What’s the Difference Between Cacao and Cocoa Powder?

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Cocoa powder and cacao powder are spelled similar and are even similar products, but they aren’t one and the same.

two small jars filled with cocoa powder and cacao powder on a table with other chocolates

Cacao. Cocoa. Same difference right? Not exactly. These two ingredients have very similar origins, but they have some key differences. Both start out as beans from the cacao plant, which are separated from the fatty part known as cocoa butter (fun fact: that’s where white chocolate comes from). The beans are then milled and processed, and that’s how you make both cacao powder and cocoa powder. But here’s what makes them different.

What is cacao powder?

The beans are processed at low temperatures and are considered raw. Once milled into powder, it contains a much higher amount of enzymes, minerals, and nutrients. That’s cacao powder. It tastes more bitter than cocoa powder but offers more nutritional content and is considered more natural.

What is cocoa powder?

Cocoa powder, on the other hand, is created when the beans are processed at a much higher temperature. The beans are not only fermented but also roasted (cacao powder only involves fermentation). Without further processing, the cocoa is naturally acidic in taste. The finely ground and sifted product is sold as “natural cocoa”. Compared to cacao power, a tradeoff is that it may lack in the nutrients due to the additional heating.

What is Dutch-processed or alkalized cocoa?

There is also Dutch-processed or alkalized cocoa to reduce acidity. According to Cooks Illustrated, typically an alkaline solution like potassium carbonate is added to the chocolate liquor during the refining process, bumping up the pH to between 5.7 to 7.2.  The result is a powder that’s less bitter, sweeter, slightly darker in color, and more soluble when added to liquids.

Nutritional comparison

1 tablespoon (5g) of cocoa powder contains:

  • 3 grams carbohydrates
  • 0 grams of sugar
  • 2 grams of dietary fiber
  • <1 gram of protein
  • 0.5 grams of total fat
  • 2.1 mg of iron
  • 0 mg of phosphorus
  • 6.4 mg of calcium
  • 0 mg of magnesium
  • 75 mg of potassium
  • 8 mg of caffeine

(Reference: Hershey’s Cocoa)

1 tablespoon (6g) of cacao powder contains:

  • 3.2 grams of carbohydrates
  • 0 grams of sugar
  • 2 grams of dietary fiber
  • 1.6 grams of protein
  • 0.6 g of total fat
  • 0.8 mg of iron
  • 14 mg of calcium
  • 42.4 mg of magnesium
  • 120 mg of potassium
  • 19.6 mg of caffeine

(Reference: Navitas Organics Cacao powder)

side by side comparison of the difference between cocoa and cacao

Can I substitute cacao for cocoa powder?

Yes, but you’ll probably want to use less of it because it tastes stronger and more bitter. Cacao powder is also more absorbent, so increase the measurements for all liquid ingredients you’re using. Remember, you can always add more but you can’t take away, so increase bit by bit until your desired consistency is reached.

When cooking with cacao, use baking soda instead of baking powder as a leavening agent. Baking soda reacts with cacao powder because of the acidity, but less so with cocoa powder since it’s stripped of its acidity. That’s why you’ll see recipes with cocoa powder call for baking powder instead of soda.

How do you use cacao powder?

The simple answer is whenever you want to increase the chocolate flavor in a dish. But it’s not just for desserts. You can add it to smoothies and hot chocolate and some even use in meat rubs. It’s a great ingredient when you want something rich and chocolatey but not completely unhealthy.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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49 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Jennifer Ward says

    The US FDA standard identity 163 titled “Cacao products” designates the name “cocoa”
    as the standardized name for “cocoa powder” in part 21 CFR 163.113.
    §163.113 Cocoa.
    (a) Description. Cocoa is the food that conforms to the definition and standard of identity, and is subject
    to the requirements for label declaration of ingredients for breakfast cocoa in §163.112, except that the cacao
    fat content is less than 22 percent, but not less than 10 percent by weight, as determined by the method
    prescribed in §163.5(b).
    (b) Nomenclature. The name of the food is “cocoa” or “medium fat cocoa”.
    FDA refers to “cacao” for products seemingly minimally processed from the cacao tree
    to broken cacao beans (nibs) such as cacao tree, cacao beans, cacao nibs.
    However, in the trade, we see variations of uses of the name % cacao or % cocoa to
    express the % total cocoa solids present in the product sold; such as the sum of
    chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, cocoa powder in a consumer product as served.
    However, these terms are not officially defined by FDA. It is the responsibility of the
    owner of the consumer label to justify any use of the terms chosen.
    In Canada and or Europe, cacao and cocoa are merely the French and English
    equivalents.
    We invite our customers to carefully read the disclaimer

    Hope that helps. Raw cocoa has a real pathogen risk and large companies like Hershey’s are certainly selling a heated powder.

  2. Diane says

    Thank you for this great information! I bought cacao and have been substituting it with just hope, and I’m going to try one of those “wacky cakes” without eggs or dairy so I wanted to make sure it would have the proper leavening reaction, and this had all the information I was looking for and more.

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