Raw cacao vs cocoa: what’s the difference?

You guys have been asking us: “What’s the difference between cocoa and cacao?”, so we thought we’d better clear a few things up for you.

Is there a difference between the two aside from a few vowels?

The studies that boast of chocolate’s amazing health benefits are not referring to your average store-bought chocolate bar (damn misleading researchers). The chocolate that they’re referring to is raw cacao.

Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. The process keeps the living enzymes in the cocoa and removes the fat (cacao butter).

Cocoa looks the same but it’s not. Cocoa powder is raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures. Sadly, roasting changes the molecular structure of the cocoa bean, reducing the enzyme content and lowering the overall nutritional value.

What are the health benefits of raw cacao?

  • Lowers insulin resistance.
  • Protects your nervous system: Cacao is high in resveratrol, a potent antioxidant also found in red wine, known for its ability to cross your blood-brain barrier to help protect your nervous system.
  • Shields nerve cells from damage.
  • Reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Reduces your risk of stroke.
  • Reduces blood pressure.
  • Reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease: The antioxidants found in cacao help to maintain healthy levels of nitric oxide (NO) in the body. Although NO has heart-benefiting qualities, such as relaxing blood vessels and reducing blood pressure, it also produces toxins. The antioxidants in cacao neutralise these toxins, protecting your heart and preventing disease.
  • Guards against toxins: As a potent antioxidant, cacao can repair the damage caused by free radicals and may reduce the risk of certain cancers. In fact, cacao contains far more antioxidants per 100g than acai, goji berries and blueberries. Antioxidants are responsible for 10% of the weight of raw cacao.
  • Boosts your mood: Cacao can increase levels of certain neurotransmitters that promote a sense of well-being. And the same brain chemical that is released when we experience deep feelings of love – phenylethylamine – is found in chocolate.
  • It is rich in minerals: Magnesium, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper and manganese.

If cacao is more beneficial than cocoa because it’s raw, what happens when we cook it?

Very good question and we’re glad you asked… unfortunately, there is no science on whether or not heating raw cacao destroys its antioxidant level making it more akin to its heated and processed cousin cocoa. BUT we figure if you start off with the product in its raw form, it has to be more beneficial than starting with an already heated and processed equivalent.

Let’s end with an interesting tid-bit…

Research shows that dairy inhibits the absorption of antioxidants from raw cacao.

So if you’re making a cacao shake you’re better off using a non-dairy milk, such as almond or coconut, in order to reap all of the antioxidant benefits. Fact!

Keen to introduce more cacao into your kitchen repertoire? Check out our Chocolate Cookbook for some delicious chocolate treats and recipes that are so good for you, you can eat them for breakfast!

5 ways to add raw cocoa powder to your diet

I cannot remember the last time I went a full day without consuming cocoa. Seriously. Whether it’s my morning hot chocolate I make from scratch, or the raw cocoa powder I sprinkle over frozen banana slices for a sweet snack, cocoa is getting into my system in some way or another. Am I an addict? Yeah, probably. Is it a health concern? Not the way I consume it.

We’ve written about the health benefits of cocoa before. It is packed with antioxidants that destroy free radicals, the chemicals that accelerate aging, inflammation and increase the potential for a range of diseases. Eating a little dark chocolate can reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke. It can even improve blood pressure and blood vessel health, and improve your HDL cholesterol. We all have heard the studies about how great cocoa is, but we can’t just go around chowing down on chocolate bars. The benefits are too often far outweighed by the negative consequences of the fat and refined sugar we tend pair with our raw cocoa powder.

Instead, here are healthful ways to add cocoa powder to your diet without any of the negative stuff that ruins cocoa’s goodness.

Puddings (even for breakfast!)

Think you can’t have chocolate pudding for breakfast? Think again. Here’s a fantastic recipe for Chocolate Cottage Cheese Chia Pudding — high in protein, it’ll keep you full for hours while also adding the benefits of cocoa powder into your meal.

Another variation is this Raw Chocolate Superfood Pudding, which as the name suggests, packs in the superfoods, making it a great breakfast or snack option. Falling somewhere between a sweet breakfast and a potential dessert treat, here’s a recipe for Banana Avocado Pudding. It’s about as simple as you can get, and I can’t wait to try it.

This one is a little rich for breakfast, but for a sweet and healthy dessert, try my Chocolate Avocado Pudding which is vegan, raw, and filled with nutrients and healthy fats.

Sprinkled over fruit

My very favorite snack, and something I admittedly eat daily, is a cup of frozen banana slices with cocoa powder sprinkled over the top. Falling somewhere between a chocolate-covered banana and a cold banana truffle, this treat is one of my go-tos for satisfying a sweet tooth. And it’s just a banana and some cocoa powder. Can’t get healthier than that for dessert.

Take it a step farther by adding the frozen banana slices and cocoa powder to a food processor or blender and blend until smooth for a creamy chocolate ice cream. No really, it’s just like ice cream!

Another way to go is to toast a piece of whole-grain bread, spread a layer of raw nut butter (almond or peanut are my favorites!), add another layer of thinly sliced banana, and sprinkle with cocoa powder. It’s a healthy breakfast that tastes like dessert. It also works if you do a layer of freshly sliced strawberries instead of bananas — or thinly sliced apples or pears, for that matter.

Be creative because really any fruit is a perfect pairing for cocoa powder. The sweet from the fruit counters the bitterness from the cocoa, so you have chocolate without any refined sugar. Even a bowl of raspberries or blueberries can get a sprinkle of cocoa powder for extra deliciousness.

Granola bars

Granola bars are surprisingly easy to make. A quick Web search will give you lots of recipes, though one of the simplest and healthiest I’ve found is a 5-ingredient granola bar. You can just add cocoa powder to the mix, adjusting the moist ingredients slightly to make sure the mix isn’t too dry, or you could add raw cacao nibs to your granola bar mixture. Cacao nibs are the same thing as cocoa powder only before the cocoa has been ground down to powder. So you’ll get the same health benefits (and a little crunch!) by using them instead of powder.

Another option for adding cocoa powder to healthy snack bars is this recipe for Chocolate Larabars, or these easy 5-Minute Raw Cacao Snack Bars. There are tons of great ideas and options online, so it’s only a matter of time before you can begin perfecting your own personal recipe for healthy cocoa-infused snack bars.

Fudge and brownies

Yes it’s true, there are even healthy (or rather, healthy-ish) versions of fudge and cocoa that can give you more of cocoa powder’s benefits without all the unhealthy stuff attached.

For example, there is this mouth-watering recipe for The Best Vegan Black Bean Brownies Ever, which boasts having more protein than an egg per brownie square. For a spicier version (that I expect would be a hit at parties), try No-Bake Chili Brownies, which take about 15 minutes to make and about 10 minutes to set, then they’re ready to scarf down.

Another option for coffee lovers is this recipe for Chocolate Almond Espresso Fudge Bars, a super easy recipe for raw, no-hassle fudge. And for those who like to keep things simple, try this “fudge yeah!” recipe for Black Bean Fudge.

Amaze-balls (aka: healthier truffles)

Who doesn’t love a cocoa-powder-covered truffle?? (If you have made it this far in the article, I highly doubt you’re raising your hand!) These are typically made with dates, figs or nut butter, with coconut shreds and other goodies mixed in. And of course, they are finished off with a good roll in the cocoa powder. It’s a dessert, to be sure, but when you use nature’s natural sugars like blended dates, it’s pretty hard to feel guilty. And they’re just as rich as “regular” truffles, so you’re not missing out, not by a long stretch.

This recipe for 5-minute Raw Paleo Fudge Balls looks divine. And I’ll never complain about truffles that take five minutes to make. Another winner is Raw Chocolate Amaze Balls, which also feature walnuts, a superfood food filled with important nutrients and healthy fats. Not a fan of walnuts? Okay, try out these Choco-Hazel Bliss Balls, which use hazelnuts.

A quick Google search will have you knee-deep in recipes for healthy versions of delicious amaze-balls, bliss balls, or whatever you want to call them.

Tips for buying cocoa powder

  • Look for certified fair trade. There are many great brands to choose from, and you’re helping to ensure workers get a living wage.
  • Look for organic. It’s true that not all organic cocoa tastes as good as non-organic, so you’ll have to test a few out and see what you like best. But if you can, go for organic.
  • Look for a higher fat content. Yep, you read that right. The really good cocoa that has lots of flavor (and therefore is more satisfying and you won’t need to use as much) has as much as 24 percent more fat than the cheap stuff.
  • Make sure you’re getting unsweetened cocoa powder, and not something that has sugars mixed in. Avoid packages labeled “ground chocolate” as this is basically powdered chocolate bars with added stuff we’re trying to avoid in the first place. Make sure the only ingredient is cocoa.

Cooking with cocoa nibs

If you have daily cravings for dark chocolate, you’ve got to try cocoa nibs. Never heard of them? These crunchy little gems are roasted and crushed cocoa beans that deliver the true essence of chocolate, without the sugar, and are delectably loaded with antioxidants.

From upscale dessert menus to your local health foods deli, cocoa nibs are growing in popularity and becoming more readily available. Here’s more on cocoa nibs and three cocoa nibs recipes to get your chocolate fix.

What are cocoa nibs?

Cocoa nibs, also called chocolate nibs or labeled as cacao nibs, are about as close as you can get to unprocessed chocolate. They are essentially roasted cocoa beans that have been separated from their husks and crushed into small bits. Because cocoa nibs are minimally processed, they boast more antioxidants than your candy aisle chocolate. Cocoa nibs are a health-conscious chocolate lover’s answer to satisfying a chocolate craving without the added sugar found in candy bars. Cocoa nibs can replace chocolate morsels in cookies or brownies and can be added to other baked goods or used as a garnish for desserts. Because cocoa nibs aren’t sweet, they can also deliciously lend their intense chocolate flavor to savory dishes.

Where can I buy cocoa nibs?

If cocoa nibs are a new ingredient for you, you’re probably wondering where you can buy them. Check with your local health food grocer, co-op or gourmet food market; if they don’t carry cocoa nibs, request an order. You can also buy cocoa nibs online. Be warned that, like chocolate bars, different brands will have their own unique flavors. My favorite source for cocoa nibs is NavitasNaturals.com. They also have a tasty assortment of other cocoa products including cocoa beans, cocoa powder, sweetened cocoa nibs, cocoa butter and cocoa paste.

Spicy dark chocolate mousse recipe


Cinnamon and a dash of chipotle powder give this decadent dark chocolate dessert recipe a spicy surprise while the cocoa nibs add a lovely crunch and intense depth of chocolate flavor.

Serves 4


  • 1-1/3 cups heavy cream, divided
  • 2 tablespoons superfine sugar
  • Generous pinch sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder
  • 6 ounces chopped dark chocolate (65-85 percent)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup cocoa nibs plus extra for garnish
  • Whipped cream for garnish (optional)


  1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine 1/3 cup heavy cream, sugar and salt, and cook, stirring often, until cream comes to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in cinnamon and chipotle.
  2. Place chocolate in a large bowl and pour hot cream over the top. Let stand for one to two minutes, and then stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth.
  3. Whisk in oil and vanilla until mixture is creamy. Set aside to cool completely.
  4. Meanwhile, pour remaining cream in a large bowl and use an electric mixer to whip until soft peaks form. Place whipped cream in the refrigerator until chocolate is cool.
  5. Use a spatula to fold one half of the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Gently fold in remaining whipped cream. Gently fold in the cocoa nibs.

    Chicken mole recipe

    A savory recipe featuring the deep chocolate flavor of cocoa nibs, this chicken mole is a hearty family dinner recipe that also makes a scrumptious dish for guests. Serve with white or brown rice.

    Serves 6


    • 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
    • 1 onion, chopped
    • 4 garlic cloves, minced
    • 2 tablespoons chili powder
    • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 1 (15 ounce) can fire-roasted diced tomatoes, drained
    • 1 green bell pepper, seeded, chopped
    • 2 poblanos, seeded, chopped
    • 1-1/2 cups chicken broth
    • 2 tablespoons almond butter
    • 1/3 cup cocoa nibs
    • 6 skinless boneless chicken breasts
    • 1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds for garnish


    1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
    2. Heat two tablespoons oil in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Add onion and saute until translucent.
    3. Add garlic, chili powder, cumin, coriander and cinnamon, and cook, stirring, for two minutes.
    4. Add diced tomatoes, peppers, broth, almond butter and cocoa nibs, stirring to combine. Simmer on medium-low for 15 minutes. Puree sauce in a food processor or blender until smooth. Set aside.
    5. Heat remaining oil in a large saute pan over medium-heat and sear the chicken, browning both sides.
    6. Place chicken in a single layer in prepared casserole dish and pour mole sauce over the top. Cover with aluminum foil and cook for 45 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.
    7. Place chicken on a serving platter, cover with sauce, and garnish with almonds.Spoon or pipe mousse into four wine glasses. Cover and refrigerate for two hours or until set. Garnish with whipped cream, if using, and additional cocoa nibs.
      If you have daily cravings for dark chocolate, you’ve got to try cocoa nibs. Never heard of them? These crunchy little gems are roasted and crushed cocoa beans that deliver the true essence of chocolate, without the sugar, and are delectably loaded with antioxidants.

    Pumpkin cocoa nib bar recipe

    Pumpkin, coconut and chocolate are a delicious trifecta of flavors in this indulgent dessert bar recipe.

    Yields 24


    • 4 eggs
    • 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
    • 1 cup coconut oil, melted
    • 1 (15 ounce) can pure pumpkin
    • 2 cups all-purpose flour
    • 2 teaspoons baking powder
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1 cup cocoa nibs plus more for garnish
    • 4 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese, softened
    • 1/3 cup coconut oil, solid at room temperature
    • 2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
    • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract


    1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and grease a 13 x 9-inch baking dish.
    2. In the bowl of a standup mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat eggs, sugar, melted coconut oil and pumpkin until light and fluffy. Remove whisk attachment and replace with paddle attachment.
    3. Into a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt.
    4. Add flour mixture to egg mixture and blend on low speed until combined and smooth. Add cocoa nibs and blend until incorporated into batter.
    5. Spread batter evenly into prepared baking dish. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the center. Place baking dish on a wire rack to cool for one hour or until room temperature.
    6. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the cream cheese and solid coconut oil. Beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Gradually add sugar and continue to mix on low speed until smooth. Beat in vanilla.
    7. Spread over pumpkin bars and sprinkle with extra cocoa nibs. Cut into bars and serve.

Choice Ingredient: Cocoa Powder

Learn: Similar to coffee, cocoa powder starts as beans―cocoa beans, from the cacao tree. After harvest, the seeds are fermented, roasted, and ground to create chocolate liquor. To make cocoa powder, the chocolate liquor is pressed to remove most of its fat, or cocoa butter, then ground again, resulting in a fine, dusky powder. Natural cocoa powder is acidic and slightly bitter, so a 19th-century Dutch scientist named Conrad van Houten found a way to neutralize the beans with alkaline chemicals, creating Dutch process cocoa powder, which has a smooth, mild chocolate flavor and a rich reddish-brown hue. Always check the label before purchasing. Dutch process cocoa may also be called “Dutched” or “alkalized,” while natural may only say “cocoa.”

Purchase: Thanks to variations in cacao trees, growing regions, and processing methods, you’ll find wide variation in flavor between brands of cocoa powder, and there are dozens to try. A good rule of thumb: If you like a particular manufacturer’s solid chocolate, you will probably like their cocoa powder as well.

Use: Cocoa powder is often used in baked goods. It also can be lightly sprinkled on top of tiramisu or other finished desserts for garnish. Cocoa powder has savory applications, too, as in modern versions of classic Mexican moles or the tablespoon that’s the “secret” ingredient in many homemade chili recipes.

Store: Keep cocoa powder in an opaque, airtight container in a cool, dark place; it will last up to two years. Place away from herbs and aromatic spices as it can easily absorb other flavors.

5 Sweet and Savory Things to Do With Cocoa Nibs

Every week, baking expert Alice Medrich will be going rogue on Food52 — with shortcuts, hacks, and game-changing recipes.

Today: What, exactly, are you supposed to do with cocoa nibs? Alice tells all.

Cacao or cocoa nibs are bits of hulled cocoa beans. Most nibs are sold roasted (and those have the best flavor). They are unsweetened — thus somewhat bitter — and super crunchy, with intense and rather primal chocolate flavors.

More: 10 Chocolate Cookies. You’re welcome.

Nibs were once found only in chocolate factories, where they were ground up and made into chocolate. Nibs are still the defining ingredient in all chocolate manufacture, but they are now also available in better supermarkets and specialty stores. You can use nibs in all kinds of sweet and savory ways. Here are five to get you started.

5 Sweet and Savory Things to Do with Cocoa Nibs

1. Sprinkle nibs on vanilla (or other) ice cream for a grown-up ice cream experience.

2. Add nibs — in addition to or instead of — nuts in cookie recipes.

3. Make cocoa nib-infused whipped cream: Bring 1/3 cup of roasted nibs to a simmer in 1 cup of heavy cream. Off heat, cover and let steep 20 minutes and then strain the cream into a bowl and discard the nibs. Chill the cream several hours before whipping it with a little sugar to taste.

4. Sprinkle nibs on salad (as you would nuts or seeds) of arugula or other greens. You can add one or a combination of the following: currants, shaved fennel, pomegranate seeds, crumbled goat cheese, Parmesan cheese, Niçoise olives.

5. Make nibby pesto: In a mortar (or mini food processor) pulverize 1/3 cup of nibs with 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to a gritty paste. Add and pulverize 12 Niçoise olives and a few fresh basil leaves. Mix in another 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil and salt to taste. Serve on toasted slices of French bread, plain or topped with prosciutto or shaved Parmesan or Asiago cheese.