Cacao vs. Cocoa: What’s the Difference?

Ever debated using cacao vs cocoa when baking? It turns out they're not just two different ways to spell chocolate.

You love chocolate, but decoding the options at the grocery store can honestly be a challenge. There are all kinds of bars, chips and powders on the shelves, each claiming to be “pure” or boasting a specific percentage of cacao. You might know what you’re looking for and automatically reach for milk chocolate chips to make your favorite baked good. But what about the claims that products like cacao nibs are better for you? Not to worry! It’s easy to demystify the baking aisle once you understand the difference between cacao and cocoa.

Cacao vs. Cocoa: Here’s the Breakdown

Each has a unique flavor, texture and set of health benefits. Not only that, but cacao and cocoa also differ in the way they melt, so you won’t want to choose the wrong ingredient for your recipe.

What Is Cacao?

It’s raw and unprocessed chocolate. All chocolate making starts at the cacao tree, the Theobroma cacao. These tall trees produce large, hard-shelled pods, which are split open when ripe to reveal 30 to 50 cacao beans. Instead of being the dark color we associate with chocolate, these beans start out white and glossy and darken as they’re fermented and dried.

Everything you’ll find at this stage—the tree, pod and fermented beans—is known as cacao. Because it’s raw and unprocessed, cacao retains its minerals, antioxidants and flavonoids. It’s almost always more expensive than cocoa products but you can find it at the store in a few forms. The cacao nibs come from ground-up pieces of the beans, and they’re left mostly whole and unprocessed. When the nibs are finely ground, they make cacao powder like this.

The nibs and cacao powder smell like chocolate, but they’re not sweet and are intensely bitter. Both products are on our list of keto-friendly foods.

What Is Cocoa?

After the beans are fermented, they can be roasted at high temperatures to concentrate their chocolaty flavor. At this point, the product is referred to as cocoa. Roasting the bean changes its molecular structure and destroys many of the nutrients contained in the cacao bean. After they’re roasted, the beans are ground and milled to separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa liquor (which, despite its name, does not contain any alcohol at all).

Cocoa comes in many forms. The cocoa liquor can be distilled down to create pure cocoa powder, which is often sold unsweetened for baking purposes. If the cocoa is processed with added sugars, you get chocolate bars and chips. These bars often contain a cocoa percentage; the higher the number, the darker the chocolate (and, the more beneficial it is for your health). If milk is added to the mix, the product is labeled as “milk chocolate.”

Can You Substitute Cacao for Cocoa?

If your baking recipe calls for cocoa powder, you can swap in cacao powder. Just be aware that cacao is generally more bitter than cocoa because it’s unroasted and has no added sugars. Keep in mind that cacao nibs won’t melt like processed cocoa bars or chips. You can fold them into ice cream or sprinkle them on top of baked goods to add an unsweetened chocolate flavor, but they will retain their crunchy, nut-like texture.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay has been writing for digital publications for seven years and has 10 years of experience working as a professional chef. She became a full-time food writer at Taste of Home in 2023, although she’s been a regular contributor since 2017. Throughout her career, Lindsay has been a freelance writer and recipe developer for multiple publications, including Wide Open Media, Tasting Table, Mashed and SkinnyMs. Lindsay is an accomplished product tester and spent six years as a freelance product tester at Reviewed (part of the USA Today network). She has tested everything from cooking gadgets to knives, cookware sets, meat thermometers, pizza ovens and more than 60 grills (including charcoal, gas, kamado, smoker and pellet grills). Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, especially when she can highlight local, seasonal ingredients. As a writer, Lindsay loves sharing her skills and experience with home cooks. She aspires to motivate others to gain confidence in the kitchen. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her cooking with fresh produce from the farmers market or planning a trip to discover the best new restaurants.