Cacao and cocoa; the same thing, right? You could be mistaken for believing this because both are related to that most decadent treat which approximately one billion people consume every day – chocolate. Perhaps all your life you have figured that some people were just saying it or spelling it wrong? Well, neither is true. The fact is there are differences and if you’d like to know what they are to better understand the effects they have on your body, then read on.
Cacao/cocoa originate from cacao beans which are harvested from the Theobroma Cacao Tree. This tree is relatively small in stature and is an evergreen, native to the tropical regions of the Americas (think countries close to the equator). The beans are separated from a pod and look a little bit like coffee beans. Once harvested, dried and fermented, this is where the differences begin and they become known as either cacao or cocoa.
Cacao-once the above process has been carried out the bean is then heated at a low temperature. This process separates the fat from the bean. Due to its minimal processing, cacao is considered a ‘superfood’. It is rich in nutrients such as calcium, copper, zinc, iron and magnesium – to name a few. Being packed with anti-oxidants, it also helps protect your cells from free radicals and damage that can result from premature aging. There are studies which show that the flavanols in cacao also assist in protecting your heart, lowering your blood pressure and regulating glucose production. Another well-known benefit of cacao is its ability to boost your mood and cognitive function.
Cocoa– the bean is treated the same way as before but heated at a high temperature, rather than a low one. This results in a product that is much sweeter than cacao and therefore, more palatable. However, the downside is that when food is heated at high temperatures the resultant product is nutritionally stripped. That’s not to say that cocoa is bad for you, it is just that it will not have the same content of superfood benefits as cacao.
The two different products are then used in various ways; ground into powder for use in drinks, desserts, flavoured milks, cakes, biscuits and ice creams, or added with other ingredients to produce chocolate bars, sweets and Easter eggs etc. The list is endless. For snacking, try cacao nibs for a healthy nutritional treat (just remember it will taste bitter) or use the nibs as a replacement for chocolate chips when baking. Another by-product of cocoa is butter, which is made by extracting the vegetable fat from the bean. For something a little different, try whipping the butter into a smooth moisturiser. Not only will this feel super hydrating on your skin, but you’ll smell delicious too!
In terms of eating chocolate to gain some of its nutritional benefits and still enjoy the taste, try to buy a product with a cacao content higher than 72%. As most manufacturers now recognise this to be one major deciding factor in how consumers choose their chocolate, there are not surprisingly hundreds of different brands to choose from. However, other than nutritional value, cost and taste, there is still one thing which could impact your chocolate choice and that relates to where it comes from and how it is harvested … its environmental footprint.
Given that the process of the cacao bean to the consumer is highly labour intensive, and most of the cocoa originates from developing countries, this could be an important point for you to consider. One tree alone produces a mere 1,000 cacao beans (half a kilo of cocoa) per year. As the cocoa tree bears fruit continuously, farmers need to keep a watchful eye on their crop, not to mention the fact that the tree is susceptible to pests and disease or changes in weather. Once ready for harvest, the cocoa pods then need to be cut down from the tree with machetes. The beans are then extracted from the pods and packed into sacks to be on sold. There have been instances in recent times where chocolate manufacturers have engaged in child labour to carry out this arduous process. If this is something you struggle with, then it can form another part to play in which product you buy.
We hope that this has helped explain the differences between cacao and cocoa and given you the ability to make a more informed decision when next venturing down the supermarket’s confectionary aisle. It’s a refreshing thought that chocolate, when once considered to be bad for you, can actually be good for you, both in term of its nutritional benefits and the positive effect is can have on your mood.
Speaking of feeling good, we included a delicious Bennetto mint chocolate product from the Bennetto Natural Foods company in your December Delight box. We hope you love the taste of this organic fair trade chocolate treat and feel safe in the knowledge that no children were used in the making of this product!