Like chocolate? Try it instead for the health benefits

There are people who say that there is nothing better than chocolate, and in that respect it is absolutely true. But whether you’re a seasoned baker or your expertise stops at the supermarket chocolate aisle and Valentine’s Day gifts, chocolate can be a confusing ingredient, especially when it comes to deciphering the different varieties out there . You may already be familiar with dark, milk and white chocolate, but what about cacao and cocoa? Chances are you’re not exactly sure what sets them apart from one another…

That’s because, although different, the two ingredients actually come from exactly the same place: the cacao tree. Typically found in Africa, South America, Asia and parts of North America, an estimated 5 to 6 million cacao growers produce 90% of the world’s cacao. As they ripen and mature, cacao trees produce seeds called beans, pods, or nuts, which are harvested and processed to varying degrees to create cacao and cacao.

Their similarities pretty much end there, there are some fundamental differences between the two, from the flavor to how they’re made to the benefits they offer. Here’s what makes cacao and cocoa different and how to cook with these two ingredients.

Meet the expert: Danielle Ryan Broida is an American Herbalists Guild Registered Herbalist, Certified Holistic Nutritionist, and National Educator at Four Sigmatic.

What is the difference between cocoa and cocoa?

Cacao is minimally processed, keeping many of the beneficial nutrients intact, he explains Danielle Ryan Broidaa holistic nutritionist and author of Healing adaptogens. In fact, real cacao is the most phytochemically complex food on the planet, with 1,200 active compounds that support the brain, heart and immune system. To make cocoa, cocoa beans are fermented and roasted at a low temperature, then broken into small pieces called cocoa nibs or ground into a powder.

Cocoa, on the other hand, is made by fermenting cocoa beans, and then pouring them at a very high temperature. The resulting cocoa beans are ground into a thick paste called cocoa liquor, and this paste then becomes the cocoa powder we know and love.

In the process, cocoa butter is removed, baking soda is added, and the final product is pulverized and sifted to become what consumers buy as cocoa, says Ryan Broida. But the bean is highly processed and exposed to high temperatures that remove the beneficial fats (cocoa butter) and other important minerals and antioxidants.

What is healthier, cocoa or cacao?

While comparing cocoa to cocoa isn’t quite like comparing apples to oranges, it’s important to consider their differences when deciding which of the two ingredients to use.

First of all, the taste is drastically different. Cacao, the less refined, minimally processed and more nutrient-dense version, has a strong bitter taste, notes Ryan Broida. But tasting bitter flavors is actually an important part of our body that uses the medicinal components of the bean. Bitter signals liver detoxification and a cascade of reactions in the body.

Conversely, cocoa, the precursor to modern chocolate, is like a softer, slightly less sweet version of chocolate because only after adding milk and sugar to cocoa powder do we get chocolate. That said, much of the cacao vs. cacao debate simply comes down to a matter of personal flavor preference.

From a nutritional standpoint, one ingredient is truly superior to the other. Cacao is significantly more beneficial than cacao for its brain, longevity and immune benefits, explains Ryan Broida. One example is that cocoa contains magnesium, a critical mineral responsible for hundreds of functions in the body. Think of magnesium as the body’s cellular relaxant. Cacao is a great way to naturally supplement your body with this critical mineral.

Cacao is also an adaptogen, meaning it is a non-toxic, non-specific, normalizing species with a long history of anecdotal use. If you’re looking for the true benefits of chocolate, gravitate to cocoa over cocoa! adds Ryan Broida.

Can I substitute cocoa for cocoa?

Now that we know that cacao is nutritionally better than cacao, it would seem natural to reach for it even when a recipe calls for the sweeter and less beneficial of the two, and in most cases, this trade-off works perfectly.

If a recipe calls for cocoa, you can absolutely swap it out for organic cocoa, says Ryan Broida. The only thing to keep in mind when making this substitute is to stick to the medium dictated in the recipe. So if it asks for cocoa powder, make sure you use cocoa powder and don’t say, cocoa nibs.

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