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Health Benefits of Cacao vs Cocoa

I believe in natural products, but I realize that natural doesn't always mean safe.

Cacao vs. Cocoa

Cacao vs. Cocoa

Raw Cold Pressed Cacao Is a Superfood

After some research, I was surprised by the potential health benefits of cacao. There is a distinct difference in nutritional benefits between cacao and cocoa. Raw cold-pressed cacao is a permanent addition to my breakfast smoothies now. I mean, who doesn’t love chocolate right? I realized early on that it was important to buy raw cacao powder and not the heat-processed cocoa bean powder. I had to pay attention to labels and ingredient lists.

Definition of Cacao

Raw, unroasted, and cold-pressed cacao beans produce the purest product. It preserves the nutritional benefit of the bean partly because it isn’t exposed to high heat.

Definition of Cocoa

A quick definition is that cocoa is roasted cacao beans. Roasting the bean at high temperatures diminishes its nutritional value. Cocoa powder is still somewhat good for you if you buy the unsweetened version. Look for plain dark (also known as Dutch-processed) cocoa powder. It is processed with an alkalized solution which enhances the taste and makes it less bitter than the heat processed version.

Important Differences Between Cacao and Cocoa


Harvested from the pods of a Theobroma cacao tree.

Harvested from the pods of a Theobroma cacao tree.

Cold pressed extraction

Processed with high heat

Typically sold raw

Often sold as a mix of cocoa, sugar, and fillers

High ORAC value

Lower ORAC value

Higher in calories because it's less processed

Lower calorie count unless the product has added sugar and fillers.

What are the critical differences between cocoa and cacao?

What are the critical differences between cocoa and cacao?

Benefits of Cacao

Raw cacao offers more nutritional benefits than unsweetened cocoa because it hasn’t been stripped of its benefits during processing.

Another consideration is that cacao is higher in calories because it is minimally processed. However, if you buy sweetened cocoa, you might find the opposite to be true. Check your product ingredient list.

  • Mood enhancer and sleep aid: Cacao has the amino acid, tryptophan. Tryptophan helps our bodies make the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin which helps us relax. Serotonin is important to manage pain and appetite. Melatonin is produced from tryptophan which helps to regulate our sleep.
  • Helps produce vitamin B3: The liver uses tryptophan to produce niacin (vitamin B3) which plays an important role in energy metabolism and DNA production.
  • Contain iron: This is particularly beneficial for vegetarians and vegans because iron is more abundant in meat. Iron helps our bodies to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein in our red blood cells that carries oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body.
  • Good source of antioxidants: Antioxidants like resveratrol help to protect our nervous system. Antioxidants also help to regulate healthy levels of nitric oxide which helps to reduce blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels. You could use cocoa powder instead of raw cacao but then you would gain all the added sugar and lose much of the antioxidant properties of the raw option. Resveratrol is also in red wine. Just thought I'd mention that.
  • Mineral rich: Calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and zinc are all present in cacao. Copper helps iron absorption. Copper also helps to metabolize glucose. Zinc supports our immune system.
  • Diabetes: A study led by assistant professor Jeffery Tessem at Brigham Young University in Utah found that a compound in cacao called epicatechin monomers helps the body to secrete insulin more efficiently. Insulin regulates blood glucose levels in the body.
  • Theobromine: Theobromine is responsible for cacao’s bitter taste. It is a nervous system stimulant which can affect your mood and boost your energy. Some research is underway to study theobromine’s anti-inflammatory properties.

Risks of Cacao and Cocoa

Cacao and cocoa are generally safe for most people but should be consumed in moderation. If you are sensitive to caffeine or take any prescription medication, check if the product may interfere with your medication before you introduce it to your diet. Consult with your physician to be safe.

Adverse reactions to refined or unrefined cacao is often linked to caffeine. However, most reactions are linked to overindulgence, which will spike caffeine intake.

  • Anxiety: Anyone diagnosed with an anxiety disorder should be aware that most chocolate products have varying levels of caffeine.
  • Breast feeding: Proportionately, caffeine in a mother’s breast milk is roughly half of what is in her blood. So, breast feeding moms should limit their caffeine intake. Too much caffeine in breast milk can cause the baby to have diarrhea and become irritable.
  • Bleeding disorders: Limit your chocolate intake if you suffer from any bleeding disorder.
  • Drug interaction: Some prescription medication and caffeine don’t work well together. There are reports of possible interactions with some blood thinning prescriptions, heart and blood pressure medication, estrogen related medication, medication for depression and anxiety and some diabetes prescriptions.
  • Glaucoma: Caffeine can affect eye pressure. Anyone with glaucoma should limit their caffeine consumption.
  • Heart disease: If you have a heart condition, too much caffeine may cause an irregular heartbeat.
  • Theobromine: If you are sensitive to caffeine, you may be sensitive to theobromine and should limit your intake. Since it is a potential nervous system stimulant, it could disrupt your sleep if you drink cacao close to bedtime.

Buy Chocolate Products Responsibly

Fair Trade Verified

A lot of cacao agriculture is found in countries where child and forced labor, deforestation, and poverty are rampant. By selecting a product with the logo, you are supporting ethical farming practices.

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Non-GMO Verified

If this is important to you, then search your product on the NonGMO Project website. I found my preferred cacao product here.

Fair Trade Chocolate Products

Look for these badges on the packaging.

Look for these badges on the packaging.

Serving Suggestions

Some believe that milk inhibits antioxidant absorption from cacao and cocoa. However, a clinical study conducted with 21 volunteers determined this to be a false assumption.

I found that raw cacao was bitter and I struggled to find a healthy, tasty way to take it daily. I experimented a little and these are my favorites.

Smoothie: Add 1 tablespoon of raw cacao powder to milk or nondairy alternative, with a tablespoon of honey. Blend well for a refreshing drink.

Chocolate Greek yogurt: I like to add a tablespoon of cacao to about 6 ounces of plain Greek yogurt and maybe some granola for a rich, crunchy chocolate pudding. Add a bit of agave, honey, or a non-nutritive sweetener for sweetness.

Chocolate mousse: Try blending 4 dates, 2 heaped tablespoons of raw cacao, ½ cup of avocado and half a banana. This is my recipe but there are tons of variations out there.

Dark chocolate: If you’re looking for something on the go, you could opt for dark chocolate. Anything with at least 70% cocoa is a good option.

Granola bars: Add the powder or raw nibs to your favorite granola bar recipe.


Cacao and cocoa may originate from the same plant but the processing methods that they are subjected to after harvesting decides their health benefits. Unsweetened and raw cacao is definitely a better option but unsweetened cocoa is a cheaper alternative and may still have some health benefits.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Celeste Wilson

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