Photo by Jackie Donnelly via Spice & Ink
Cacao and cocoa have many similarities: spelling, origin (both are from the theobroma cacao tree), taste, and several similar uses. They do have a couple of notable differences: nutritional value, cost, and availability. The powdered form of both can be used almost interchangeably in baking, ice creams, smoothies, and mocha drinks. In short, cacao and cocoa start their journey from the same origin, the humble cacao bean, but they take different routes to get to their ultimate destinations.
Cacao is the product of raw cacao beans that have been pulverized (powdered), chopped (nibs), or processed into other forms. It’s been minimally treated and retains a large portion of the bean’s original nutrients, including antioxidants and fats.
Cocoa, on the other hand, has a heavier processing method. It also comes from cacao beans that have been pulverized but these beans have been roasted over a high heat and removed of its fats (cocoa butter), which tends to create a sweeter flavor. Many cocoa companies also often infuse their cocoa with other ingredients, such as sweeteners and milk fats. You can find brands of plain powdered cocoa that have not been sweetened or processed with other filler ingredients, so be careful when shopping and be sure to read the labels. Lastly, the Dutch cocoa-processing style also puts it the cocoa through an additional step, which is an alkalization process that removes some of its acid and bitterness and really balances out the flavor.
In summary, while cocoa has a smoother taste, it often contains fewer nutrients, filler ingredients such as sweeteners, but is more widely distributed, and usually costs less than its cacao counterparts. Cacao, on the other hand, packs a great big punch with nutrients and flavor, however it is often a bit pricier and harder to source, and its flavor can be a bit more dark and bitter. They are, however, definitely siblings in the world of chocolate production. Which is your favorite?
"Dutch-processed Cocoa Powder, Cacao Nibs, and Cacao Shells" by Jackie Donnelly