The Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa: All You Need to Know

For Cakers

The Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa: All You Need to Know

Published 27.11.2023

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In the realm of culinary artistry, few endeavours are as enchanting as the creation of a delicious cake. The delicate balance of flavours, textures, and aromas hinges on the meticulous selection of ingredients. Among these ingredients resides a controversial choice between cacao and cocoa. 

While the terms are often used interchangeably, they encompass distinct nuances that can significantly impact your cake-baking process. Hence, in this article, we will delve into the specifics of this choice, unravelling its origins, processing methods, and flavour profiles, all while exploring the overall difference of cacao vs cocoa powder in baking. 

Understanding cacao and cocoa 

Cacao pods are the fruit of the cacao tree that grows on the trunk rather than on the branches. Normally, each pod of cacao tree fruit has around 30 seeds inside. However, scientifically, they are considered nuts, but we are used to describing them as beans, just like with coffee. 

The core difference of cacao vs cocoa powder for baking lies in the processing. 

Beans first undergo fermentation. They are normally stored in bins where microbes that feed on the pulp can ferment the beans. This process allows to start developing the distinctive chocolate flavour. Later on, the fermented beans are left to dry for a few days. 

At this point, all the differences start to appear. 

In order to create cacao, fermented and dried beans are then cold-pressed, resulting in broken cacao pieces called nibs. Later, they are simply ground into powder. 

With cocoa, on the other hand, the situation is different. To produce cocoa powder, the cacao beans undergo a more complex process. After fermentation and drying, the beans are roasted at very high temperatures. Only after the roasting they are dissolved into nibs and ground.

As a result, the roasting or cold-pressing process is a determining factor in differentiating cacao from cocoa. Cacao is raw, unroasted, and cold-pressed. Cocoa is roasted at high temperatures, up to 150°C. 

The roasting process makes a significant difference between the two types of powder. Despite the fact that roasting destroys many of the nutritional benefits, it changes the flavour, resulting in a less bitter taste. Moreover, roasting kills the fat in the beans’ solids. It’s worth noting that fat is a crucial part of cacao, which is used to create butter and powder.

Different textures and colours of cocoa and cacao

Cacao and cocoa, though born from the same source, exhibit striking disparities in various aspects that influence cake baking.After all, to save you some time, here’s a short comparison table outlining everything you should know about the difference between cacao and cocoa. 

TasteMore bitter, intense chocolateSlightly less bitter, chocolatey
ProcessingProcessed at lower temperaturesProcessed at higher temperatures
Health benefitsHigh in antioxidants and flavanolsSome nutritional value lost due to processing
CostUsually higher price tagOften more affordable
UseIntense chocolate flavour for healthier options

Great for sweet baked goods and hot chocolate

Clarification of misconceptions 

The interchangeable use of cacao vs cocoa in recipes has led to confusion among bakers and consumers. It's important to note that while they both originate from the cacao bean, their distinct processing methods result in variations in taste, texture, and nutritional content. Recognising these differences empowers bakers to make informed choices that align with their desired cake outcomes.

Common misconceptions about cacao and cocoa

Misconception 1: Cacao and cocoa are the same. 

In fact, they are not. Understanding the unique characteristics of each ingredient is essential to achieving the desired flavour and texture in your cakes. Speaking of these two ingredients, different processing delivers different tastes and aromas.

Misconception 2: Either can be substituted without consequences. 

Substituting cacao for cocoa or vice versa can alter the overall cake experience, affecting flavour, colour, and moisture levels.

Misconception 3: They are nutritionally equivalent.  

While both cacao and cocoa offer health benefits, cacao's less processed nature can confer a higher concentration of antioxidants and nutrients.

As we delve deeper into the cacao powder vs cocoa powder debate, it becomes evident that due to their distinctions extend far beyond nomenclature. By grasping the intricacies of their origins, processing methods, and nuanced differences, we are better equipped to make deliberate choices that culminate in cakes that are not only delicious but also a testament to our understanding of the art and science of baking.

Cacao in cake baking 

Cacao powder emerges as a testament to nature's unadulterated allure. Unlike its roasted counterpart, cacao retains its raw, minimally processed essence. In cakes, cacao’s purity adds an authentic, unspoilt chocolate taste.

Cacao's journey from bean to powder preserves its intense flavour profile and aromatic potency. When introduced to cake batters, the smell and taste are rich and intense, making your cakes a delightful treat for chocolate lovers. Cacao powder can be used to impart a deep chocolate flavour to your cakes. Since it's less processed, it might have a slightly different texture and flavour profile compared to cocoa powder. It's often used in recipes where a strong chocolate flavour is desired.

Another huge benefit of cacao is that it’s nutritious. 

Amplified antioxidants and minerals 
Cacao contains a treasure trove of antioxidants and essential minerals that survive thanks to minimal processing. These potent elements, including flavonoids, theobromine, and magnesium, showcase their prowess not only in taste but also in the potential health benefits they bring to the table.

Choosing healthier options 
Adding more antioxidants and minerals to cake recipes can be exciting for those who care about their health. When you pick cacao for your cakes, you're making a smart choice. Your cakes can be delicious and good for customers at the same time, bringing together the joy of eating and taking care of themselves.

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Cocoa in cake baking 

Cocoa, in its own special way, gives cakes a unique taste and colour compared to cacao. Cocoa has a kind of mild chocolate taste and can affect the colour of your cakes. They might not be as intense as cacao cakes, but they have their own charm. Moreover, due to this taste, it is typically more popular in various baking goods. 

Cocoa is like an old friend in baking. It's used in lots of recipes, so you might already know how it works. This makes it a popular choice for all sorts of cakes. Moreover, it plays well with other additions. It's flexible and can work with different cake styles and flavours. From classic combos to new experiments, cocoa's adaptability shines.

Today, there are two types of cocoa on the market: Dutch-processed (alkalized) cocoa powder and natural cocoa powder. According to the Serious Eats comparison, natural cocoa powder has a more acidic flavour and is often used in recipes that include baking soda, while Dutch-processed cocoa has been treated with an alkalizing agent to reduce acidity, resulting in a milder flavour. Both types of cocoa can be used to create delicious chocolate cakes. Moreover, Dutch-processed cocoa is often used to dust desserts, and you don’t want bitter cacao for that. 

Natural and Dutch-processed cocoa comparison

Which is healthier: cacao or cocoa?

The process of transforming raw cacao into cocoa powder involves a gradual reduction in the presence of naturally occurring minerals, antioxidants, and flavanols present in the cacao beans. The extent of retained nutrients hinges on factors such as the cacao bean variety, geographical origin, and the methods involving heat and chemicals employed during the processing stages.

Comparatively, cacao contains a higher iron content than cocoa powder. In a serving of dark chocolate prepared using cacao, there is 25% of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for iron in men and 11% in women. 

However, in cocoa, these percentages are significantly lower at 9% for men and 4% for women. It's important to note that iron deficiency is one of the most prevalent nutritional challenges worldwide.

It's crucial to keep in mind that when incorporating sweetening elements into cacao or cocoa, extra calories may be introduced, potentially leading to spikes in blood sugar levels. Additionally, it's important to distinguish between unsweetened chocolate and cocoa powder, as they are not interchangeable.

Both cacao and cocoa have minimal amounts of cocoa butter, indicating their low-fat content, while unsweetened chocolate contains approximately 55% cocoa butter.

How cocoa and cacao affect your cakes

Apart from the fantastic taste and elegant smell, chocolate and cacao/cocoa, respectively, do a lot more for baked goods than flavour them. Let’s take a quick look at how they might affect your cakes.

  • Structure. Baked treats balance resilient, supportive elements with tenderisers like fats and sugars. Chocolate's high-fat content contributes to structural integrity rather than softness. Cakes with cocoa require less flour, yielding a distinct texture, and dark chocolate-based sweets possess greater robustness.
  • Texture. The delightful appeal comes from the smoothness of treats like mousse and frosting. With the help of abundant fats, these goodies turn incredibly creamy. Chocolate with lots of fat, especially in dairy sweets like mousse, makes them even creamier.
  • Moisture. Flour absorbs essential moisture from eggs, butter, and milk for baking solidity. Similarly, cocoa powder adeptly absorbs liquid, surpassing flour's capacity. When cocoa joins the mix, you can reduce flour while maintaining baking quality.
  • Colour. Depending on the powder you choose, your cakes can be coloured differently. For instance, unsweetened cocoa powder can bring gold or brownish colour to your goods, while adding black cocoa powder can significantly darken your cakes, making them less attractive.

 4 types of cocoa powder

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Sourcing and quality 

Now, let’s delve into aspects you should consider that aren’t directly linked to baking. Selecting premium cacao and cocoa products is crucial, as is emphasising the importance of supporting sustainable practices within the cacao and cocoa industry.

Selecting premium cacao and cocoa products 

When choosing cacao and cocoa products, the quality of the ingredients plays a significant role in the flavour and overall outcome of the final product. Opting for premium cacao and cocoa ensures a more authentic and robust chocolate experience. 

In this matter, you should look for labels that specify a high cacao content and a clear processing process. For cocoa, choose a high-quality cocoa powder that hasn't undergone excessive heat treatment.

For cacao, consider using cacao nibs or cacao powder that retain the natural flavours and nutrients of the cacao bean. However, it’s also worth noting that cacao is usually more expensive compared to cacao. Thus, it can affect the final cake price.

Read also: Cake Pricing Guide: How To Price A Cake

Supporting sustainable practises

It's essential to recognise the environmental and ethical considerations surrounding cacao and cocoa production. Supporting sustainable practises within the industry helps ensure the longevity of cacao farming, the well-being of cacao farmers, and the preservation of ecosystems. Moreover, in this way, you will be able to demonstrate your concern to customers who are worried about the environmental situation in the world and wish to consume only organic foods. 

  • Fair Trade. Look for products that carry Fair Trade certification. This indicates that farmers are paid fairly for their produce and are provided with better working conditions. Supporting Fair Trade helps promote ethical practises within the cacao and cocoa supply chains.
  • Certifications. Keep an eye out for certifications like Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, and organic certifications. These certifications often indicate that the product was produced using environmentally friendly methods and that labour rights were respected.
  • Direct trade. Some chocolate makers engage in direct trade, which involves establishing direct relationships with cacao farmers. This approach can result in better pay for farmers and higher-quality cacao for your cake-baking venture.
  • Traceability. Brands that emphasise traceability often provide information about the origins of their cacao beans. This transparency can offer insight into the sourcing practises of the company.
  • Environmental impact. Sustainable practises also encompass considerations about the environmental impact of cacao farming. Efforts to minimise deforestation, promote biodiversity, and reduce chemical pesticide use contribute to more sustainable cacao cultivation.

After all, informed decisions that go beyond cake baking are important. In today’s world, by actively supporting sustainable practises, consumers contribute to the betterment of the cacao and cocoa industry as a whole. This not only ensures the availability of high-quality ingredients but also promotes ethical and environmentally responsible practises for the benefit of all stakeholders involved.


In the realm of cake baking cocoa vs cacao powder competition holds significance beyond flavour and texture. Understanding the nuances of these two ingredients can elevate the quality and nutritional value of your creations. 

While cacao boasts a higher mineral and antioxidant content, cocoa's processed form may offer convenience and a milder taste. The decision ultimately rests on your priorities, whether it's preserving the natural benefits of cacao or embracing the practicality of cocoa. Whichever path you choose, a delicious and well-informed baking experience awaits as you strike the perfect balance between health-conscious choices and delectable treats. 

Lastly, always mind experimenting. Both additions are quite different, even though they come from the same beans. Hence, give both of them a try, and see which one makes your cakes taste and smell better or which one your customers prefer more. 

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Frequently Asked

Frequently Asked Questions

We are here to help you with most frequently questions.

Basically, roasting is a key aspect that differentiates cocoa from cacao. Hence, cocoa is usually roasted at high temperatures, up to 150°C. On the other hand, cacao is never roasted and is ground and cold-pressed, which makes it more nutritious and healthier.

Cacao and cocoa powder are both made from cacao beans. To produce cacao powder, beans are cold-pressed. Cocoa powder is produced by roasting cacao beans at higher temperatures, which yields a milder flavour.

Cacao is generally considered healthier due to its minimal processing, retaining more nutrients and antioxidants compared to cocoa powder. However, both offer some benefits – cacao, with its richness in nutrients, and cocoa, with its milder taste and convenience.

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