, they coined the term “cocoa” because they assumed the fruit was similar to coconuts. This pretty much explains the earlier spelling of coconut as "cocoanut." “There was the new world, and there were new foods coming from the Americas, but a lot of foods were becoming known in Europe from the old world as well,” Christy explains. “In England, they got cacao and coconuts about the same time, and they thought they could be the same thing. So, this is the confusion of the English.” 

Since many were already convinced that cacao and coconuts were in the same family, the nickname eventually stuck. “Even the earliest English dictionaries have a single entry for coconut and cacao. So that word ‘cocoa’ with the ‘a’ on, is really just another word for coconut,” Christy adds. “And ‘cacao’ has thousands of years of use. It’s an old Mayan word, which is represented by the fish symbol in the Mayan hieroglyphs. So ‘cocoa’ is like a mistake.” 

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “cocoa nut” is now the obsolete name for “cacao nut,” although it’s not technically a nut, but seeds from the cacao tree. Who would’ve thought?

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Sandro Salomon/Getty Images

3. Cocoa vs. Cacao: Is There a Difference?

Although they’re both connected to chocolate, there is a key difference. Much like how grapes go through a chemical change to become wine, cacao goes through a similar journey to become processed cocoa. 

According to Sheldon Natoo, the seeds from the fruit are placed into sweat boxes (or fermentation boxes), then covered with banana leaves and burlap sacks to begin the fermentation process. This is where they start to turn into the edible beans that are used to make chocolate.

Natoo said, “In the pulp, there’s natural sugar. When you put the beans in [sweat boxes], you’ll get natural yeast, and during fermentation, the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol.” 

He added, “It’s just like making wine or making beer. The alcohol would run through the beans and mix with bacteria. The bacteria breaks down, or oxidizes, the alcohol into lactic and acidic acids. These acids go through the seed, the bitterness within the seed lessens and the chocolate flavor will develop. And they will turn golden brown in color.”

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I got a closer look at some of the roasted cocoa beans at Crayfish Bay Organic Estate | Grenada Tourism Authority

After fermentation, the beans are typically roasted in open sheds and then sent out to factories. According to Aaron Sylvester, it’s at this stage when the fruit becomes cocoa.

He said, “If it hasn’t been roasted, if it’s in its purest form in the tree, it’s a cacao tree. Once it’s had heat applied to it and it’s been roasted, it then becomes cocoa. So, there’s cocoa butter, cocoa powder—that’s all after the roasting phase. The cacao gets roasted and then it changes its form to become cocoa.”

The bottom line? Cacao refers to the original fruit while cocoa refers to the roasted and processed beans. However, it’s worth noting that the term “cocoa” is still used colloquially by farmers and chocolate makers around the globe. “Some people play around with it,” Sylvester said. “In Grenada, we call our trees cocoa trees. And then if you go to Latin America, they call them cacao trees.” 

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Winslow Productions/Getty Images

4. Does This Mean That Cocoa Powder and Cacao Powder Are the Same?

You may have noticed that some products are labeled as “cacao powder” or “100 percent unsweetened cacao.” This simply means that the powder was made from fermented cacao beans that haven’t been roasted. Because of this, cacao powder has a more bitter taste with earthy undertones. It’s also higher in nutritional value because the beans are processed at much lower temperatures before it’s turned into powder. 

Meanwhile, cocoa powder—the one you’re probably used to baking with—is made from roasted cacao beans (aka cocoa). These are processed at higher temperatures to reduce the bitterness and acidity levels before they’re milled into powder. 

nakeisha campbell bio

Associate Editor, News and Entertainment

Nakeisha has been interviewing celebrities and covering all things entertainment for over 8 years, but she has also written on a wide range of topics, like career...