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What’s the difference between cacao and cocoa?

Spoiler: Cacao and cocoa are not the same thing at all! SHOP CACAO

Ever since I launched our first Mushroom Cacao, I’ve been asked about cocoa vs cacao. No matter what time of year, this chocolatey taste is very craveable. I see recipes posted that look so delicious and healthy that I want to immediately run to the kitchen to try them out myself!

But throughout my browsing, I also noticed a common misconception repeating itself over and over: Hot Cocoa and Hot Cacao being used interchangeably.

So, I want to set something straight: Cocoa and cacao are not the same thing!

Now, you may be wondering, “Chocolate is chocolate. What’s the big deal?”

It’s actually a huge deal. See, cacao and cocoa are two very different beasts (and not all chocolate bars are created equal, either).

We’ve all heard about the purported health benefits of chocolate – about the antioxidant properties and ability to support mood[*].

Unfortunately, to reap these rewards, you can’t simply walk into the grocery store and pick up any bar of commercially made milk chocolate (sorry).

While cacao and cocoa may start in the same place, the difference lies in their processing, resulting in two different products.

Behind chocolate bean processing

Cacao and cocoa begin their lives as the same plant, Theobroma cacao. All chocolate, in all its forms, comes from Theobroma cacao, which is native to South America. (Four Sigmatic cacao beans hail from the Dominican Republic, which boasts the best-flavored beans). 

Harvesters gather the seed pods and remove the beans, which are then fermented and dried. This is where any similarities between cocoa and cacao end. 

After the fermenting and drying process, the cacao beans can be turned into any and all varieties of cacao or cocoa products, including nibs (which are the dried and fermented cracked cacao beans), butter, bars, and our very own Mushroom Hot Cacaos.

The main difference in processing between cocoa and cacao

So, what is it that separates the cacao process from the cocoa process? The answer lies in the heat applied to the two final products:

What Is cocoa?

Image credit: Villa Andina Farm where the cacao in our Mushroom Chocolate is sourced from.

Cocoa is likely what you’re most familiar with. It’s the chocolatey product in most hot cocoa mixes, milk chocolate bars, dark chocolate bars, sauces, ice cream, and almost every other sweet chocolate confection lining grocery store shelves.

Cocoa is cacao that has been processed with high heat. This heating process typically destroys most nutritional value that the raw cacao had, including the antioxidant properties, but gives cocoa its slightly sweeter flavor. 

Add to this further refining, added stabilizers and preservatives, milk fat, and plenty of added sugar to give cocoa its “cocoa-ness,” and the end result is a far cry from its original form. 

You may see two varieties of cocoa powder available at the store. Dutch-processed cocoa powder is popular among bakers and sustains further processing for a less acidic end result. Natural cocoa powder, on the other hand, is slightly less processed but more acidic and less baker friendly.

If you’re looking for a sweet treat and don’t care about the nutritional value (hey, we’ve all been there), cocoa (or a product made with it) might be just what you’re looking for. However, if it’s chocolate’s famous nutritional properties and natural, slightly bitter taste you seek, cacao is the better option.

What Is cacao?

Cacao is created by heating the cacao beans at a much lower temperature to gently separate the fat from the rest of the bean. (You may have heard it called “raw cacao powder” but almost all cacao is actually heated a bit).

Don’t worry, the fat isn’t wasted. It’s eventually turned into cacao butter, cocoa butter’s low-heat, raw food cousin!

Once the fat is separated from the bean, the remainder is ground into a fine powder, resulting in rich, nutrient-dense cacao. Cacao can be used similarly to cocoa in baking, but will yield a slightly more bitter, natural chocolate flavor.

Health benefits of cacao

Cacao has iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and flavanols[*]. Flavanols have been shown to support heart health, especially blood pressure. Cacao even has more antioxidant properties per 100 grams than apples[*]! 

Cocoa powder has some of these, but in much lower amounts, especially in products like a milk chocolate bar. 

On a chilly winter’s day, choosing between a hot cocoa and a hot cacao is like choosing between a sugary chocolate candy bar and an all-natural raw dessert. Both are tasty, but one will yield significantly more nutritional value over the other.

What else should I look for in my cacao products?

Opt for organic. Cacao is an extremely pesticide-sprayed crop and going pesticide-free here is more important than ever.

Choose products made with heirloom Criollo variety beans, if possible. This is the original cacao variety and much better than the mass-produced, higher yield Forastero or the hybridized Trinitario varieties.

Buy products where sugar is not the first ingredient. While flavor is important, you want to buy the magical powers of cacao and not processed milk and sugar.

Choose cacao products that contain other superfoods. Cacao, just like coffee, is a powerful vehicle to deliver other nutrients to your body. Adaptogenic herbs and functional mushrooms would be the ideal pick, but don’t sleep on sea salt, turmeric, ginger, or cayenne.

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Tero Isokauppila is the founder of Four Sigmatic. Tero’s roots (or mycelium, if you will) are in Finland, where he grew up growing and foraging natural foods on his 13th generation family's farm. He later earned a degree in Chemistry, Business, and a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition at Cornell University. An expert in all things related to nutrition, health, and wellness. Tero is the author of two best-selling books: Healing Mushrooms and Healing Adaptogens.

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