The cacao tree is a tropical plant that can grow from 4 to 12 meters tall and is native to South America. Its fruit, cacao, is a popular ingredient in various foods, with chocolate being the most prominent. The cacao tree can produce around 150 fruits annually.
Table of Contents
What is Cocoa?
Cocoa is a processed bean from the cacao tree used to make chocolate and cocoa powder. It contains caffeine, theobromine, and flavonoids with potential health benefits. It’s grown in many parts of the world, including West Africa.
Unlike many people think, Cocoa is classified as a neutral fruit along with coconut, avocado, walnut, peanut, chestnut, almond, hazelnut, macadamia nut, peanut, or corozo. Cacao is produced in the cacao tree ( Theobroma cacao) or cacao tree, which is native to America. In addition, Cocoa is used as an ingredient in various recipes or for other types of food, among which chocolate stands out.
This sweet food is obtained from the seeds of the tree. These seeds are found in tree pods with the same name. These pods are born from a wild orchid-like flower emerging from the trunk.
Cocoa is not the same as chocolate.
You have to differentiate Cocoa from chocolate carefully:
- Cocoa, which we have already discussed, is undoubtedly considered a superfood thanks to its excellent nutritional and beneficial properties to our health.
- Chocolate, one of our most consumed dietary sins, is the result of mixing the first with other less healthy and more chloric ingredients, often refined, such as sugar, saturated fat, and milk derivatives.
Where does Cocoa originate from?
The Mayas cultivated Criollo cacao (Theobroma cacao ssp. cacao) 1500 years ago. It’s believed that Criollo cacao originated in Central America and evolved separately from the Amazon basin cacao populations.
Historical accounts show that the use of cacao dates back to the times of the ancient civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. Cocoa consumption has been present in these civilizations for its nutritional and medicinal properties beneficial to health.
In addition, they used it as a drink reserved exclusively for the highest social classes, who used it as a bargaining chip since they thought the tree was divine and the fruit recognized it as a gift from the Gods. Theobroma means, in Greek, food of the Gods.
Its arrival in the Old World
This fruit, a gift of the Gods, was not known in Europe and was not discovered until the arrival of the Spanish to the new world, like other types of food. It is believed that it was Christopher Columbus who first tasted it. Likewise, Hernán Cortés, with his tireless travels, was the one who brought this product to Spain for the first time and presented to the old continent the cocoa bean that, then, was prepared as a potent drink.
In Spain, this grain brought from other contains immediately gained fame above other foods acquired from the new continent. In Europe, it has become a widely consumed product, and specifically, in Spain, the cocoa bean product has become part of our diet.
The Heritage of the Aztecs
The Aztecs prepared a bitter drink in which they mixed the cocoa beans, roasted and ground, with water and spices (chilli, cinnamon, pepper, or vanilla), which was part of their diet.
Cocoa is still used in the drink but mixed with different foods. However, in other donuts in Mexico, a cocoa drink made with different recipes according to the area is taken. The following foods are included: Cocoa, corn, bean, cinnamon, anise, and sugar.
This drink that is the cultural heritage of Mexico receives different names such as cocoa drink, canyon water, or Cacahuatole (pre-Hispanic name).
As we have already explained, Cocoa comes from the cocoa tree, which grows naturally in tropical areas. Each plant produces approximately 20 fruits or pods containing 30 to 60 cocoa beans. In addition, this cocoa plant needs a warm climate with high temperatures all year round, constant and regular rains, and a lot of attention.
How many types of Cocoa are there in the world?
According to the latest research, The cocoa plant has four primary varieties: forastero, criollo, trinitarian, and nacional:
- Forastero: it is the best-known plant and the one most used in the production of chocolate since it is one of the three most famous types of plants, the most resistant and productive, with 95% of world production.
- Criollo is the opposite side of the outsider since, although the Cocoa produced with this bean has an unmistakable flavour and an appreciated aroma, it is tough to cultivate due to the plant’s weakness.
- Trinitario: It is the two previous classes that want to combine the resistance of the foreign cocoa plant with the flavour of the Creole cocoa beans.
- Nacional: Nacional Cocoa is a prized cacao bean with a unique flavour profile, including floral notes, mild bitterness, and nutty undertones. It’s mainly grown in Ecuador and used in high-end chocolate products.
What are the primary producers of Cocoa?
Around 70% of cocoa beans worldwide are produced by four West African countries: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two biggest cocoa producers, contributing over 50% of the global cocoa production.
Which nations harvest and produce the largest cocoa bean crops to satisfy the chocolate industry? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations ( FAO ), these are the leading cocoa producers in the world:
- Ivory Coast, where 30% of the world’s Cocoa is supplied, is the world’s leading producer, responsible for approximately 66% of the country’s income.
- Ghana, where 75% of production is in the hands of small producers.
- Indonesia, a producer that since 1980 has dramatically increased its production, going from having almost no plantations to being a global giant.
- Nigeria is a producer that is constantly growing.
- Cameroon is one of the leading producers of this fruit.
- Although Brazil is still the largest cocoa producer in the American continent, its production is in decline, and with another added problem, Brazil consumes more Cocoa than it produces.
- Ecuador, where chocolate experts believe that the best Cocoa in the world is produced and where the most delicatessen chocolate industry looks for its perfect product. It should also be noted that the chocolate industry in Ecuador is one of the oldest in the world.
In addition, it is one of the countries that share the Amazon area where there are traces of the use of this fruit that is more than 5000 years old, according to archaeological discoveries.
- Mexico, where giants of chocolate indulgence like Hershey and Ferrero have plantations and production facilities.
- Peru, where cocoa cultivation has been essential recently, is being replaced by other crops with more economical performance.
- The Dominican Republic stands out for its sustainable crops and for working on this product ethically.
What is Cocoa used for?
Chocolate and chocolate confections rely on Cocoa as their main ingredient. The cocoa bean comes from the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), a tropical plant native to the equatorial regions of the Americas. After processing the cocoa bean, it produces a liquid paste known as liquor, which is used to make cocoa powder and chocolate.
Some of the common uses are:
As we can all imagine, the primary use given to Cocoa is as an ingredient in chocolate, for which both the powder and the fat obtained from the crushing of its fruit once fermented are used, known as cocoa butter.
From this bean, both cocoa powder and butter are obtained. The powder and butter extracted from the seeds are often mixed with refined sugars and milk; Depending on the amount used for each one, the different types of chocolate made for different kinds of recipes arise. Some of these recipes are exclusive and secret from chocolate companies that make delicious chocolates.
Cocoa is an ingredient that has become part of our diet, a diet that, in addition to incorporating different types of fruits and vegetables, can include the healthy sin of chocolate.
Surprisingly, our favourite food, par excellence, has different cosmetic properties that benefit the skin.
It is used in beauty treatments and is increasingly popular and in demand, since this product is also an excellent antioxidant for our skin.
In addition to helping us to show off a splendid beauty, its aroma causes the brain to release endorphins, which are the chemical substances that cause us pleasant emotions, which is why they are crucial to well-being and happiness.
In addition to the pleasure we feel when chocolate touches our skin, this product helps stimulate cellular oxygenation and helps us improve blood circulation; for this reason, it is used in anti-cellulite and anti-aging treatments. Moreover, it hydrates, firms, and detoxifies the skin, making it a great ally in different skin beauty treatments.
Extending the treatments described, the natural cosmetics industry has recently used them to create different cosmetic products such as hair masks, body soaps, shampoos, and body creams thanks to their beneficial properties that can contribute to our health.
What are the nutritional properties of Cocoa?
Cocoa is a food that has a high index of saturated fats and, to a lesser extent, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. It is also rich in carbohydrates and proteins but contains magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, theobromine, caffeine, antioxidants, and water.
|Nutritional value per 100 grams of Cocoa
|Caffeine: 230 mg
It also stands out for having a high energy intake, indicated for people who perform sports activities or high-performance physical exercise.
What are the benefits of Cocoa?
Polyphenols are an antioxidant found in the cocoa powder that can enhance cholesterol and blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of heart disease. Cocoa powder is a good source of theobromine, which can reduce inflammation and offer protection from illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
As we have already talked about, Cocoa is caloric. Still, it provides us with different nutrients, such as fibre, that can help us regulate intestinal transit, and that is beneficial for our health by helping us regulate blood pressure and cholesterol, among other benefits.
It also provides many antioxidants that act against free radicals and protect cells.
Another of its benefits can be found in flavonoids, which are generally found in vegetables. They are also present in Cocoa and are antioxidants that help prevent some heart diseases and increase elasticity and hydration in the skin.
Another of the great benefits of consuming this fruit, which for me is the most important, is that it favours the production of endorphins which, as we have already explained, contributes to improving the state of mind that allows combating physical and mental stress. Moreover, other elements such as tryptophan, phenylethylamine, theobromine, and flavonol also contribute to a more positive mood.
Therefore, now that you know the benefits of Cocoa, enjoy a delicious portion of chocolate.
My name is Ellie Lauderdale, MD and I am USA based professional Nutritionist .
I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and board certified specialist in sports dietetics who is trained in integrative medicine. I have worked with hundreds of clients, from those suffering with chronic disease to professional and olympian athletes. My goal is to help optimize you from the inside so that you can feel, perform, and look your best on the outside.