The Historical Evolution of “Cacao” and “Cocoa”: From Ancient Civilizations to Modern Markets

The Historical Evolution of “Cacao” and “Cocoa”: From Ancient Civilizations to Modern Markets

The intricate story of “cacao” and “cocoa” is deeply rooted in cultural exchanges, linguistic evolutions, and global commerce. The subtle difference between these two terms carries a weight of history, bringing to light their individual and shared journeys from ancient civilizations to today’s bustling global markets.

Origins of “Cacao”: The Precious Seed of the Americas

The word “cacao” traces its origin to the Nahuatl word “cacahuatl,” used by indigenous peoples in present-day Mexico to refer to the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree. European exposure to “cacao” began with their first encounters and exchanges with these indigenous cultures.

  • Hernán Cortés (early 16th century): The Spanish conquistador, upon setting foot in the Aztec Empire, was introduced to “xocolatl,” a revered drink made from cacao beans. Cortés later described this cacao-centric drink in letters to King Charles I of Spain.
  • Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1526): In “Historia General y Natural de las Indias,” Oviedo offers some of the first European accounts of the cacao tree and its seeds.
  • Bernardino de Sahagún (late 16th century): The “Florentine Codex,” an extensive account of Aztec life and culture, documents in detail their cultivation and use of cacao.
  • José de Acosta (1590): The Spanish Jesuit’s “Historia Naturalis” delves into cacao’s significance among indigenous populations of the New World.
  • Peter Martyr d’Anghiera (early 16th century): “De Orbe Novo” contains accounts of cacao in its series of reports to the Spanish crown about New World discoveries.
  • Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma (1631): “Chocolata Inda” is a Spanish treatise exclusively devoted to chocolate, with extensive mentions of “cacao.”
  • Nicolás Monardes (1574): “Natural History of the West Indies” also alludes to cacao’s uses.

“Cocoa”: A Linguistic Evolution

The term “cocoa” likely emerged as a result of the repeated mispronunciation of “cacao” and solidified its position in the English lexicon. This evolution is evident in some of the earliest English texts. Sir Hans Sloane’s “A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica” (1707) describes the cacao-based drink using the term “cocoa,” highlighting its prevalence in English writings by the 18th century.

While “cacao” originally denoted the plant or its raw product, “cocoa” came to symbolize its powdered form or sometimes the beverage derived from it. This distinction, however, became blurred over the centuries. The dominance of “cocoa” in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in English-speaking countries, reflects a shift towards more industrialized versions of the product.

Interchangeability and Modern Use: The Cacao-Cocoa Conundrum

An apt illustration of the interchangeability of these terms is found in the stock exchange. The symbols for cacao futures use the term “cocoa,” even though the traded product is the raw, unprocessed bean.

In recent years, industry influencers advocate differentiating “cacao” and “cocoa.” The former represents unprocessed, “natural,” or “raw” versions, while the latter is reserved for industrialized variants, especially the Dutch-alkalinized powder. This distinction encapsulates the broader trend of consumers’ growing demand for transparency, authenticity, and purity in their food products.


The intertwined histories of “cacao” and “cocoa” reflect centuries of cultural, economic, and linguistic dynamics. As we look to the future, it’s essential to acknowledge and appreciate the rich past of these terms and the products they represent. Whether enjoying a piece of dark chocolate or sipping a hot cocoa, one is partaking in a tradition that spans millennia and continents.


Do you need help?

Write us for more information.