Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Cacao

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Cacao requires little introduction. It’s everywhere, from chocolate bars to almost every bakery under the sun. But cacao and chocolate are not synonymous. The former is a beautiful, fragrant fruit that has deeply ancient roots in Mesoamerica, where it was considered a sacred food from the gods. A sacred food-turned-everyday commodity: There’s a lot to say about cacao, so let’s get started.

What is cacao?

Cacao is a fruit that grows on the Theobroma cacao tree, blooming in scattered areas from its trunk and mid branches. The fruit is large and oblong; it looks similar to an American football, with a hard exterior shell that must be cracked open before discovering the treasures that lie inside.

“Cacao comes in all sorts of beautiful colors, ranging from yellows to greens and bright reds,” says Greg D’Alesandre, a sourcer for San Francisco’s Dandelion Chocolate. “Once you break open these football-sized pods, you’ll find a wall that’s half an inch thick. And on an internal stem there are about 30 to 60 beans, each covered in a pulpy white fruit. The seeds are really big; the fruit around [them] is minimal.”

Both the cacao fruit and beans influence the flavors found in chocolate bars. However, they play different roles in the chocolate-making process (more on that later).

Cacao also carries deep meaning for many people. “Cacao represents life and the fragility of our planet. The first vanilla orchid, like cacao, was also native to Mexico, but [those with] the ships had the power to go around the world and move it,” says Claudette Zepeda, a culinary anthropologist and entrepreneur who grew up between San Diego and Tijuana. “The fragility of the ecosystems these foods are grown in, and the resilience of the humans who are hell-bent on continuing the traditions, is what cacao represents to me. It represents the fight in every Mexican.”

What’s the difference is between cacao, cocoa, and chocolate?

Chocolate is the treat and baking ingredient, while both cacao and cocoa refer to the fruit and plant it comes from. In the United States, “cocoa” is used in recipes or to describe hot chocolate. That’s not the case in cacao-producing countries where the original spelling is still used, but there are some exceptions.

“Cacao is technically the original way it was pronounced,” says D’Alesandre. “Cocoa is, from my understanding, a bastardized pronunciation of it. But in Africa, cocoa is typically the word you use.”

Where did cacao originate?

Cacao’s origins can be traced back to ancient Mesoamerica, where it was a precious commodity and frequently traded crop. It’s widely believed that cacao originated in modern-day Mexico, where Indigenous communities consumed it for centuries. Some theories, however, claim that the crop came from the northern regions of the Amazon before arriving in Mexico via an extensive trading network.

“The way you know where cacao was cultivated [in ancient times] is when you find residue in pots,” says D’Alesandre. “The oldest found pottery that had residue was found in Ecuador. That doesn’t mean it first grew in Ecuador, but maybe it was first cultivated in Ecuador. What we do know is that it started in Mesoamerica in what is now Mexico before it made its way down to South America.”

In other words, Ecuador is possibly where cacao was first used as a food, although the first records of its consumption came from Mexico’s Olmec civilization. The Olmecs flourished in the southern regions of the Gulf Coast of Mexico between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE; during this period they transformed cacao fruit into various beverages and foods through fermentation, drying, and roasting processes. It’s also believed that they eventually adopted fermented beans as a form of currency.

“It was our salt,” says Zepeda. “As the saying goes, ‘You’re worth your weight in salt.’ Well, you can also say you’re worth your weight in cacao. It was our currency, it was sustenance, and it was used for medicinal purposes, too.”

Once the Olmecs’ dominance in the region faded around 600 BCE, the Mayan empire flourished in southern Mexico, where the practice of trading cacao was adopted. According to eighth-century Mayan artwork, chocolate was considered a form of payment for goods and services throughout the empire, especially since the fermented beans were consumed regularly in a frothy beverage made from cacao, chiles, water, and honey. The Aztecs adopted similar traditions, cacao-related rituals, and recipes as well, and it is believed that fermented cacao beans were considered more valuable than gold in their communities.

How did chocolate become popular everywhere?

Like tomatoes, maize, and other Mesoamerican crops, cacao made its way around the world through European colonization. Following the Spanish invasion of Mexico in 1519, fermented cacao beans were taken back to Europe by the end of the 16th century. However, there are varying accounts (if not folkloric tales) as to who exactly brought cacao to Spain, with some possible contenders including Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, and a group of Mayans who were brought to the court of King Philip II of Spain in 1544.

Regardless of who brought cacao across the Atlantic first, it was a big hit within the Spanish royal court and aristocracy. During this period, cacao was mixed with sugar for the first time to produce the sweet flavors we often associate with chocolate.

Spain kept cacao a secret from its European neighbors for nearly a century, likely because the seafaring nation wanted to maintain a monopoly on the newly established cacao trade. Nevertheless, following the decline of the Spanish Empire (and the marriage of Anne of Austria, daughter of Spanish King Philip III, to France’s King Louis XIII), the secret of cacao eventually leaked to the rest of the continent.

It was the Portuguese who ultimately brought cacao to West Africa in the early 19th century, having planted the first trees in São Tomé and Principé around 1822.

“It was a colony crop that reached the mainland through São Tomé,” explains D’Alesandre. “But its cultivation in countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire really started out as a grassroots movement when local farmers thought it was something that would make them a better income than other crops.”

Where does cacao grow today?

Cacao grows in a region referred to as the Cacao Belt. Stretching 20 degrees north and south of the equator, it has the warm, tropical climates that cacao trees need to thrive.

Most of the world’s top cacao producers are in West Africa, with Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Sierra Leone making up half of the top-10 list. Other major cacao-producing markets include Indonesia (No. 3) and Ecuador (No. 5), with the latter experiencing rapid growth in its cacao production after the introduction of the CCN-51 variety — one of the world’s fastest-growing varieties of cacao — in the 1990s.

Today, there are four varieties of cacao sold on the market: forastero, criollo, trinitario, and nacional. Both forastero and criollo originated in the Amazon Basin, but where criollo is delicate and rare, forastero is a sturdy, high-yield plant that is used in most of the world’s chocolate production, despite its lesser quality.

Trinitario is a hybrid strain from the Caribbean that came to South America in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is known for being particularly susceptible to climate and terroir conditions, and for having a wide spectrum of flavors. Nacional, which was rediscovered in Peru in 2011, is considered the rarest of all cacao plants.

Cacao trees grow in some unexpected places. “I’ve been all over the world for work, and I’ve seen cacao grow in Taiwan, Thailand, India, Hawai’i, and Australia,” says D’Alesandre. “There’s even cacao in Saudi Arabia.”

What does cacao taste like?

The white fruit surrounding the cacao bean can be eaten raw. In fact, the fleshy pulp (as the fruit is commonly referred to) is consumed in countries where cacao is grown, and is praised for its flavor and nutritional benefits.

“The white fruit is amazing and not something that many people often get a chance to eat,” says D’Alesandre. “It’s similar to lychee, with a tropical, sweet, and acidic flavor. The fruit can be white, dark purple, or somewhere in between in color. Once you crack open a cacao pod, you’re instantly hit with this incredible floral smell from the fruit.”

Like all produce, cacao can vary in taste from season to season due to factors like climate and soil conditions.

“Some cacao is so aromatic it tastes like you just ate a bunch of flowers,” says D’Alesandre. “There’s a lot of fruity, floral notes in cacao as well. I once had cacao from Peru that tasted just like strawberries, and others where you can taste pineapple, rose, or almond.”

And while it may sound like a given, sometimes the taste of cacao can simply be described as tasting like chocolate.

“Chocolate is made from the seeds of cacao, which are genetically unique — a cross-pollination of the mother tree and father tree — whereas fruit is genetically identical to the vine and tree it grows on, as seen in wine. This means that cacao is a wild mixture of genetics, which produces wilder flavors,” explains D’Alesandre.

“Cacao tastes different depending on where it grows,” says Zepeda. “Chocolate from Tabasco will differ from chocolate from Veracruz, parts of Oaxaca, and Chiapas. The tasting notes are dictated by where they’re grown, similar to whiskey and agave. They have their nuances.”

A cacao pod sits on a cutting board with a mug of hot chocolate. Illustration.

Can cacao be savory?

The naturally bitter, earthy flavor of roasted cacao beans has its most common expression in mole, which encapsulates an entire subsection of Mexican cuisine. Translated as “sauce,” moles vary in spices, herbs, and chiles, but some are known for their complex, bittersweet chocolate flavor, like mole negro and mole poblano.

Cacao can also be used to enhance marinades for steak, meat stews, roasted salsas, vinaigrettes, and barbecue sauces.

How does cacao become chocolate?

The journey from fruit to chocolate bar is long but fascinating. Once the cacao pods are cut from their trees and cracked open, the pulp-covered beans are extracted and laid out to ferment in either piles or wooden boxes to better trap in heat.

The tropical climate kick-starts a two-stage fermentation process. In the first stage, whatever fruit is left on the bean after harvest is eaten by yeast and converted into alcohol and heat. Afterward, bacteria convert the alcohol, in conjunction with oxygen, into acetic acid. The acetic acid soaks into the beans, shifting their color from white or purple to brown, which is where the color of chocolate comes from.

It’s during this two- to nine-day fermentation process that cacao beans develop the nuanced flavors that show up in chocolate. Acetic acid from the fermented pulp soaks into the beans, breaking down the bean itself and transforming its flavor profile. Similar to wine and coffee, the bean’s flavors are influenced by the environment where the tree is grown, with each cacao harvest producing slightly different flavors.

Once fermentation is complete, the brown beans must be dried for one to two weeks in the sun before they’re packaged and shipped off to chocolate makers. It’s common for chocolate makers to order dried beans from various origins and mix them to create a specific blend. Some produce single-origin chocolate, which means making bars from beans harvested by a single producer. This allows chocolate makers to capture the harvest’s unique flavor profile, and also provide greater supply chain transparency.

The beans are cleaned and roasted at chocolate factories to fully develop their flavor profiles before they’re ground. The shells are then separated from the “meat” of the bean, also known as cacao nibs, which get pulverized into a paste. The ground nibs, known as chocolate liquor, are placed under high pressure to create two products: cacao powder and cacao butter. They, along with milk and sweeteners (depending on the desired flavor profile), get heated, cooled, kneaded, rolled, and mixed to form the chocolate products we love to consume.

What is cacao butter?

Cacao butter is the fat extracted from cacao beans. Similar to certain nuts, cacao beans are roughly 50 percent fat, which gets extracted during the chocolate-making process. The extracted fat can be used in beauty products and nutritional supplements, or be reincorporated into chocolate in varying amounts, depending on the recipe.

Every batch of chocolate will have a different ratio of cacao butter based on a chocolatier’s preferences. Cacao beans’ fat content will also vary depending on multiple factors, such as the conditions in which they were grown.

How about the Mexican chocolate that’s sold in discs?

Before you buy a disc of Mexican chocolate to snack on, note that this style is not like your average Hershey’s bar.

“Even though you can eat it raw, Mexican chocolate is sandy and gritty and not meant for snacking,” says Zepeda. “It’s because its sugar is unrefined and granular, like piloncillo.”

If you’re traveling in Mexico, there’s a good chance you’ll find artisanal chocolate pucks that are ground and shaped by hand. These hardened chocolate discs are often flavored with chiles, nuts, and aromatics like vanilla and nutmeg and can come in various shapes and sizes.

“In my kitchen, I have various kinds of cacao pucks, whether they’re hand rolled into balls or Ibarra brand,” says Zapeda. “The smaller ones I use for sauces, like adobo, if they need some sweetness to combat any bitterness. You also can’t really bake with Mexican chocolate unless you were microplaning it onto something.”

You might have also heard of Mexican hot chocolate, the spicier, more complex cousin of the American version. You can infuse it with cinnamon, salt, and chili powder for some heat, but it all starts with a puck of chocolate artesanal.

Is it true that chocolate is energizing?

Drinking hot chocolate won’t give you the same jolt as a cup of coffee, but cacao has some noticeable energizing properties. This is due to theobromine, a bitter-tasting alkaloid and weak stimulant found in cacao beans. It is less potent than caffeine, which the beans also contain.

Some cultures have been consuming cacao as a source of energy for centuries. The Olmecs would leave their frothy fermented cacao beverages on the tombs of the dead to help energize their souls as they traveled to the supernatural world, while the Aztecs and Mayans believed cacao was a gift from the gods because of the sense of vitality it would provide. The Aztecs would reserve their sacred xocolatl concoction for their military to give them strength on the battlefield, and for the upper class, including Emperor Moctezuma II, who supposedly drank gallons of it a day for its energy and aphrodisiac properties.

“Through my cultural anthropology studies of Mexican cuisine, I visit a family at least once a year in a small village near Cholula, Puebla,” says Zepeda. “One time they gave me this ‘energy drink’ made from pinole and chocolate, but not sweetened at all. Afterward, we hiked a mountain, and I felt like I had the energy of 10 humans.”

Chocolate is big business, but is it ethical?

Valued at above $40 billion, the cacao industry is indeed big business. But behind those high profits and mass exportation across the globe are the producers who harvest, ferment, and dry cacao beans before shipping them off to chocolate-makers.

“Many people don’t know this, but cacao is a smallholder crop, and 95 percent of cocoa in the world is grown by farmers who have less than 10 hectares of land,” says D’Alesandre. “It’s a great way for small-scale farmers to make an income, but the downside is that the chocolate people consume is so disconnected from the cacao grown. Ultimately, the chocolate-makers get all the credit and most of the money, while farmers don’t get paid very well.”

The cacao industry is still rife with labor issues. Child labor, poor working conditions, human trafficking, and slavery are blights on modern-day cacao farms across West Africa and Latin America. Chocolate companies have faced pressure to address these crises. Some now choose to work directly with cacao cooperatives and fair-trade farmers to ensure adequate compensation and working conditions. Other companies, however, have done next to nothing.

Even with today’s technological advances in farming, harvesting cacao is still not an easy job. There are currently no automated harvesting methods for removing the cacao pods from their tree, or at least without damaging them and the fruit inside. Instead, farmers must manually cut each pod from the tree and crack it open to collect the seeds using a machete; the entire process is highly laborious, skilled work.

The cacao industry’s predicted growth over the next decade raises additional concerns about its effects on deforestation, which is a major problem in countries like the Ivory Coast, whose rainforests have been decimated by cocoa farming.

Is cacao healthier than cocoa?

As consumers learn more about the nutritional benefits of cacao, some have come to believe it is the healthier version of cocoa, which is not the case. This false assumption correlates with the wellness industry’s efforts to market ceremonial cacao and chocolate-based supplements. Some wellness brands will use cacao to refer to the plant and cocoa to refer to the product. You’ll often hear about “cocoa beans” coming from “cacao trees,” and then there’s the confusion surrounding cocoa powder. Some powder is processed with sugars and other additives, turning it into a separate product. But unadulterated, unsweetened cocoa powder is the same as cacao powder.

What are some recipes that use cacao?

If you’re interested in sampling all of the diverse and delicious foods cacao can be transformed into, here are some recipes to get you started.

Pilar Cabrera’s Mole Negro

Mely Martinez’s Champurrado

Claire Saffitz’s Pain au Chocolat

Saveur’s Cacao-Rubbed Baby Back Ribs

Jenn Segal’s Chocolate Mousse

Chocolateria San Gines’s Churros and Hot Chocolate

Janet Mendel’s Chicken with Catalan Picada

Ina Garten’s Beatty’s Chocolate Cake

Saveur’s Daube de Boeuf à la Gasconne (Gascon-Style Beef Stew)

Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies

Tracy Yabiku’s Mocha Latte

Sylvio Martins is a freelance writer and actor based in Los Angeles.

Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.

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