Kitchen Semantics: Cocoa vs. Cacao

Cocoa vs CacaoA friend recently shot me a message asking if she could substitute unsweetened baker’s cocoa (co-co) for the unsweetened cacao (kuh-kao) powder I call for in our Raw Raspberry Cacao Fudge Cake. I thought that was such a good question, I’d write ya’ll a little ditty on it.

Cocoa and cacao. Just letters away from each other, they’re both related to chocolate, can both be found in ground powder form and, especially when unsweetened, seem to taste a whole lot alike. So what’s the big difference?

“Cacao” is the official name, and the one used in most of the traditional Americas, for the tree and raw bean from which chocolate is made. Cacao itself contains no sugars, and raw cacao powder is significantly higher in nutrients and vitality than its processed by-products.

Cocoa, on the other hand, is the Anglicized version of the word “cacao,” and refers most commonly to a powder made by roasting and grinding the cacao bean, and sometimes adding a small amount of cocoa butter to it.

These two names are sometimes used interchangeably, and the simple answer to my friend’s question is that, yes, you could substitute cocoa for cacao or vice versa and get comparable results in a recipe.

That’s not what I told her, though. At least not without this qualification: Substituting processed cocoa powder for raw cacao powder in a recipe like the raspberry fudge cake renders it no longer truly raw, since the beans are roasted in order to make cocoa. And, although it won’t come out noticeably different taste-wise, you will be sacrificing some of the wholesomeness of the final product.

The use of the word “cacao” has seen a resurgence with the upswing of raw cuisine and artisanal chocolate—I’d venture to say it’s even become a little trendy. When you’re stocking up on cacao powder for use with raw recipes, make sure it’s truly raw and unprocessed. Save the roasted stuff, whether it’s labeled “cocoa” or “cacao” for a gooey pan of baked brownies or chocolate cookies.