What is the Difference Between Cocoa and Cacao?

Are Cocoa and Cacao the Same?

Cacao beans and powder

Jan Pietruszka / Getty Images

What, exactly, is the difference between cocoa and cacao? Are they the same thing?

You Say Tomato, I Say Cacao: What Is cacao?

What is cacao? Most people are familiar with cocoa already, but what is cacao? We hear the word more and more with each passing season. Why is the word so similar to cocoa? Is there a purpose in having two strikingly similar words to describe what seems to be the same product? Is there something special about cacao products which distinguishes them from cocoa products?

Is there a difference between cacao and cocoa? Even for a bilingual Mexican-American chocolatier the story of how we have both of these words at our disposal is not easy to tell.

The botanical name for the tree that chocolate comes from is Theobroma Cacao. The word cacao comes from the Olmec people from what is now Mexico and 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, quite successfully overtook the correct form.

So, cacao was actually the original word, and cocoa is the "Johnny-come-lately". 

cacao vs. cocoa illustration
Illustration: Ashley Nicole DeLeon. © The Spruce, 2018

The Great Cacao Comeback

As fate would have it, the original spelling was destined to be re-birthed even within the English-speaking community due in part to a growing interest in the raw vegan food diet. Recently, manufacturers of raw vegan food products have usurped the more authentic spelling of the word in an attempt to distinguish their products from products which use roasted cacao beans (i.e. raw cacao powder vs. cocoa powder).

So, in general, these days, "cacao" generally refers to raw vegan chocolate products which come from unroasted cacao (chocolate) beans and are minimally processed with no additives.

But the lines are getting blurry as trends in dieting co-mingle with trends in marketing and trends in linguistics.

So today we basically have two words with the same meaning. Cacao will be seen by the chocolate industry and botanists alike as the more accurate or relevant term. Someone in the long arm of 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.