Cacao, cocoa, chocolate: What’s the difference?

Chocolate has become something of a nutritional darling – but is it too good to be true?

After years of being consigned to the list of naughty treats, chocolate is being increasingly praised as an antioxidant, a superfood even.

But not all chocolate is created equal.

Chocolate v cacao v cocoa

All three forms come from the tropical cacao plant, native to Central and South America.

The rawest, purest form of these is cacao, which can come as a bean, nibs (beans cut into edible pieces), a paste or a powder.

Accredited sports dietitian Roslyn Yee says cacao is the result of the cacao bean being fermented, dried, sifted and cold-pressed to remove the fat, or cocoa butter.

Cocoa is the result of roasting the cacao bean (after the above process).

This can be marketed as cocoa powder or cocoa powder mix – the form found routinely on supermarket shelves, and commonly with added sugar and fat.

Dark chocolate is created by combining chocolate liquor – produced by grinding cacao nibs into cocoa mass and then liquefied by heating – with cocoa butter and sugar.

Milk chocolate is produced by mixing chocolate liquor with either milk powder or condensed milk.

But Roslyn notes that when talking about a chocolate that offers nutritional benefits, it should be minimally processed and contain at least 70 per cent cacao or cocoa solids.

So is chocolate actually good for you?

Roslyn says cacao beans contain more than 300 plant-chemical compounds, such as:

  • Polyphenols, which include flavonoids and phenolic acid (found in fruits, vegetables and some whole grains) that have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
  • Minerals and micronutrients such as iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, selenium, phosphorus and smaller amounts of potassium and E and B vitamin

Roslyn says those same antioxidants, minerals and nutrients have been associated with improved brain function, blood flow, blood pressure, insulin resistance and sporting performance – which is why dark chocolate has gone from nutrition sinner to saint.


Chocolate, cacao and cocoa: Which is healthier?

Roslyn notes that as the most whole and pure of form of the three, cacao should be your first choice if you are seeking maximum nutrient and antioxidant benefit.

But all three varieties may be relatively energy-dense depending on how the product has been manufactured.

That is why understanding and comparing the nutrition information panel is important to guide your decisions, she adds.

“When choosing a dark chocolate, I always encourage people to check the ingredients list, and ideally choose something that is naturally sweetened,” she says.

“Natural and low-calorie sweeteners, like stevia, monk fruit or xylitol are good options.

“Or at least look for something with a lower amount of processed white sugar.”

Got a sweet tooth? Check out these delicious, healthy chocolate-based recipes:

Written by Mike Bruce.