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Cocoa lingo: the difference between natural and Dutch-processed, cocoa and cacao

Most products with "natural" on the label are trying to pull a fast one on you. "Natural" usually doesn't mean anything except "buy me, I'm green." But with cocoa powder it can make a big difference in your baked goods. To add to the confusion, you can now find cacao powder as well as cocoa powder in the store, both of which come from pods of Theobroma cacao trees. Read on for the scoop.

What is the difference between cacao powder and cocoa powder?

chart cacao compared to cocoa powder nutrition

I use them interchangeably in recipes, but there is a difference. They both come from fermented, ground cacao pods. Cacao powder has come to mean cold-pressed before roasting while traditional cocoa powder is roasted then pressed. Pressing separates cocoa butter from the chocolate solids. Some sources say cacao powder is healthier because it has been heated and processed less, while other sources say the tropical heat, fermentation, and grinding processes all bring the cacao above the raw-food maximum temperatur, which ranges from 90°F to 118°F depending on your source. If you are on a raw-food diet, you may want to investigate this more.

I switched to Healthworks organic cacao powder because Whole Foods quit carrying organic cocoa powder. Frankly, I didn't notice the difference in the spelling until I started writing the recipe for Chocolate Peanut Cake. My new cacao powder is more mellow than the intense Ghirardelli cocoa I'd been using in the meantime, but still with deep chocolate impact. I grew up with Hershey's cocoa, which I still enjoy.

What is the difference between natural cocoa and Dutch-processed cocoa?

One is acidic and the other has been neutralized. They are not interchangeable in recipes. This is the only case in food that I know of where natural isn't just advertising fluff.

  • Natural cocoa provides the acidity to make baking soda react. In the U.S., natural cocoa is much more common.
  • Dutch-processed, Dutched, or alkalized cocoa has been treated to neutralize its pH. The darker the Dutched cocoa, the milder the flavor. Oreo cookies are made with cocoa so alkalized it's nearly black.

Either cocoa can be used with baking powder, which provides its own acidity, but the rest of the recipe will be adapted to suit either natural or Dutch-process cocoa powder.

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