What is the difference between cacao and cocoa?
Theobroma cacao is scientific name of the plant that produces cocoa or cacao beans, and therefore chocolate. Any product made from it could be called cacao. Usually, the term cacao is used to differentiate the raw forms of chocolate, while cocoa mostly refers to the powder made from roasted cocoa beans with the cocoa butter removed.
Generally, the more we process a food, the more nutrients are lost. So no matter whether it is called chocolate or cacao, the raw versions of chocolate will have higher antioxidants and nutrients than roasted ones. There are also differences among cocoas. The most common cocoas are Dutch or alkali processed. This process removes many of the brain and heart protective compounds in chocolate. So non-alkalized cocoa is healthier than the Dutch cocoa. There are some differences in the acidity of these different products so if you want to use raw cacao or non-alkalized cocoa in baking, do some reading to find the right approach. This may be as simple as using baking soda instead of baking powder.
As long as we are choosing a form of chocolate that still has a lot of the antioxidants intact, chocolate is an enjoyable brain and heart helper. Chocolate can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, as well as drop your blood pressure a few points. Chocolate may improve your lipid profile and lessen inflammation. It is notably a nerve protector, which could help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Chocolate can also improve digestion by supporting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Most of studies were done with cocoa, usually non-alkalized, or chocolate bars that have a high percentage of cacao solids. I don’t know of any that have been done using raw cacao, but we can assume the benefits would be even greater due to the higher percentage of protective antioxidants.
Chocolate is also high in minerals. Just one ounce of chocolate that is 70% cacao solids has 63 mg of magnesium as well as other minerals including 25% of your daily copper and manganese. It has some of the same antioxidants as green tea making it a potential cancer fighter. Chocolate is also well known for being a mood booster and may even modulate your production of the stress hormone, cortisol.
We all know that sugar goes really well with chocolate, but sugar causes many of the health problems we are trying to fight with chocolate. I like eating cocoa nibs and raw cacao beans. They taste much more like black coffee than the chocolate bars you might be used to, but they can help satisfy the chocolate craving in a healthy way. For a high antioxidant snack, try mixing the cacao nibs or beans with goji berries or other dried fruit. So join the healthy chocolate revolution and cacao your heart out.