There is often confusion between which of the two terms are correct. Is it a matter of preference? Are they the same thing, similar, or is there an actual clear-cut difference?
Etymology: the Origins of the Terms
First, let’s start by understanding where the words come from. The word “cocoa” derives from the Spanish word cacao, which in turn is derived from the Nahuatl word cacahuatl.
Generally, the terms “cacao bean” and “cocoa bean” both refer to the dried seed of Theobroma cacao tree, from which cocoa solids and cocoa butter are extracted. They are the basis of chocolate.
Sometimes, just using the shorter “cocoa” or “cacao” refers to the beans, and they are often used interchangeably.
Difference Between Cocoa and Cacao
While both are very similar, there can be some subtle differences.
“Cacao” refers to any of the various food products derived from cacao beans, which are the seeds of the cacao tree. These products include cacao nibs, cacao butter, cacao mass, and – probably the most common – cacao powder. Raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cocoa and removes the cacao butter, which is the fat.
“Cocoa” often refers to the dry powder made by grinding the beans and removing the cocoa butter from the dark, bitter cocoa solids. Other times, “cocoa” may actually mean a mixture of cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures.
In order to distinguish unroasted cocoa from raw cocoa, the term “cacao” was adopted.