Chocolate, cacao and cocoa – what’s the difference?

chocolate cacao cocoa difference and health benefits health retreat

Many of us like to share some chocolate when we are celebrating, for example as a gift to a loved one on Valentine’s day or for a birthday. Sometimes we reach for chocolate when we feel in need of a pick-me-up. Chocolate is one of those things that many guests tell us they enjoy but are concerned about whether it is healthy or not. There is also confusion about what the difference is between chocolate, cacao and cocoa. So, in this article we look at where chocolate comes from, look at its various forms and explore the health benefits of this popular food item.

What is the difference between chocolate, cacao and cocoa?

The key ingredient with chocolate is the cacao (or cocoa) bean.

The words cacao and cocoa are often used interchangeably so here is a brief explanation of the origins.

The cacao bean (pronounced “ka-kow”) is harvested from a fruit tree (called Theobroma Cacao), so it is a plant-based product. This is the most natural (raw) and unprocessed form. It’s been known about (and enjoyed!) since the Mayan culture, around 2000BC.

Cacao nibs are made by chopping up the bean into little pieces. Nibs (as seen in the photo) are available to buy in many health food stores. They tend to be quite bitter to taste, not really very sweet at all. As they are relatively unprocessed, nibs are nutritionally rich and can make a nice addition to muffins, cakes or your morning porridge. 

During processing cacao butter is extracted from the bean. The remainder of the bean is then used to make cacao powder. If you are a raw food fan, most cacao derivative products are essentially raw (although some processing is involved in obtaining it). In general, raw cacao is very bitter to the taste and is chalky in texture.

When the cacao bean has been roasted, cocoa (pronounced “ko-ko”) is produced. This is normally turned into powder. Cocoa powder retains many of the cacao bean’s antioxidant properties (although they are at a slightly lower level), and it is cheaper, tastes good and is easier to purchase.

The chocolate bars and drinking chocolate most of us are familiar with is usually made from cocoa powder (originating from cacao) but with further processing and added sugar.

What are the health benefits of chocolate?

There have been many scientific studies investigating the health benefits of chocolate, in its various forms.

Both cacao and cocoa contain antioxidants – those wonderful things that keep our bodies healthy and protect our cells against damage from free-radicals (things that cause us to age or for cells to mutate). (You can read more in our article: how cells breathe here). Flavonoids are found in plants, like the fruit tree that produces cacao beans, and act like antioxidants in the plant. Flavonoids have been shown to help relax blood vessels, so help with blood flow, which can help to reduce blood pressure. Some studies have suggested that including cocoa/cacao in your diet, in a sensible amount, can be good for your heart, due to the flavonoid content. It is also said to help reduce inflammation in the body.

Cacao is also high in iron, zinc and magnesium, all minerals needed by the body to maintain health.

From a health perspective, we always suggest looking for cocoa powder in its most natural form as these have less additives and less sugar, whilst retaining most of the health benefits. As a general rule, food products that are the least processed tend to have higher quantities of nutrients and this stays true for cacao and cocoa – the flavonoid and mineral content is higher in cacao, compared to cocoa.

How to choose a healthy chocolate bar

When buying chocolate, the best thing to watch for is the cocoa content. Check the ingredients list, as a general guide 70% or more is best – look for the amount of cocoa solids.

We suggest that you choose a dark chocolate variety. This is because dark chocolate has a stronger taste, and is more filling than milk or white chocolate, which means you eat less for the same level of satisfaction. Chocolate is quite high in calories (both dark, milk and white varieties), so eating too much chocolate too often can lead to weight gain. Picking a bar that is stronger in flavour can help to limit the amount you eat, thereby reducing the chance of gaining weight.

Dark chocolate typically contains 2-3 times more flavonoids than milk chocolate, so this is another reason why dark chocolate can be seen as a healthier choice.

Many chocolate bars tend to contain other ingredients, in particular sugar, butter or milk. Always check the amount of added sugar and pick one with a low (or zero) value. Dark chocolate bars tend to have lower added sugar (but not always).

Also, be aware that chocolate contains caffeine – dark chocolate typically contains more than milk chocolate (as it typically contains more cacao). You might choose to limit the amount of chocolate you eat on an evening just before bed.

You might also consider where the chocolate was produced or sourced, to choose a brand that is more ethical, for example.

Chocolate plant-based recipes from La Crisalida

We have some lovely chocolate plant-based recipes on our blog including:

Nutrition at La Crisalida Retreats

Nutrition and hydration is an important part of La Crisalida Retreats holistic programme. Here at the retreat we follow a plant-based diet, which means we serve an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, beans and legumes, with nuts, seeds and more, all prepared from ingredients as close to natural as possible. We serve chocolate desserts as an occasional treat each week.  

Come and try it for yourself!

About the author

Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).