Cacao vs Cocoa
While cacao and cocoa start from the same place, the way they end up (and what they go through along the way) has different effects on their nutrition and health benefits. The difference lies in the processing; the more it is processed the further away it gets from being a whole food with all its goodness and benefits as Mother Nature intended.
There is a significant difference between commercially available cocoa and raw cacao (and the chocolate made from these two different grades)! This has to do with the vast differences in variety, selection, fermentation, roasting, and processing which affect the amount of the beneficial compounds in cacao.
Everything we know as chocolate, in all of its forms, starts at the same source: Theobroma cacao. This tree, native to South America, produces seed pods. Harvesters crack them open and take out the seeds, which are called cacao beans. They look a bit like coffee beans and have a bitter taste. You can eat cacao beans raw – they’re healthiest when eaten this way but their flavor is extremely bitter, and taste varies depending on the growing conditions of the cacao tree. Beans are usually fermented and dried before they’re processed any further. What happens next determines whether the beans become cacao or cocoa. They start from the same place, but the processing makes all the difference.
A recent study suggested that between 60% and 90% of the original antioxidants in cacao are lost through common “Dutch processing”. This method was originally developed in the early 19th Century to reduce the bitterness, darken the colour, and create a more mellow flavour to chocolate, but unfortunately also eliminated a lot of the goodness. Non-organic cocoa (and non-organic chocolate) has also been treated heavily with toxic pesticides and fumigation chemicals, and may contain genetically modified (GMO) products.
The heavier processing (heating at higher temperatures) that transforms cacao to cocoa doesn’t just affect how manufacturers label the end product. This heat actually affects the beans on a molecular level, changing their structure and degrading nutrient content. In contrast, raw cacao (which has undergone less processing) therefore has a higher nutrient content than commercially available cocoa widely available in stores. It has more powerful antioxidant effects and health benefits. 100 grams of raw cacao powder has an ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) of 95,500, which represents antioxidant capacity. This drops to 62,100 for cacao nibs, and 26,000 for cocoa powder. It’s not that cocoa is inherently bad for you; it’s just that cacao is more beneficial. Baking with either kind probably decreases some of the nutrients and antioxidants, but unfortunately research quantifying just how much is non-existent at this point. Bottom line: heating cacao or cocoa probably degrades some of the nutrients and lessens potent antioxidant effects. But cacao is the ideal choice because it starts with more of them than cocoa.