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Cacao, Cocoa & Chocolate: What are the Differences and Do They Matter?

We all want to believe chocolate is good for us, but does science really prove it’s true?

In short, yes — some kinds of chocolate have health benefits — but the details matter.

What is chocolate?

Chocolate comes from the tropical cacao tree. The cacao bean, the rawest form of chocolate, can be harvested and consumed directly (cacao), roasted and turned into powder (cocoa) or made into chocolate.

The key thing to remember: Studies that tout the health benefits of chocolate often are referring to chocolate that has properties closer to raw cacao, and rarely apply to the average store-bought chocolate bar.

From left to right: cacao bean, cacao nib, cocoa powder, chocolate

What’s the difference between cacao and cocoa?

Cacao and cocoa look the same; the difference is how they’re processed. Cacao is raw while cocoa has been heated. Cacao and cocoa are also more bitter in taste, which is why many people opt for chocolate instead.

Below is a breakdown of all three forms and the health benefits of each.

CACAO (unroasted)

Full bean forms

  • Cacao beans
    Whole, raw bean.
  • Cacao nibs
    Beans that have been cut into edible pieces. These look like chocolate chips but contain all the same nutrients of cacao (fiber, fat, protein).
  • Cacao paste
    Made from cacao nibs that have been slowly heated to preserve nutrients, cacao paste usually comes melted into a bar.

Raw cacao is full of antioxidants, which help lower chemicals that can damage the body. It is rich in magnesium, which helps keep bones strong and regulates blood pressure and heart rhythm.

Partial bean forms

  • Cacao butter
    The outer lining of a bean, cacao butter is white and has a rich, fatty texture.
  • Cacao powder
    Made from cold-pressed, unroasted cocoa beans, cacao powder is made by removing the fat but leaving the live enzymes intact.

Cacao powder is higher in calories and fiber than cocoa powder because the nutrients and fats are still present. In turn, it is a good source of monounsaturated fats — aka “good fats” — as well as fiber and protein.

COCOA (roasted)

Powder

  • Cocoa powder
    Dry solid remains of roasted cacao beans once the butter is removed. Because cocoa powder is roasted at high temperatures, the molecular structure of the bean changes, reducing its enzyme content and slightly lowering its nutritional value.
  • Cocoa powder mix
    The product most likely to be found on a grocery store shelf, cocoa powder mix is cocoa powder plus additional sugar and fat.

Chocolate

  • Chocolate liquor
    Pure cocoa in solid or semi-solid form that contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Chocolate liquor is the same thing as unsweetened chocolate.
  • Dark chocolate (bittersweet, semisweet)
    Chocolate liquor plus cocoa butter and sugar.
  • Milk chocolate
    Chocolate liquor plus milk powder or condensed milk.
  • White chocolate
    NO cocoa solids; just cocoa butter, sugar and milk.

Recent studies have shown that cocoa and dark chocolate may have cardiovascular benefits and may help prevent age-related cognitive decline, improving attention, brain processing speed and working memory. Both are high in flavonoids, plant-based substances that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. These can improve brain blood flow, oxygen levels and nerve function. Milk chocolate has much lower levels of nutrients and antioxidants, and white chocolate has even less because it contains no cocoa solids.

Overall, the rule of thumb is if you’re more focused on nutrients and antioxidants, choose cacao; but if you want fewer calories and some antioxidants, choose cocoa powder or darker chocolate. Whatever you buy, be sure to watch the amount of fat and sugar that’s been added.

For more articles on chocolate and its possible health benefits, click here.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville). As Senior Editor at Parthenon Publishing, she is a writer, editor and social media strategist on projects ranging from Better Tennessee magazine to Unsung Nashville.

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2 Comments

  1. iona addison says

    This has been a very informative article, I really enjoyed it. I also see the original information I was told about “white chocolate” was not true at all. I look forward to more articles

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