1. Home
  2. >
  3. Chocolate 101
  4. >
  5. Education Station: Ca-what?

Jun 29, 2017

Education Station: Ca-what?

You’re curious, so we find answers. Our education team fields lots of questions from our guests during classes, so we’ve decided to launch a brand new series of monthly installments in which we tackle some of those questions and share the answers with the world. We call it The Education Station. This week, Kelsey dives into clarifying some commonly mis-used words – namely what plant chocolate does and does not come from. 

Sometimes, when we’re deep in conversation with a class attendee or a guest in our cafe, some very similar sounding — but very different meaning — words come up. And those words, if misused, can create a bit of confusion. So let’s discuss coca, coco, cocoa, and cacao, and how, if any of them are related to chocolate.

First, let’s talk about what they have in common: These are all plants. They grow in the tropics. Aaand that’s about it. Below, we’ll dig into each of them, but a quick disclaimer before we get started: the definitions here are our own, unless noted otherwise, and refer primarily to terminology used in the United States. You may find slightly different definitions elsewhere, and we’ll do our best to explain how we arrived at the words we use.

So what is coca?

Coca [koh-kuh]:  any of several South American shrubs (genus Erythroxylon, family Erythroxylaceae); especially :  one (E. coca) that is the primary source of cocaine. (Merriam Webster)

Leaves of the South American shrub, of the Erythroxylon genus

The plant itself is native to the Andean region of South America and grows relatively easily in mid to high altitudes. When consumed, the primary alkaloid in the plant, cocaine, acts as a stimulant by constricting blood vessels. Coca only becomes dangerous when the cocaine alkaloid is extracted, concentrated, processed and synthesized. Although coca may receive a bad rap due to its modern day uses and cultivation (think Narcos, the TV show), the traditional and practical uses are much more innocent than many think. Often consumed by chewing the leaves, or as a tea, coca has been, and is still, used to relieve pain, altitude sickness and even suppress hunger.

Dried coca leaves, steeped in hot water used as tea

The coca leaf has actually been used for thousands of years, with some of the oldest evidence pointing to nomadic tribes scattered throughout the Andes in Northern Peru, around 1800 B.C. These tribes migrated with the changing of seasons, avoiding the harsh conditions of the mountains in search of food and shelter. This required walking up and down the high altitudes of the Andes for long, extended periods of time, where food was often scarce along the way. Naturally, the healing properties of the coca plant allowed many tribes to move frequently and was used as a sacred medicine. 

Coca is also known as one of the first domesticated plants in recorded history. Once early explorers of the region began growing the crop for medicinal purposes, the cultivation expanded and evolved as more was understood about the plant. By concentrating of the cocaine alkaloid in order to produce a high demand drug, coca turned into the high-risk cash crop it is now commonly known for.

It is not related to chocolate, in anyway whatsoever. Bummer, I know.

What is coco?

Coco [koh-koh]: the coconut palm; the drupaceous fruit of the coconut palm whose outer fibrous husk yields coir and whose nut contains thick edible meat and, in the fresh fruit, a clear liquid (see coconut water) (Merriam Webster)

Dandelion Bean Sourcerer, Greg, drinking a coconut

Coconuts! From the now popular coconut water, touted as a magic cure for one too many adult beverages, to clothing made from the fibrous husk — the coconut has become an important global commodity with rising popularity and variety of uses. As Science Daily put it, “The coconut […] is the Swiss Army knife of the plant kingdom; in one neat package it provides a high-calorie food, potable water, fiber that can be spun into rope, and a hard shell that can be turned into charcoal. What’s more, until it is needed for some other purpose it serves as a handy flotation device.”

Fibrous coconuts, showing dark spots resembling faces


Often called the Tree of Life, the coconut palm (coco nucifera) has been supporting the local economies of many tropical countries for centuries. The first recorded discoveries of the coconuts were arguably by 15th century Portuguese explorers in Southeast Asia. They described the coconut shell as “coco” meaning “head or face,” for the characteristic the dark holes that resembled two eyes and a mouth.

Coconuts are also unrelated to chocolate, but you probably already guessed that.

What is cacao?

Cacao [kuh-kah-oh]: the fatty seeds of a South American evergreen tree (Theobroma cacao of the family Sterculiaceae) that are used in making chocolate.

Theobroma Cacao tree, bearing pods

It’s more than just a funny word from a Portlandia skit. Cacao is the seed of a tree, and it grows inside of a pod filled with pulpy fruit. To make chocolate, these seeds are traditionally harvested, fermented, dried, roasted, cracked and winnowed, then ground down with sugar. But at some point in this process, the cacao becomes cocoa. Chocolate has been made from cacao for a very long time, and it has a long and deep global history, much of which is widely still unknown. Most of what we do know about chocolate only happened in the last one to two hundred years, but we know it’s existed for thousands! (If you’d like to learn more about the history of chocolate, we’d love to host you in our Edible History of Chocolate classes). 


So, if cacao is a seed that becomes chocolate, then what is cocoa, and what is a cocoa bean? 

A harvested cacao pod, displaying the pulpy fruit surrounding cacao seeds


Good question. Even in dictionaries, cacao and cocoa are often used interchangeably. Because of that lack of clarity, the craft chocolate community has been trying to come to an agreement about how we all define things, including the difference between cacao and cocoa. One simple distinction that we like to make is that cacao refers to the unprocessed state, while cocoa is the processed state. But here is where it gets a little more complicated.



When does ‘processing’ begin? The minute human hands are involved, say at harvest? Or, is it when the chemical state of the seed has shifted, say during fermentation?

We like this summarized definition that was shared with us by the folks at the Cocoa Research Center at the University of the West Indies.

“The cacao becomes cocoa when the cotyledon dies. The cotyledon is the part of the seed that would become the first leaves of the plant. The death of the cotyledon changes the future of the seed; it ceases to be a plant and will become something tasty to eat instead. This simple distinction helps us identify when the destiny of the cacao changes from becoming a living thing to becoming a product.”

So, put simply?

Cocoa [koh-koh]:  the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree, once the fermentation process has killed the cotyledon.

But, wait, what about cocoa powder? Isn’t that “cocoa”?

Cocoa powder; what remains of cocoa nibs after the cocoa butter is pressed out

Well yes. Kind of. Out in the world, sometimes the word cocoa, or ‘hot cocoa’, is used in reference to cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is made by pressing most of the fat (or cocoa butter, rather) out of winnowed cocoa beans, and then grinding up the solid mass that’s left after the pressing.

So technically, if you’re using our definition of things, cocoa powder is cocoa because the cotyledon is definitely dead, but the word cocoa could refer to a lot of things, not necessarily only cocoa powder. It’s one of those ‘a-square-is-a-rectangle-but-a-rectangle-isn’t-a square’ kind of definition.   

Clear as mud, right? If anything, I hope you’ve taken away a few lessons from this little rundown. Namely, chocolate is not a narcotic or a coconut.


In summary:

COCA:  Coca leaves were once a spiritual and medicinal plant that, over time and with heavy processing, turned into a controlled substance. Coca has nothing to do with chocolate.

COCO: Although many chocolate makers may use various parts of the coconut palm in their chocolate for additional flavor, chocolate itself does not come from coco(nut).

CACAO: The seed which grows off the Theobroma Cacao tree and is the main ingredient for chocolate.

COCOA: A debated term. Often alone, cocoa refers to a comforting hot chocolatey drink (at least in the United States). Within the chocolate industry, many use cocoa or cocoa bean to differentiate a cacao seed once it has been processed.













Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: