Cacao tree also called cocoa tree or Theobroma (‘food of the gods’) cacao is an evergreen tree that grows to heights of 13-26 feet or 4-8m.
It belongs to the Malvaceae family of the Theobroma genus.
The cacao plant belongs to the tropical regions of America. Cocoa powder and chocolate are made from the seeds of the cacao plant.
‘Cacao’ is a term which comes from the ancient Olmec civilization that inhabited the southern regions of the Gulf of Mexico.
Cacao is considered a ‘superfood’ which refers to all foods which are nutrient-rich, have proven health benefits and do not demonstrate too many side effects.
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The leaves are about 10-40cm in length and 5-20cm in breadth. Cacao flowers grow on the trunk in clusters.
They are tiny – just 1-2cm diameter - and possess a pink calyx.
The cacao flowers are pollinated by the Forcipomyia midges which are tiny flies that belong to the Diptera order.
This is different from most flowers that are pollinated by butterflies or bees.
The cacao pod refers to the fruit that is an ovoid shape, 8-10cm in breadth and 15-30cm in length.
They ripen to a yellow-orange color and weigh 500g. Each cacao pod can contain from 20-60 seeds known as ‘cacao beans’.
These beans are embedded in the pod in a white pulp. The seeds are used to make chocolate and the pulp is made into juice in some countries.
Areas Where Cacao Grows
Cacao plants grow abundantly in the regions stretching from the Amazon River basin to south-east Mexico. These plants flourish in humid forest areas.
It also grows in the Orinoco River Basin and Philippines, Ghana, and Indonesia.
The cacao plant produces three different cacao beans – Forastero, Criollo and Trinitario. All 3 are used in the manufacture of chocolate.
Of these, Criollo is the most expensive and rare form of cacao and only 10% of the world’s chocolate is produced from this variety.
It has a more aromatic scent and less bitter than the other species. It is found mainly in Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia.
Forastero beans are the most used in chocolate production – 75-90%.
The term means ‘foreign’ in Spanish and they are also called bulk beans since they are the most widely used for chocolate production.
The third variety – Trinitario is a hybrid version of the other 2 and is used to produce 10% of the world’s chocolate.
Cacao has been revered in the Americas for its therapeutic properties. In ancient times, people brewed a bitter and spicy beverage made from cacao seeds.
The cacao plant was introduced to Europe – specifically Spain - over 500 years ago. Various processing techniques were used until it was finally blended with sugar and made into chocolate.
Chocolate was re-introduced to America by the mid-1700s and since then a lot of research, seminars, and books have been written about the wonderful properties of raw cacao for it is considered a healing and nutritional powerhouse.
Chemical Properties of Cacao
Each cacao bean contains high levels of cocoa butter (40 – 50%) which is all fat. Cacao beans contain high levels of flavonoid antioxidants, caffeine, magnesium, sulfur, oleic acid, tryptophan, theobromine, anandamide, and phenylethylalamine.
The last two chemicals are said to elevate moods. Cacao also helps to produce endorphins and serotonin.
The cacao plant produces cocoa beans. The seeds are fermented during which they undergo various chemical changes which result in developing the cocoa flavor and also causes a change in the color.
The dried seeds go through a processor and at the end of the process, we get cocoa mass, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder.
The cacao seeds are first roasted after which the shell is removed, and then an alkalizing process takes place that causes a change in the color and flavor of cocoa beans.
Once the cacao seeds are fermented and dried, they contain the following chemical ingredients – water, fat, ash, nitrogen, theobromine, caffeine, starch, and crude fiber.
Uses of Cacao
There are different types of raw cacao or raw chocolate. You get raw cacao nibs, cacao butter, cacao powder and various types of cookies and food bars.
Raw cacao nibs are used to make raw food desserts and raw chocolate smoothies. Nibs are very hard to chew hence they are best for recipes that require blending.
Raw cacao powder is best suited for other drinks or desserts that do not require blending. Cacao butter is melted and used to make raw food desserts or cacao food bars.
Cacao beans are usually fermented for 3-7 days and then roasted to get the best flavors. During the fermentation process, germs are killed and sugars are converted to alcohol.
Benefits of Cacao
The cacao nibs found in the center of each bean is used to make chocolate. These are full of good minerals and fats like potassium, iron, calcium, and zinc.
They are also antioxidant-rich and theobromine which is a compound similar to caffeine helps to control excessive appetites since it produces MAO a natural inhibitor.
Since cacao beans are used to produce different types of chocolate, most of the benefits come from consuming various chocolate products.
Cocoa got from dietary sources is said to benefit heart diseases. Eating milk or dark chocolate rich in flavonoids (46-105g) is said to lower high blood pressure.
Other health problems which can be benefited from eating different cacao products include high cholesterol, bronchitis, intestinal diseases, asthma, diarrhea, liver disorders, lung congestion, diabetes, and kidney and bladder disorders.
It can also be used for cosmetic purposes like preventing pregnancy stretch marks and wrinkles.
Is Cacao the same as Cocoa?
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.
Consuming cacao products in moderate quantities does not produce any side effects and is likely safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women too.
Large amounts can create side effects like sleeplessness, increased urination, increased anxiety levels and increased heartbeat due to the caffeine content.
Cocoa butter can cause rashes in certain people. Other side effects include constipation, migraines, nausea, and gas and stomach discomfort.