Cacao is the Perfect Fruit
Deep in the Amazon, there is a magical tree that breaks forth from the ground, reaching toward the light shining above the umbrella of the rainforest. Within three to five years, from the trunk of the tree and its' thick branches, sprout tiny stems with five-petaled flowers. Small insects called midges pollinate the flowers and once fertilized, the little flowers grow into pod-like green almond-shaped fruits 18 to 20 cm in length. As the pod matures, the outside color ranges from green to red, yellow, orange, blue, purple, and multi-color. Inside this magical fruit are forty to fifty almond-shaped seeds connected with a centralized-ganglia engulfed in a sticky, sweet pulp. This tree not only grows in the Amazon Rainforest, but it is also found within a band twenty degrees latitude north and south of the equator all around the world, including Columbia, South Africa, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Ecuador. It continually produces fruit for up to fifty years after the tree matures, and each tree produces twenty to thirty pods per year. The fruit is commonly known as cacao (Wolfe and Holdstock 9-10). The scientific name of this beautiful tree is Theobroma Cacao, named in 1753 by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist. Theobroma is translated gods' in Latin, and cacao comes from the Aztec language Nahuatl word Xocolatl, meaning bitter water (Plants of the World Online, “Theobroma cacao L”).
The history of cacao is shrouded in mystery. There are many different beliefs as to when, where, and who were the first people to use chocolate. Historians debate crediting the Olmecs or the Mayans, both indigenous people from what is now known as Mexico, for being the first people to use cacao. Both loved to drink a concoction using cacao, and the Mayans used it in their spiritual practice. In the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, the drink was spelled Xocolatl and pronounced Chocolat, now known as chocolate. In 1984 a fifteen-hundred-year-old Mayan vessel was found in Guatemala, depicting the cultivation of a precisely drawn cacao tree with some remnants of the cacao drink inside (Bailleux et al. 58).
According to folklore, the King of the Aztec people, Montezuma, drank as many as 50 cups per day of a bitter beverage of cacao and spices. In addition to drinking cacao and using it in their spiritual rituals, the Aztec people used the beans to trade for food and other valuables. Upon the arrival of the Spanish Explorer Hernan Cortes in 1519, the Aztec King shared the coveted bitter Xocoatl cacao beverage with Cortes. He was not impressed with chocolate; however, he realized how vital it was to the Aztecs and the power the people had who possessed it, so he eventually sent Chocolate back to Spain. The Spanish people found the drink only tolerable with the addition of honey and spices, and for many years only Spain and Portugal enjoyed this magical potion.
From Spain and Portugal, Chocolate entered the households of the wealthy Italians. Once the Italians began drinking chocolate, it quickly spread throughout Europe. In Europe, drinking chocolate became widespread, and over the next "50 years, chocolate houses opened in every large city in Europe" (Miller 2). In the seventeenth century, Switzerland began processing chocolate by adding milk and sugar. With the invention of steam-powered mass-production technologies, chocolate was made available to people other than the wealthy. The Spanish brought chocolate to Florida in 1641, and it was a significant import enjoyed by everyone (History.com Editors, “The History of Chocolate”). It was not until 1980 that China discovered a love for chocolate, and it is quickly becoming as popular in Asia as it is in the rest of the world.
The anatomy of a chocolate pod in the photograph below shows the following pod parts: the exocarp, the mesocarp, the endocarp, the pulp, the funicle and placenta, and the seeds. The thick bumpy outer shell of the cacao is the exocarp, and it protects the seeds inside. The next layer of the pod is the mesocarp. It is not as hard as the exocarp, but is still pretty tough. The endocarp is the last part of the shell that is closest to the beans and the seeds' last form of protection. The shell is filled with a sweet, sticky pulp that surrounds the seeds and attaches them to the funicle. The funicle is thin like stalks that attaches the seeds to the placenta (Guevara, “The Chocolate Fruit”). It is a pure fruit that is the basis for many products on the market today.
The anatomy of a cacao pod. Credit: United States Department of Agriculture, Public Domain, with labels added by Julio Guevara
The most popular product that comes from cacao is chocolate. To make chocolate, the cacao pod is cracked open, and the inside of the pod is scooped out and placed in a container to ferment, including the beans, the funicle, the placenta, and the pulp. Fermentation is the process that converts the natural properties of the inside of the cacao into alcohol and the beans bloat turning their chemical composition to a more desirable flavor profile to produce chocolate. It is an essential process and must be carefully monitored to produce the desired result. This naturally high heat process also kills germination. During the fermentation process, the beans are mixed or rotated every 24 to 48 hours for up to eight days to complete the process, depending on the type of seeds that are being fermented. Once the cacao ferments, the bloated beans are dried by laying them out on a cement pad, or in trays or mats in the sun or in storage areas where the air is well circulated. The dried beans are roasted for flavor, cracked and winnowed to remove the shells, and ground into a deep dark brown chocolate paste (Wilmore Publishing Corp, “How Chocolate is Made). To create chocolate liquor, and cocoa butter, the cocoa mass is melted and separated into cocoa solids and fat. The cocoa solids are used to make solid chocolate, or it is dried to create cocoa powder, and the fat becomes cocoa butter.
The entire pod is used for agricultural purposes and as a commodity in the world market. In agriculture, the shell of the pod is left in the fields to draw insects that pollinate the flowers of the cacao, and once the pod has disintegrated, it is mixed back into the soil effectively providing additional nutrients for the trees (Guevara, "Looking Inside a Cacao Pod"). The shell of the cacao pod is mixed with feed for livestock and as a garden mulch. Chocolate, as a commodity, has many uses. The confectionery industry uses chocolate to make delicious sweets like chocolate truffles, candies, cakes, cookies, ice cream, jams, pastries, hot chocolate; and on the savory side of cooking, chocolate makes a great mole' sauce. The cocoa butter is used as a flavoring when cooking, as an ingredient in skincare products, and lipsticks (Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, “Costmetics”). The beer (Nunes st al. 319-329) and wine (Dias et al 1-21) industry use the pulp of the cacao.
The circulation of blood throughout the body is essential for cardiopulmonary health and brainpower. The chemical composition of cacao is extensive, containing both vitamins and minerals that support blood flow throughout the body. Cacao contains magnesium, antioxidants, theobromine, phenylethylamine, anandamide, to name a few. Magnesium is a mineral that promotes the circulation of blood, therefore improving heart health, brainpower, bodily functions, calcium production, and the relaxation of muscles. Antioxidants are compounds that inhibit oxidation and also assists in the circulation of blood and helps reduce LDL, the harmful cholesterol manufactured in the body. High cholesterol may cause heart disease. Theobromine, a stimulant, is an organic compound found in cacao, and it stimulates the nervous system and opens up blood vessels supporting circulatory health. Phenylethylamine and anandamide both uplift moods and increase blissful feelings. Both naturally occur in the brain; however, in higher concentrations, people are happier (Wolfe and Holdstock 43-60). Eating chocolate decreases the risks of coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes when consuming equal to or less than six servings per week (Yuan et al. 688). It is easy to believe that consuming small amounts of dark chocolate is a healthy treat, and it comes from cacao, the perfect fruit.
This year Barry Callebaut, a leading cocoa manufacturer located in Zurich, Switzerland, launched the "fourth" type of chocolate in the United States and Canada. Until now, chocolate came in three varieties—dark, milk, and white. The new Ruby Couverture is pink in color and shares a surprisingly fresh and fruity taste all brought about by nature with no artificial flavors or colors added. Bas Smith, Global Vice President Marketing of The Barry Callebaut Group, said that the company wants "to have ruby accepted as the fourth type of chocolate." Barry Callebaut also announced that they created a way to use the entire pod, beans (cacao seeds/beans), peel (exocarp, mesocarp, and endocarp), pulp (funicle and placenta), and juice, in both food and beverage applications including eating chocolate. The company introduced this innovation in California with samples of chocolate made from 100% pure cacao fruit. Pablo Perversi says this about using 100% Cacao Fruit: "by using more of the cacao fruit and wasting less, we are also having a positive impact on the planet and its people" (The Callebaut Group). The Nestle' Corporation, headquartered in Vevey, Switzerland, plans to introduce a 70% dark chocolate Kit Kat® bar in Japan using the pulp of the fruit as the sweetener. Patrice Bula, head of strategic business units, marketing and sales, says: "This is a real innovation which uses the natural sweetness of the cacao pulp to provide a pure, novel chocolate experience" (The Nestle Corporation). Companies like these and smaller artisan cocoa manufactures are consistently finding new and exciting ways to use cacao.
Cacao is grown mostly by people in developing countries far from places that manufacture, sell, and consume chocolate. Therefore, the supply chain is long, and it requires a large workforce. From the families who work small four or five-hectare farms to large corporations growing cacao on 100,000-hectare plantations, exporting to other countries that manufacture and process cacao to produce chocolate and other commodities, to the distribution channels that make sure it ends up in almost every household in the world, the workforce is enormous. The world cocoa market is forecasted to reach USD 139.94 billion by 2024 according to Chocolate Market – Growth, Trends, and Forecast (2019 – 2024) done by Research and Markets, The World's Largest Market Research Store. Cacao is an important crop and acts as an active driver in the global economy and will for years to come.
Over one thousand years ago, a small tree produced magical seeds grown from a tiny five-petaled flower. Throughout history, the cacao fruit has woven itself into the fabric of peoples’ lives. The indigenous people of Mexico drank it as a sacred beverage; it was part of their spiritual rituals and used as money to barter for goods and services. This precious fruit journeyed from there to Europe, the United States, and Asia. Even today, it is an ingredient in beverages such as hot chocolate, wine, and beer. Cacao is a prominent ingredient in sweet and savory cooking, and the cocoa butter is in cosmetic and skin care products. Cacao, previously only for the rich and famous, is used in some way, shape, or form by almost everyone on the planet. The cacao industry is a world player in International Trade, is an economic driver in under-developed countries, and employs people worldwide. Cacao is a source of vitamins and minerals that support cardiopulmonary health and increases brain function for a healthy mind and body. Chocolate, made from cacao, has been used to celebrate peace. It was served to celebrate peace between France and Spain in the sixteenth century (Munroe 158). Cacao has been used to support country infrastructures to encourage peace. In January of 2016, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and USAID (US Agency for International Development) entered into the “Cacao for Peace” agreement in Columbia to improve the cacao value chain. (USDA). After considering all that cacao has offered the world throughout history and looking forward to future innovations, Cacao is the perfect fruit.
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