Have you been left confused by the recent rise of the use of the word “cacao” on product packaging? Here in Canada and the States we’ve indeed been using “cocoa” for what it seems forever. The main reason that we’re going to delve into this topic is that if you ask a food producer why they’re calling their product “cacao” and not “cocoa” they would explain that the first one is the purest form of the powder available, as opposed to - again, what they say – is the processed cocoa powder. They might even call their product “raw”. Well, let’s test these claims against the facts of modern chocolate production and some linguistics.
First of all, the word “cacao” has existed for ages. Meriam-Webster dates its use in the English language to year 1555 with the origins traced further back to the Aztecs.
Cacao - the dried partly fermented fatty seeds of a South American evergreen tree (Theobroma cacao of the family Sterculiaceae) that are used in making cocoa, chocolate, and cocoa butter — called also cacao bean, cocoa bean.
Now, the history is less clear on how “cocoa” appeared, with one theory suggesting this was one man’s spelling mistake that made it to an English language dictionary. Still, the word is admitted by most dictionaries to be both an alteration of “cacao”, and a more precise term to distinguish the powder from the nibs. Furthermore, unlike English, there is no such duality in other popular languages. Speakers of Russian, Spanish, French all have only “cacao” in their vocabulary.
The above definition also brings up another interesting issue – is the product being sold as “cacao” actually raw, as the marketers claim?
One necessary step after the beans are taken out of the pods is fermentation. Ask any chocolatier and they’ll confirm that youa properly conducted fermentation is key to the richness of the flavour of the end product. It also kills the bacteria making it safe to consume. During the fermentation the temperatures can go above 42 C, the limit above which, according to the proponents of the raw diet, the foods lose their original nutritional properties. The producer of unfermented cacao will have to be meticulous about how the beans handled during all steps - from bean to bar - to avoid contamination.
The upshot is, if you’re really eager to find raw-raw cacao, you can – just look for the “unfermented” label. If you’re seeing “raw” and no mention of fermentation, the beans in question have indeed been subjected to some heat, but still minimally processed.
Here’s the main question, though – does this really matter?
To date, there is no good evidence that cocoa or chocolate are “superfoods”. Not that they don't have some great nutritional benefits, but those are, firstly, not unique, secondly, anything is good for you if enjoyed in moderation. That means, Snickers is still not allowed… But a few bites of organic Fair Trade chocolate barks, or a handful of organic cacao nibs is just what the doctor ordered.
And, as one writer on chocolate says, "if you're talking about health, I'd rather eat some top-quality ordinary chocolate and have a plate of vegetables afterwards instead."