Updated: Jul 6, 2022
There are many. Let's cover all of them!
First off, there is the spelling. The spelling difference is there because of the tree's names that chocolate comes from is Theobroma Cacao.
The fruits of that tree, commonly found growing on the trunks looking like M and Ms scattered across equatorial farms are referred to as cacao or cacao's (if you have multiple varieties). Cacao is what cocoa is made from.
Cocoa is typically in powder form.
Cacao refers to the fruit of the tree Theobroma Cacao but when does the naming shift?
What happens to cacao, is that is is made into a few different products, one of them is cocoa. Another is chocolate. The thing is chocolate can be made from cocoa too. So, its understandable that there is much confusion on the subject. Also, cacao can be powderized (although its commonly in disc, bar or other ceremonial form). Cacao is less processed than cocoa and it so the nomenclature has to be this complex.
Cocoa is number 2 in antioxidants and cacao is number one in quantity out of all foods. You see people consume cacao and cocoa for different reasons and different seasons and reasons! Cocoa is water soluble. It will dissolve. And cacao will not dissolve in water. It can emulsify in water but that more important if you are writing recipes for ganache or truffles.
Cacao is not reverse compatible with cocoa because it is hydrophobic. Depending on what recipe one is making or consuming will determine the more useful product.
In the industry at large you won't hear words like cacao paste, cacao ceremony or bean to disc very often at all. You won't even hear cacao nibs or cacao powder. Thats because "Big Industry" can make more profit from processing cacao into cocoa powder as the by-product is cocoa butter. Some countries like Vietnam grow cacao to harvest cocoa butter and sell cocoa powder locally in farmer's markets as a by-product. Cacao is anything that can be made into cocoa or sold as or for cocoa butter and cocoa powder. Cacao powder is simply great and so we are in continual development on our ceremonial cacao recipes. Typically we only use 1 ingredient. It will grind for 5 days and age for 30 and yes that ingredient is Hāmākua Grown Cacao. What better origin for a ceremonial cacao is there than the Island coast the translates to "The Breathe of God". We don't make cocoa but our cacao ceremony bar will melt and dissolve in your cup right on cue and in alignment with your intention. We would never sell cocoa being this close to the source of pristine jungle where we can harvest cacao in ways that respect the local traditions.
People drink hot cocoa and put cocoa in recipes, drinks or to bake with. Cacao is for those that wish to have the true experience the Nahua people of Mexico made the core of their culture (among other indigenous peoples). Cacao is for those who wish to connect to their ancestors via a cup of hot liquid. Cacao is for those who wish for plant medicine to heal them. Cacao is for everyone but cocoa, cocoa is just for levity.
So next time someone asks you about cacao or cocoa, make sure you take the educated choice. The choice that honors 5300 years of traditional cacao use, your body's needs and your spirit's quest.