cacoa pods on a cacoa tree

Cocoa, Cacao, and Chocolate! Oh My!

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Cocoa, cacao, and chocolate are all derived from the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, an evergreen native to lowland rainforests. However, they are all processed differently and this is what gives the distinct characteristics and nutritional values.

Image by Darno Bege from Pixabay

The entire cacao fruit was traditionally worked with by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations for it’s medicinal effects. These people consumed chocolate as a beverage – each group having their own variations using different spices and flavors. Over time cacao has become practically a staple in homes and food businesses for its uses and delicious flavor.

What’s The Difference?

There is quite a bit of difference between cocoa, cacao, and chocolate.

Cocoa Powder

Cocoa powder is made by roasting, grinding, and pressing the cocoa beans to remove the cocoa butter. It is a primary ingredient in many chocolate products you are familiar with and, of course, often used in baking and cooking. On it’s own, it has a strong chocolate flavor which is relatively bitter.

Cacao Powder

Cacao powder is made not by roasting but rather by cold-pressing cocoa beans. It is by this process which preserves more of the enzymes and the nutrients found in raw cocoa beans. Thus, this is the more nutrient-dense option, having a milder, less bitter flavor than cocoa powder. Drinking a hot cup of ‘coco’ made with raw cacao may be as healthy as it is tasty due to the high number of antioxidants. See more benefits below!


Chocolate is made by combining cocoa powder, sugar, and cocoa butter together, sometimes with sugar and other ingredients. It is the type and amount of the ingredients that determine the final flavor.

What Are The Benefits?

There are plenty of benefits of all three: cocoa, cacao, and chocolate. Keep in mind, however, due to the raw nature, or not having been roasted, that the antioxidants and benefits of cacao are most definitely higher than the others. And, hopefully it goes without saying, that those without sugar added (artificial or natural) are better for your overall wellness too.


Cacao powder is a rich source of polyphenols. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant found in many foods that come from plants which have health benefits, such as reducing the risk of certain diseases. Polyphenols found in cacao powder include catechins, flavanol glycosides, anthocyanins, and procyanidins. Cacao powder also contains minerals such as calcium, copper, iron, potassium and magnesium. There are 2 grams of protein in just over 1 tablespoon of cacao powder according to the label on my Navitas Organics Cacao Powder bag which I typically buy from Thrive Market or here at Amazon.

A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (2003) stated that cocoa may exhibit higher antioxidants than even green tea and red wine. Antioxidants protect your cells from harmful molecules (free radicals).

Effects on Brain Health

Flavanol, found in cacao, may help maintain a healthy brain. The neuroprotective benefits of flavanol may have positive effects on learning and memory. It would appear that consuming cacao may enhance blood flow to the brain, thereby also showing possible potential for vascular disorders.

Effects on Blood Pressure

For some study participants, research has shown that consuming foods containing cacao may help lower blood pressure. This research compared a positive change in the systolic and diastolic blood pressures after consuming cocoa based foods in comparison to those taking black or green tea over a period of seven days. This may be due to the polyphenols I mentioned above as some antioxidants may help improve improve cardiovascular health by reducing inflammation and improving blood flow.

Effects on Cholesterol

In 2004, a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed that cocoa may have hypoglycemic effects on glucose and cholesterol levels. The study was done on rats and it was found that consuming cocoa powder was associated with a decrease in blood glucose levels and an improvement in cholesterol levels. The study suggested that the polyphenols present in cocoa may be responsible for these effects, as they have been known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can help improve cardiovascular health.

Effects on Mood

Consuming cacao may reduce stress and anxiety. It appears, in some studies, that cacao may reduce stress hormone levels. As some studies have found cacao may improve cognitive function, this may also enhance mood. Cacao increases levels of certain brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, which enhances feelings of pleasure and can have antidepressant-like effects.


Simply remember that cacao beans naturally contain caffeine. So you need to know how caffeine affects your body and make wise choices with how much you consume. Large amounts would mean large amounts of caffeine which can cause nervousness, irritability, and trouble sleeping. Some people don’t need a large amount to notice these effects!

In addition, consuming too much processed chocolate which contains sugar or artificial ingredients can also have a negative effect on your health that outweighs the benefits. It is wise to use chocolate as a treat only. It’s important to note that the studies mentioned above are mostly observational and more research is needed to confirm these findings and to understand the underlying mechanisms.

Add these to your wellness basket(or a St. Valentine’s gift basket) for a nice treat!

Hu Chocolate – Hu is a brand we love and they have quite an assortment of products!

Alter Eco – This is my personal favorite. Alter Eco also has quite an assortment!

Navitas Organics Cacao Powder – try this to make a yuumy baked treat or your own cocoa mix!

Over fruit is a favorite way of mine to enjoy chocolate!

Do you love chocolate as much as I do? What’s your favorite healthy source(better than most) of chocolate?

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  1. Hi, I have been using the cacao powder in my fat free Greek Yogurt as a snack for the evening. You can tell the difference with the taste and your excellent descriptions have made it all worth the while. Thank you.

    1. That’s a really great idea Janice! I’m considering making my own yogurt again soon and that would be a great flavor to add!

  2. My tastes in chocolate have changed similarly to my taste in coffee, I used to like a little coffee or chocolate with my dairy and sugar. I have as of late greatly appreciated the rich flavor and health benefits of cocoa, cacao, and dark chocolate. Excellent post explaining the differences, very helpful! Thank You.

    1. I agree – my tastes have changed over time too. I should have mentioned how I prefer salted dark chocolate when I have non-dairy chocolate. It helps with the sweetness and somehow gives it a creamier like texture. Another post for another day I suppose!

    2. I always wondered what the difference between cocoa and cocoa were, thank you for clearing that up! We love making homemade hot chocolate during the winter months, I use milk, cocoa powder, sugar, collagen powder, vanilla extract, and a dash of salt. It’s so yummy!

      1. I love that you add collagen powder to it! I like adding it to my coffee- I’ll definitely need to remember to do that next time I make cocoa too! The salt is a great idea too!

      2. What a great post! I never considered or thought much about the difference between chocolate, cocoa, and cocao before! As if I needed another reason to enjoy some chocolate in my diet but I’m happy to get yet another one!

        1. I love it, really,and definitely love having a good reason to keep it in my life! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Such a good explanation of the differences! I always knew they were different but have never taken the time to actually look into it.

    1. Thanks. So glad I could help! Just try to keep the sugar low (or lower than usual) and you are on your way to working with it in a healthy way!

  4. This is great information for a chocoholic like myself. I try to stick mainly to dark chocolate because of the health benefits, but it is my favorite.

    1. I try to stick to dark chocolate with sea salt- because there’s something about that salt that gives it a sweeter taste and a bit of creaminess like milk chocolate has…but I do indulge in a nice milk chocolate once in awhile. πŸ™‚ Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Using cacao in place of cocao in my hot chocolates was a literal GAME CHANGER for me! It’s so much tastier in addition to all of the benefits you mentioned above. Cacao is SO delicious!

    1. Thanks for saying so! I agree! I like making my own now. So glad to toss all the extra sugar and artificial ingredients in so many store bought mixes!

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