Cocoa powder is a flavorful ingredient for baking.

Cocoa Powder

Also known as dried cocoa, cacao, or natural cocoa powder

What is Cocoa Powder?

Cocoa powder is an ingredient that remains from chocolate liquor manufacturing typically used in baking to add color and flavoring to consumer products. It can be found in:

  • Baked goods
  • Icings
  • Fudges
  • Sauces
  • Beverages


Cocoa powder—alternatively spelled “cacao”—is a substance produced from the seed of the cocoa tree. The Aztecs roasted and ground cocoa beans to make a drink called xocoatl. Other pre-conquest civilizations, including the Maya and Pipil–Nicarao, were also said to have used cocoa.

This fruit-bearing tree grows large fleshy fruits continuously throughout the year along its trunk. The location of the seed pods on the trees, each containing 30 to 50 seeds, make it an easy product to harvest by hand. In fact, it is estimated that during harvest, a worker can pick around 650 pods per day, which is an amount sufficient to make roughly 65 pounds of chocolate.

Commercial production

To make cocoa powder, the beans are thoroughly cleaned, typically a mechanical process, prior to roasting. At this stage, the beans need to be of uniform size to ensure even roasting.  Once this process is complete, the shells and germ are removed and the nibs extracted. Then, the beans are ground into chocolate liquor and processed into powder.1

The powder is milled from the residue remaining from the cocoa butter extraction process. The fat content ranges of cocoa powder vary from 8 to 24 percent. Typical fat content ranges are:1

  • 20 to 22 percent
  • 10 to 12 percent
  • 8 percent

“Most cocoa powder is alkalized during processing to make the chocolate flavor and colors more pronounced,” according to Michael Suas and Frank Wing in Advanced Bread and Pastry: A professional Approach. This process was originally used to prevent powder from lumping or sinking during beverage making, but is now used to modify  flavor and color. The process typically involves the use of compounds such as sodium or potassium carbonate or bicarbonate solutions, although manufacturers may use other chemicals. Alkalization has been shown to reduce the number of and antioxidant activity of polyphenols in cocoa powder. 1,2,3

Although cacao is not yet genetically modified, many of the ingredients typically used in conjunction with it to make chocolate items are. With the cacao’s notoriously slow maturity and fruiting rate, work toward developing plants that are disease resistant and high yielding as well as flavorful may eventually involve genetic manipulation.4


“Most of the cocoa powder produced is sold as an ingredient to other food manufacturers,” according to the Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition. It is used in desserts, chocolate milk, and various pastries. “Such a product should have the necessary quality aspects to meet the needs of the user, regarding microbiology, consistency, purity, and other factors. In the case of cocoa powder this can only be fulfilled when maintaining strict good manufacturing practices.” Product quality is a concern as contaminants including salmonella and other bacteria may be introduced during processing that could persist.5

In baked goods, it is typically used at between 5 to 10 percent of flour weight. It may also be used in icing confectionery, sauces, and beverages.

Since it is a powder, it should be stored in a dry, cool environment.

FDA Regulation

Cacao products sold in the United States are subject to standards in Title 21, Code of Federal Regulations Part 163. The fat content, based on the standard, should have less than 22 percent, but not less than 10 percent fat by weight.6,7


  1.  Suas, M., and F. Wing. “Chocolate and Chocolate Work,”Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach. Cenage Learning, 2012, pp. 941-991.
  2. Giacometti, J., et al. “Cocoa Processing and Impact on Composition.” Processing and Impact on Active Components in Food, 2015, pp. 605–612., doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-404699-3.00073-1.
  3. Nair, K.P. Prabhakaran. “Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao L.).” The Agronomy and Economy of Important Tree Crops of the Developing World, 2010, pp. 131–180., doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-384677-8.00005-9.
  4. Rupp, R.. “Can GMOs Save Chocolate?” National Geographic, National Geographic, 18 Mar. 2015,  Last accessed 11 December 2018.
  5. Biehl, B., and G. Ziegleder. “COCOA | Production, Products, and Use.” Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 2003, pp. 1448–1463., doi:10.1016/b0-12-227055-x/00262-5.
  6. “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.”,  Last accessed 3 December 2018.
  7. “CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21.”, Last accessed 3 December 2018.