Have you ever wondered what the difference is between cacao powder, cocoa powder and carob powder? Did you think that cacao was just a misspelling? Well wonder no more. Cocoa powder and cacao powder are both from the same beans, theobroma cacao (1). The difference between them is in the processing. Cacao is the raw bean that is cold-pressed into a powder or small pieces called cacao nibs. Cold pressing maintains more of the enzymes and nutrients, like antioxidants and magnesium, and separates the fat from the bean. Cacao that is ground into a powder looks like cocoa but retains the living enzymes and flavonoids. The fat extracted during the cold pressing is cocoa butter, which looks like chunks of white chocolate but is a solid fat. Cocoa butter is used in cooking and in beauty products. I love using it in body butter because it is so, so creamy and adds a beautiful natural scent.
Cacao is an excellent source of magnesium, which helps us to feel calm, and also contains the bliss chemical anandamide, which can lead to improved mood and decreased depression. It also contains flavonoids, powerful anti-oxidants with anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits that help to fight free radicals that can lead to inflammation-associated disease like cancer and cardiovascular disease (3).
Cacao nibs, tiny chunks of raw cacao beans, are a good source of fibre, nutrients and healthy fats without the added processed sugars found in chocolate chips. Cacao nibs have an abundance of uses including being added to smoothies, granola, trail mix, and culinary nutrition approved fudge brownies (6).
Cocoa is made by roasting the cacao beans, which destroys some of the live enzymes. Both cacao and cocoa contain nervous system stimulants, theobromine and caffeine. Cocoa and cacao have phenolic antioxidants like catechins, anthocyanidins, and pro-anthocyanidins that are reported to protect the heart and cardiovascular system.
Carob comes from a different tree, ceratonia siliqua (2). Carob powder is higher in carbohydrates and sugar and lower in fat than cacao and cocoa powder, and contains more fibre, but fewer minerals than cacao. Carob does not contain theobromine or caffeine, so is therefore lower in stimulants. Carob is rich in tannins that bind to the mucous membrane of the intestinal tract, making it helpful in decreasing diarrhea (4). Carob does not contain oxalates like cacao and cocoa do, so if you are at risk for developing kidney stones or have vulvodynia you may want to stay away from cacao and cocoa and opt for carob instead (5).
So, what about differences in taste? Because it contains more sugar, carob has a milder, sweeter taste, for those who really want that sweet fix, whereas cacao has the bitter taste associated with dark chocolate. When you choose your chocolate fix, just remember that when we talk about health benefits we’re not talking about the highly-processed, mass conglomerate produced chocolate bars.
Always choose good quality chocolate.