By Susan Burke March, MEd, RDN, LDN, CDE

The holidays got me thinking about an especially delicious winter custom that I enjoyed as a little girl growing up in New York’s Long Island. Winters meant real, homemade hot chocolate. When my mother would get out her white porcelain saucepan, we all knew what was in store. Real hot chocolate was such an indulgence, a very special treat.

Moving to Ecuador is a bigger treat! Hershey’s chocolate tastes absolutely insipid compared to some of the chocolate I’ve tasted in Ecuador. Ecuador is the home to some of the best chocolate in the world, in fact, the International Chocolate Awards 2016 awarded Ecuador’s Pacari Chocolate first prize for the best dark chocolate bar, plus an additional bunch of medals for their dark infused bars (their Passion Fruit is delectable). In Ecuador, you can also find some of the best cocoa powder in the world… and it’s very good for you.

But I digress. You want to know, is cocoa the same as cacao?

Yes… and No.

All cocoa powder comes from the cocoa bean, which without the shell is called the cocoa nib (also known as the cacao nib). But, what most people know as “cocoa powder” bears little resemblance to real cacao powder. Here are some interesting facts about cacao vs. cocoa:

· The cacao pods contain the beans: the pods are fleshy, oval-shaped. The beans are harvested, fermented, and dried.

· Cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans — this process sustains the living enzymes and removes the fat (cacao butter).

· Real cacao powder is one of the highest food sources of antioxidants including magnesium, essential fatty acids, iron, copper, zinc, sulfur, and calcium. Like all plant foods, cacao is cholesterol-free, and the fat is mainly saturated, but is a good source of omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids.

· Cacao refers to a wide range of products derived from cacao beans, including raw cacao powder, cacao nibs and cacao butter, or the pure, cold-pressed oil of the cacao bean. 100% cacao is very bitter.

· When the beans are roasted and processed into powder, then it’s called “cocoa powder.” Often, commercial cocoa powder has additives and sweeteners.

· Dutch-process cocoa is made from alkalized cocoa (cacao) beans to neutralize their acidity, and it’s dark brown. Natural cocoa powder is reddish-brown, and is simply roasted cocoa (cacao) beans.

Did you know that dark chocolate is good for you? It’s rich in plant substances called polyphenols, and the most potent of them are called catechins and flavonoids. A study published in The Lancet showed that chocolate contained four times as much catechin, a type of flavonoid, as tea. Flavonoids are one of the largest nutrient families known to scientists – who have already identified more than 6,000. Flavonoids help protect plants from environmental toxins and help repair damage. They’re found in a variety of fruits and vegetables and black and green tea. Scientists have identified anti-viral, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and anti-oxidant benefits – and when we eat foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that we also benefit from this “antioxidant” power.

There are a number of small, organic growers marketing their products here in Cuenca and around the country. I wrote a column about one in particular called ARAWI (the word means “poetry” in Quechua) and they sell a wonderfully rich-tasting cocoa powder (read more here). And of course, world-famous Pacari chocolate is sold everywhere in Ecuador, including right here in local mercados, Supermaxi and Coral supermarket grocery stores. Learn more about Pacari here.

So bring some chocolate home to your friends when you visit Ecuador. They won’t forget you. As someone said, “There’s nothing better than a friend, unless it’s a friend with chocolate.”

Learning about Cacao in southern Ecuador

  • If you’d like to learn a little more about cacao and chocolate in Ecuador, why not try our Cacao Train Tour
  • We provide made-to-measure experiences to suit your personal taste and budget, and can arrange your accommodation and transportation
  • Book your adventure today!

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About Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March and her husband Ken live in Cuenca, Ecuador. Susan is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, certified diabetes educator and she specializes in prevention and treatment of diseases associated with overweight and obesity. Susan is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally – a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to Susan at