Cacao or Cocoa? What's the Difference?

A lot of people ask the question...

"What's the difference between cacao and cocoa?"

The answer isn't as straightforward as you might think. The difference is based partly in language... and partly in marketing.

Even so, we'll make sense of the cacao vs. cocoa debate for you, here…

First, though, the word "cacao" is Spanish. It's pronounced "kha-cow." "Kha" is like Genghis "Khan." "Cow" is just like the animal.

Kha-cow. Cacao. Great!

We'll define cacao, first...

Cacao is both a pod-shaped fruit and the tree that this fruit grows on. Cacao seeds are the essential ingredient in chocolate. The seeds are covered in a (delicious) white pulp in the picture below.

The scientific name is Theobroma cacao, which translates roughly to "food of the gods," from Greek.

When the fruit is on the tree or fresh off the tree, it's "cacao."

The only people who are likely to call it cocoa at this stage are native English speakers who haven't yet learned how to pronounce cacao. (Aren't you glad you're not one of them 🤣?) 

Large quantities of cacao seeds - with the pulp still on - are gathered together for fermentation. Immediately after they're fermented, the cacao seeds (or is it now cocoa beans) are dried.

Yes, this is where the confusion begins…

Sometime either during or after the fermentation and drying processes, fresh cacao seeds become exportable "cocoa beans"... at least in most people's minds. You may hear "cacao beans" at this stage, too.

The word "seed" is dropped almost universally at this point, though. These so-called "beans" can no longer be planted to grow into trees.

After the cacao seeds have been fermented and dried, calling it cacao or cocoa is a marketing decision...

Typically, small-batch chocolate makers and companies that are going for artisanal, "natural," or health-related marketing messages choose to call it cacao. "Cacao" sounds less processed, closer to the origin, and more like the fruit that it started out as.

Chocolate makers and companies that are more concerned with appealing to a broad market usually call it cocoa. "Cocoa" is a more familiar word to English speakers. It's recognizable and easy to pronounce. But to some folks, it sounds like it's more processed… and like less human care went into it.

Depending on the chocolate maker, all of these perceptions may be true. Or the marketers may simply be trying send a message that benefits them.

More and more, we're seeing the word cacao show up on industrial chocolate products. It's not technically wrong. But it's not exactly honest, either. It's a gray area that's being exploited.

Here are some of the ways you might see the two variations…

Now that you know the actual difference between cacao and cocoa, you may want to ask yourself, "Does the company's language match its values, processes, and products? Or is it trying to sound like something it's not?"

Happy chocolate hunting!

As we say in Costa Rica, pura vida,

The Latest Batch team