A lot of people are asking, "What is cacao?" We hear the word more and more with each passing season. Why is the word so similar to cocoa? Is there a purpose in having two strikingly similar words to describe what seems to be the same product? Is there something special about cacao products that distinguishes them from cocoa products?
See also: Raw chocolate dessert recipes
For more on what raw cacao actually is and how people are using it, click here.
You Say Tomato, I Say Cacao
Even for a bi-lingual Mexican-American chocolatier the story of how we have both of these words at our disposal is not easy to tell. The botanical name for the tree that chocolate comes from is Theobroma Cacao. The word cacao comes from the Olmec people from what is now Mexico, and is believed to be the closest pronunciation to the original name of the plant. History shows that chocolate then changed hands from the Olmec to the Mayans to the Spanish. The word cacao is the only word ever used in any of the hispanic languages to describe what English speakers think of as cocoa. It is actually widely believed that the word cocoa has its origins in a spelling mistake. A mistake which was never corrected, and perhaps found easier to pronounce, quite successfully overtook the correct form.
Check out this article to learn more about the History of Chocolate.
The Great Cacao Comeback
As fate would have it, the original spelling was destined to be rebirthed even within the English speaking community due in part to a growing interest in the raw food diet. Manufacturers of raw food products have usurped the more authentic spelling of the word in an attempt to distinguish their products from products which use roasted cacao beans (i.e. raw cacao powder vs. cocoa powder). But the lines are getting blurry as trends in dieting comingle with trends in marketing and trends in linguistics.
So today we basically have two words with the same meaning. Cacao will be seen by the chocolate industry and botanists alike as the more accurate or relevant term. Someone in the long arm of the chocolate industry may tell you that cocoa refers to any of the manufactured products of the plant (especially the powder) as well as the bean itself. Interestingly, English seems to be the only language having this conundrum. All other languages just have one word for all of the plants' many forms.
See also: Nutritional information about raw cacao to learn more about why raw cacao is used in the new raw food health food movement.