Very simply put and to eliminate all confusion, cocoa comes from the cacao bean.

The tree is called cacao tree or Theobroma cacao. Each cacao tree bears cacao pods which are as large as a football. Inside each pod, there are many cacao beans nestled inside white pulp.

Once the fruit or pod is ripe, it is harvested, the cacao beans removed, roasted and processed. The result is cocoa. Hence, cacao is the bean in raw state and cocoa is the name it acquires after it is cooked and processed.

In many countries, the terms cocoa and cacao are used interchangeably which is the reason for the confusion.

Raw cacao is high in nutrition and contains around 300 compounds like protein, carbohydrates, fats, iron, fiber, copper, zinc, calcium, sulfur and magnesium.

The ORAC value of 100g raw cacao powder is 95,500. Cacao nibs found at the center of each cacao bean is what is used to make chocolate. 100g raw cacao nibs have an ORAC value of 62,100. 100g processed cocoa powder has ORAC value of 26,000.

The reason why ORAC value, which measures the antioxidant strength of various foods, goes down with cocoa powder is because after cooking and processing, much of the nutrients are destroyed due to the heat.

It is cacao in its raw state that has the highest nutritional value and is given the ‘superfood’ status.

History of Cacao and its Origins

Long before your favorite chocolate bar hit the market, the Mesoamerican people fell in love with the cacao bean. So commenced man’s everlasting love of cacao.

When the Spanish went to the Aztec nation, they brought back the humble cacao bean back to Europe in the 16th-17th century. Around the 18th century, Europeans began to realize the wonders of cocoa to cure diseases and as an aphrodisiac.

Then, it was mainly consumed as a breakfast beverage by the rich. In the 19th century, the chocolate bar was invented when cacao, milk and sugar were brought together. While the 20th and 21st centuries have seen a revolution in the way chocolate is made, the basic ingredient in all remains cocoa which comes from the cacao bean.

While cacao beans were first discovered in Central America, these days, 70% of the chocolate we consume comes from African countries especially Ivory Coast and Ghana. Other cacao producing countries include Papua New Guinea, Togo, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador and Indonesia.

A small quantity is also produced in the Caribbean Islands. The flavor of the cocoa is determined by the type of cacao beans used – Criollo, Forastero or Trinitario. Each region may produce different types of beans. 

While African countries produce the bulk of cacao beans, their flavors are considered classic and dependable. Latin American and Caribbean countries are known to produce cacao beans with a unique and distinct flavor.

In manufacturing terms, these are called ‘flavor beans’ and ‘bulk beans’ depending on the plant the cacao bean comes from.

Hence, we have Forastero, which is considered the bulk bean that accounts for 90% of the world’s chocolate production, Criollo which has a unique fruity flavor and Trinitario that is a combination of both.

Of the three, Trinitario is said to be the best cacao bean for it combines flavor and hardiness.

The Process

When the cacao beans are harvested, the nibs are roasted and then finely ground to a paste. It is then cooked at high temperatures (40°C) when chocolate liquor is produced.

This liquor then undergoes a pressing process which eliminates most of the cocoa butter (nothing but fat) from the material. The resultant ‘cocoa press cake’ contains around 10-12% cocoa butter.

This cake passes through machines that break into small pieces and then ground to make a fine powder – cocoa powder. 

There are different types of cocoa powder – natural that does not use any additional modifications and is light brown in color. Alkalized cocoa powder on the other hand is got when cacao nibs are combined with mild alkali solutions. This is done to raise the pH levels.

The result is red-brown or dark brown cocoa powder that has different color and taste compared to natural cocoa powder.


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