Cocoa is a familiar ingredient, whether used for baking or to make hot chocolate, but cacao may be a little less known. With the popularity of eating whole and natural foods as well as vegan diets, however, we are hearing the word more and more with each passing season. It is easy to get confused as to the difference between the two since cocoa and cacao actually have a lot in common, the most important being chocolate.
Cacao is the seed (shaped like a bean) from which chocolate is made and cocoa is an ingredient in chocolate. Cacao will be seen by the chocolate industry and botanists as the more accurate or relevant term, while someone in the chocolate industry may tell you that cocoa refers to any of the manufactured products of the plant (especially the powder) as well as the bean itself. Interestingly, English seems to be the only language having this conundrum; all other languages just have one word for all of the plants' many forms.
The Word Cacao
The botanical name for the tree that chocolate comes from is Theobroma Cacao. The word cacao comes from the Olmec people who inhabited what is now Mexico, and it is believed to be the closest pronunciation to the original name of the plant. History shows that chocolate then changed hands from the Olmec to the Mayans to the Spanish. The word cacao is the only word ever used in any of the Hispanic languages to describe what English speakers think of as cocoa. It is actually widely believed that the word cocoa has its origins in a spelling mistake—a mistake which was never corrected, and perhaps found easier to pronounce—which quite successfully overtook the correct form.
Cacao vs. Cocoa
In one sense, the two words mean the same thing as "cocoa" is the English adaptation of the word "cacao." However, there are also important distinctions between the two. While cacao refers to cacao beans that have not been roasted, what is called cocoa is made of beans have been roasted. So, in turn, a product that is labeled cacao is the raw bean and is often packaged as vegan chocolate that has been minimally processed with no additives. Cocoa, on the other hand, is a processed chocolate product, such as chocolate bars and powder.
The Cacao Comeback
Due in part to a growing interest in the raw vegan food diet, cacao has returned to the food scene. Recently, manufacturers of raw vegan food products have adopted the more authentic spelling of the word in an attempt to distinguish their products from products which use roasted cacao beans, such as raw cacao powder vs. cocoa powder. But do be sure to read the ingredients carefully as the lines can sometimes blur between authenticity and trendy marketing.
Many recipes using cacao start with cacao nibs, the dried and fermented cacao beans that are ground up into pieces, or cacao powder. Candied cacao nibs are a tasty treat, combining the cacao with sugar, water, corn syrup, and butter, or you can use the cacao powder to make a smoothie, a chocolate shake, and a delicious chocolate bar.