Cacao or Cocoa? That is the Question

Cacao or Cocoa?  That is the Question

Cacao or cocoa—which is correct? The simple answer, short and sweet, is both.  The two words are synonyms for the commodity produced by the cocoa (or cacao) tree, Theobroma cacao L.  Cacao is the Spanish corruption of the Nawa word kakawa-tl[1] that denotes the seeds found in the fruit of the cocoa tree.  At first the Spaniards also used the word to denote the beverage that the Mesoamericans prepared from the seeds, but they later corrupted another Nawa word chokola-tl to describe what would become chocolate.  In 1755 Samuel Johnson was preparing a dictionary of the English language and he mixed the word coco, the name for the palm (Cocos nucifera L) that produces coconuts[2], with cacao and created by mistake the word cocoa.  From that time onward the English-speaking world has used the word cocoa, and the rest of the world has used some derivative of the word cacao.[3] Simple—yes? No. 


In 1995 two men, John Scharffen Berger and Robert Steinberg, began labeling the “cacao” content on their American chocolate bar.  Suddenly something that was straight forward and simple became confusing. Since then, people continually seek to define differently two words that since 1755 have meant the same thing.

Since I am writing in English, I will use the word cocoa. The declaration of cocoa content dates to the chaos of pre-EU Europe when duties and quotas were imposed on chocolate imported from one European country to another.  These were based on the composition of the chocolate and all ingredient percentages needed to be declared.   It all came down to just taxes.

 In the mid-nineteen eighties chocolate suppliers in Europe began experimenting with fine dark chocolates with higher cocoa contents and more intense flavors. This was mostly for the gourmet foodservice business.  To distinguish these chocolates from their standard products they began to call attention on the label to the high cocoa contents.

 In 1995 when Robert joined up with John Scharffenberger to found Scharffen Berger[4] Chocolate Maker they focused on finding superb fine flavored cocoa beans and using them to make intensely flavored dark chocolates with high cocoa contents.  At the time this was a radical concept. Sugar is the cheapest ingredient in chocolate and consumers had grown accustomed to very sweet and inexpensive chocolates produced by the major brands.  Now Scharffen Berger was offering fine dark chocolates with high cocoa contents that deviated significantly from what consumers were used to experiencing.  Today we can agree that these chocolates are superb, but back then many consumers found them unpleasantly bitter. 

 John and Robert realized that for their chocolates to be accepted the consumer needed to be educated.  They did this through various means, but one was to declare the cocoa content on the label.  This gave consumers a frame of reference for the expected bitterness of the product.  Higher cocoa contents had less sugar and were more bitter.  One could expect their 62% Semisweet to be less bitter than their 70% Bittersweet and that less bitter than the 82% Dark.  At the same time scientific research began to indicate a correlation between cocoa and heart health. Suddenly people began to associate higher cocoa contents with wellness. More people began experimenting with high cocoa content chocolates and they began to appreciate their sophisticated flavors. 

 If John and Robert had just used the word cocoa everything would be simple but as a further point of differentiation and probably because of Robert’s experience at Bernachon, they chose to declare the “cacao” content. The English-speaking world has been confused ever since.

 As an example, a customer recently inquired whether we should label cacao or cocoa content on our package.  They thought that cacao referred to the unroasted bean and cocoa referred to the bean after roasting.  Since we roast our beans, they thought we should label cocoa content instead of cacao content. I found this question strange until I began searching the internet and was astonished that the first ten results to the query “What is the difference between cacao and cocoa?” made the same differentiation: that cacao and cocoa come from the same tree (T. cacao ) and are fermented and dried using the same processes, but cacao is roasted at a lower temperature than cocoa.  I was dumbstruck. How could a differentiation so blatantly incorrect have such traction on the internet?  

 In defense of our customer even the chocolate powerhouse “H” was confused. For over one hundred years they purchased cocoa and processed it into cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder.  In the early 2000’s they were a founding member of the World Cocoa Foundation an organization with the mission of supporting cocoa farmers and cocoa production around the world. The word cacao was never heard inside their walls.  Then in 2005 they purchased Scharffen Berger and in 2006 Dagoba, who by then was also declaring “cacao” content on their label.  The folks in Marketing and Product Development jumped on the fine chocolate band wagon and soon Hershey launched its own line of high cocoa content chocolates called “Cacao Origins” boldly declaring the “cacao” content on each of the four bars.  There was one problem.  How to explain this new word cacao, not only to the consumer, but to their own employees.  Marketing rose to the challenge and invented a difference.   Cacao became the raw material that was used to make chocolate and cocoa powder.

 This new word cacao got nowhere inside the corporation.  Traditions are hard to break, and the commodities department continued to buy cocoa according to the rules of the New York Cocoa Exchange and to be a member of the Cocoa Merchants Association and to attend both the New York and London Cocoa Dinners.  Only in the small corner of the company called Artisan Confections where Scharffen Berger and Dagoba resided, could the word cacao be heard.

 Unfortunately, the English-speaking consumer remains confused and we at Scharffen Berger must accept our responsibility for this confusion.  Or did John and Robert just rectify a centuries old mistake. Because of an error in spelling in 1755 English speaking countries produce cocoa.  Cocoa farmers cultivate cocoa trees on cocoa farms.  Cocoa trees produce cocoa pods inside of which are found cocoa beans.  Cocoa beans are roasted and winnowed to yield cocoa nibs which are then converted to cocoa liquor, cocoa powder, and cocoa butter. 

John and Robert simply replaced the originally misspelled word cocoa with the correct one cacao. The two words have identical meanings, both are correct, but considering history perhaps cacao is a little more correct. At Scharffen Berger we are proud to have been the original disruptor and to have been the first to declare cacao content on our labels.

1] Kakawa-tl translates from Nawa to English as “egg-shaped thing”.

[2] This is why you often see the word coconut written cocoanut.

[3] In Spanish, French and Italian cacao. In Portuguese cacau.  In German, Polish, Swedish and Russian kakao.

[4] The name Scharffenberger was already trademarked from John’s winemaking business, which he had sold, hence the name Scharffen Berger instead of Scharffenberger. It was the first of the renaissance bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers.

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