Life is like a box of chocolates, as the famous saying goes. And you never quite know what you’re going to get.
Flip that box over, and you’re inundated with ingredients besides the usual (unhealthy) sugar. You’ll see unsweetened cocoa powder, organic cacao powder, cocoa butter, or even chocolate liquor.
Most chocolate offers that same familiar, delicious taste. So what gives with the difference in terminology?
Have you ever wondered about the difference between cocoa and cacao? You’ll be happy to know the answer is as satisfyingly simple as a bite of quality dark chocolate. It stems from a basic understanding of how the seeds from the theobroma cacao tree end up becoming your average chocolate bar.
From Cacao To Cocoa: A Look Into Chocolate Production
Many manufacturers use the terms cacao and cocoa interchangeably. This can cause confusion among consumers. Learning how cacao transforms into cocoa can give you a deeper insight. It can help you understand what’s in your chocolate and its potential health benefits.
First, the seeds or beans found in the pods of the theobroma cacao plant are extracted. Then they’re fermented for a few days (traditionally covered in banana leaves).
Then, the fermented seeds are dried and prepared for export or selling. At this point, most experts would refer to this product as raw cacao or cacao raw.1
How Is Cocoa Powder Made From Cacao?
Once chocolate makers get their hands on the dried cacao seeds or beans, the process continues. They’re often roasted to bring out the flavour and aroma. Once they’re roasted, they’re crushed into what’s known as cacao nibs (some people may know them as cocoa nibs).
Some consider cacao nibs a “superfood.” They offer the same rich flavor associated with chocolate. But they don’t contain any added fat from dairy products or grams of sugar found in most commercial chocolate bars.2
These cacao nibs are then processed further, ground into what is known as cocoa liqueur. This liqueur is the base for most of the chocolate products lining supermarket shelves, including cocoa powder.
And cocoa powder is the product of pressing the cocoa butter (the fatty part of chocolate) out.
This manipulation of cocoa liqueur gives you such familiar cocoa products as:
- Chocolate bars (liqueur is mixed with milk, sugar, and other complementary ingredients)
- Instant hot cocoa mixes (essentially cocoa powder mixed with other shelf-stable dry ingredients)
- Chocolate (bars and chips) used for baked goods and cooking recipes
- Dutch-processed cocoa powder (a special type of treated cocoa powder used in baking, which must be paired with baking powder — unlike natural cocoa powder, which requires baking soda)
The Health Benefits Of Cacao
It’s no secret that certain types of chocolate are good for you in more ways than one. The possible health benefits of raw cacao or chocolate are widely documented. And raw cacao is loaded with antioxidants. In fact, cacao is one of the most antioxidant-rich foods around.3
Rich in polyphenols, cacao and its antioxidants may help suppress cell-damaging free radicals in the body.4
Why Is Dark Chocolate Considered Healthier Than Most Chocolate Products?
Now, the “darker” a cocoa product is, the less extreme temperature and processing its seen. And less processing means the cocoa’s likely kept much of its nutritional benefits. Plus, darker chocolate typically is lower in sugar, dairy, and other unhealthy additives.
Minimally processed or dark cacao powder has a higher ORAC value than more refined chocolate products.
An ORAC test measures the level and activity of antioxidants in a certain food. Cocoa and cacao powder consistently perform well.5,6
Dark chocolate, or cacao products, also contain good amounts of the following essential minerals:
- Magnesium (even more than chia seeds)
The less refined or processed cacao is, the higher the theobromine levels.
Theobromine is a naturally-occurring alkaloid which makes chocolate toxic to cats and dogs. Chocolate is never good for pets, but humans don’t usually have a problem consuming it.8,9
What About White Chocolate?
Technically, white chocolate is a misnomer. Remember how chocolate liqueur – essentially the base for chocolate products – is processed?
Cocoa butter is separated out, and what’s left is cocoa solids (which gives chocolate that characteristic brown color).
White chocolate retains only the cocoa butter and none of the solids. It doesn’t contain theobromine or caffeine associated with dark or milk chocolate.10
Also, white chocolate relies heavily on extra milk, sugar, and other flavorings, so it doesn’t taste like traditional chocolate, nor does it have the same health benefits.
Quick Recipes To Make With Cocoa Powder: Homemade Chocolate Bars
Now that you know all about this divine treat, why not make your own diet-friendly chocolate bar?
This melt-in-your-mouth recipe doesn’t call for refined sugar or dairy and it’s low in fat. It’s also Paleo-friendly but not considered “raw food” (if you’re following that diet).
DIY Chocolate Bars
- ½ cup cocoa powder
- ½ cup coconut oil
- 3 Tbsp. honey or maple syrup (or add more, to taste)
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- Melt the coconut oil in a small saucepan. Then, add cocoa powder, honey, and vanilla extract, stirring until smooth and well-blended.
- Pour the mixture into silicone candy molds, and refrigerate until set.
The Wonders of Cocoa and Cacao
You’re never going to look at your canister of organic cocoa powder the same way again after learning the fascinating journey it took. From its early stages as roasted cacao seeds to its finished state as dark cocoa powder, you can be sure you’re getting the best antioxidants the humble cacao plant has to offer.
So, don’t feel guilty about indulging in some quality chocolate, or whipping up some tasty cocoa-based recipes.
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