Did you know the beans used to make chocolate are considered a fruit? Cacao (or cocoa) beans are technically not beans but are the seeds of the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree.
Theobroma translates to the "food of the gods." No surprise, considering the evolution and taste of this delicious treat.
Chocolate is the most commonly used food flavoring in the world. Chocolate is made with dried and fermented cocoa beans. For clarity, cacao is the raw, unprocessed version of cocoa.
Cacao trees can only grow in a narrow band around the equator. These shallow-rooted trees are native to tropical regions of Central and South Africa. Still, the United States is the third largest producer of cocoa beans, yielding ~2.5 million tons annually. Most of this production is used in chocolate manufacturing rather than consumed as a food product.
Hawaii is the only state that grows commercial cocoa or cacao beans. The island's close proximity to the equator makes the climate ideal. For a cacao tree to grow, it needs warm temperatures, 6-10 hours of sunlight per day, and lots of rainfall (25 inches or more per year).
Cacao trees can grow up to 30 feet tall, annually produces 30 pods, and, when processed, the seeds in the pods create about 2lbs of chocolate. This shade-loving perennial evergreen shrub can live up to 50 years, producing fruit for 25 years or more.
The pod-shaped fruit is botanically classified as baccate-like (or berry-like), and each pod has approximately 35-50 seeds surrounded by a sweet pulp. According to various online sources, it takes 400-500 cocoa beans to make one pound of chocolate.
Antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and caffeine-like compounds, yay!
Cacao contains theobromine. Theobromine has antioxidant properties. Cocoa/cacao contains several polyphenolic compounds but is particularly rich in flavonoids. Flavonoids are a metabolite that gives fruits and vegetables their brilliant pigments and provide many health benefits when consumed. As I understand it, the richer and darker the color of the vegetation, the better. Dark green, leafy vegetables generally have the highest concentration of antioxidants and fiber. But here, we're going to focus on our friend chocolate.
Theobromine is also a vasodilator that relaxes blood vessels and improves blood flow. This translates to positive effects on blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
As mentioned, cacao contains theobromine, a bitter-tasting alkaloid that acts as a stimulant. This compound is also found in tea and coffee. In addition, theobromine has been linked to an increased release of endorphins (hormones the body produces that make you feel happy).
Chocolate, a health food? The Aztecs began drinking chocolate as early as 1400 B.C. for medicinal purposes. However, this concoction did not exactly resemble the sweet hot chocolate we know today. It wasn't until the early 1500s that Europeans added sugar and spices to give the chocolate a more appealing taste.
By the 19th century, people began consuming chocolate more as candy. According to the Smithsonian, the first "modern" chocolate bar was created by Joseph Fry of Fry & Sons in 1847. Using a moldable chocolate paste, the bar was rectangular with rounded corners. A few decades later, Nestle introduced milk chocolate to the market.
In 1879, Rodolphe Lindt, a Swiss chocolate manufacturer, developed a technique by which he could produce chocolate superior to all others of that period in aroma and melting characteristics. The conching machine, Lindt's invention (essentially a stirring device), gave the chocolate a more refined consistency and allowed the undesired aromas (e.g., bitterness) to evaporate. This technique and equipment allowed manufacturers to mass-produce chocolate at a lower cost, making it readily available to more consumers.
Cacao is one of the most valuable crops in the world. At one time, cacao/cocoa beans were used as currency to barter goods and services. Today, chocolate manufacturing is a 4-billion-dollar-plus industry in the United States, and the average American eats at least half a pound of the stuff per month. Switzerland is the world's highest consumer of chocolate per capita. The Swiss eat 22 pounds of chocolate per person per year.
Found this article informative? We hope it was a pleasurable read. As humble confectionery mold makers, we thought we knew chocolate, but it wasn't until we started to read up on it more that we realized it had such a rich history and fascinating origins. Thanks for reading!