Cacao, cocoa and chocolate are all produced from the seed pods of theobroma cacao, a tree native to the tropics of Central and South America but now grown internationally, including in Africa and India.
Cacao in powder form, often also sold as ‘raw cacao’, is produced at a lower temperature than cocoa and chocolate. Like these, it’s made by pressing cacao beans to remove much or most of the cacao butter.
Cacao has an earthy, deep chocolate flavour with a note of bitterness, and will usually be grittier than cocoa or chocolate, again because it’s less processed. To be truly raw, cacao should be cold-pressed from beans that have not been roasted; sometimes, it’s made from beans that have been lightly roasted at no more than 40C. Each difference in process will result in a difference in flavour.
The effect of less processing is a product with greater antioxidant content and other claimed health benefits, including mood enhancement, but, of course, the occasional hot drink is not going to contribute much other than enjoyment of the flavour.
Available increasingly in different forms online and in supermarkets and specialty food shops, particularly those selling organics.
Choose the best
Check the label to ensure there has been minimal processing and that there are no unwanted additional ingredients, like sugar.
Cacao has a long shelf life, if kept cool and dry.
Use as you would cocoa powder, but expect it to be more difficult to dissolve.
Cacao nibs are different because they are the unprocessed pieces of the cacao bean, and contain all the cacao/cocoa butter. This added richness makes them widely acceptable as a snack, perhaps mixed with nuts, or as a surprising burst of flavour in chocolate baking, sauces, icings and even ice creams.