Plant Profile: Cacao
The history of cacao is bittersweet: a bitter tasting fruit of a plant that has been highly valued and adored worldwide by people who savor its sweetened end product, chocolate, also has an odious history of slave labor and shattered cultures.
Cocoa was the currency of the Mayans and the Azetcs. In fact, counterfeit beans, made with painted clay or stone was a thriving industry. Goods were priced in units of cocoa beans: a slave cost 100 beans, prostitute services were worth 10 beans and a turkey was 200 beans.
Cacao is an $80 billion year industry with 3.5 million tons produced annually, a figure set to increase to 4.5 million tons by 2020.
Proper fermentation, drying and roasting are key to the flavor of cacao.
Cacao is facing significant problems and could be extinct by 2050.
Botanical and Common Names
Theobroma cacao (theo = god; broma = food)
The names cacao and cocoa are used interchangeably. The word cacao is regarded as a mistake in understanding the Aztec language and its name for for the plant: “cocahuatl” which stood for cocoa-based drinks.
Common names: cacao tree, cocoa tree
Processed beans: cocoa, chocolate, kakaw, tejate; Extracted oil: cocoa butter
Plant Family: Malvaceae (mallow family includes hollyhocks, hibiscus, marsh mallow)
There are 20 species of the genus Theobroma that are native to Central and South America. Other species of Theobroma are used in commercial chocolate production including monkey cacao (T. anvstfolium), tiger cacao (t. bicolor) & cupuacu (T.gradniflorum).
Cacao plants are small (20 feet) broadleaf evergreen trees that grow in the understory of tropical rainforests. They have large oblong alternate evergreen leathery leaves.
Their flowers are borne on short stalks directly from the trunk - a unique arrangement that produces foot-long, oblong, ribbed yellow to purplish pods (fruits).
These tropical football-shaped fruits are green when immature and mature through a rainbow of changing colors: white, yellow, orange and finally to a reddish purple.
In the Wild, the Farm and the Plantation
Cultivation likely began 3000 years ago by indigenous people of Central America: the Olmecs and later, Mayans and Aztecs. It then spread by human use to Central Mexico.
Like several other tropical plants, cacao can only be cultivated in a geographical band extending 20 degrees above and below the equator. Due to its prized value in commerce, the plant has been exported for commercial production to other tropical regions of the world like West Africa, Malaysia and Brazil.
Limited Natural Habitat
Theobrama’s growing needs are specific which helps to explain its limited growing environments as well as the difficulty of growing cacao in plantation-style monocultures. It prefers partial shade, elevation between 1000 and 2000 feet, and consistently moist, hot and humid conditions. It thrives in a natural planting guild that might include taller plants like the banana tree which offers shade from its canopy of broad leaves.
Traditional family farmers often plant yam and cassava crops around the cacao tree: this creates a sustaining mulch, which helps to regulate moisture and provides habitat for the tiny ‘chocolate midges’ that pollinate the cacao plant. For many centuries, cacao growers were family farmers who maintained small acreages of a diversified farm that included cacao.
Though the cacao tree has both male and female parts, it must rely on a highly specialized pollinator relationship with a minute fly or what we often call “no-see-ums.” This sub-group of flies, also called biting midges, are the only pollinators of the cacao plant and despite their numbers, they aren’t all that great at it.
But to be honest, the cacao flowers make the process quite challenging with its microscopic sex parts, complex flowers and its foul odor or worse, lack of odor. They certainly look complex and sexy!
Early Cacao Plantations in the Caribbean
As the demand for chocolate increased, the desire to increase cacao production spread to the Caribbean Islands during the first half of the 20th century. Imitating the coffee plantations, cacao trees were planted in long rows, in full sun, often sprayed with pesticides, and devoid of plant neighbors and their all-important mulch.
In only a few decades, the trees were afflicted with a variety of fungal and bacterial diseases: swollen shoot, black pot rod, cocoa wilt, and the most devastating thus far, witches broom disease (WBD). The WBD fungus is currently restricted to South and Central America and the Caribbean but its impact has been huge: the fungus inhibits the growth of the beans in the cacao pod. This one disease devastated the Brazilian crop by three-quarters in just a few years.
Devil’s Bargain: African Cacao Plantations
In the last half of the 20th century, cacao producers, now an international corporate enterprise, started production in several countries on the west coast of Africa. The necessary environmental conditions were available, and the continued demand for using poor farmers to do the work was met. But the corporations made a pact with the devil in some cases, relying on politicians and dictators to promote their new cacao economy. Subsistence farmers were sold the dream of wealth and independence through cacao farming. (I discuss the cultural and political consequences of this agricultural undertaking below.)
Now, the bulk of world’s beans are exported from these countries but African cacao producers are confronted with the drying effects of climate change (remember the plant thrives in humidity), lower pollination rates resulting in unpredictable harvests, increased costs of pesticides for plantation grown beans, the ups and downs of an international chocolate market, continued political instability, increasing demands for fair-trade and slave-free grown chocolate and the persistence of diseases.
Cacao Bean Harvest
Cacao beans are harvested 2x a day, using machetes to both remove the pod (fruit) from the trunk and then to split the pod in half. As more is learned about fermentation, more farmers are using rocks or trees to split open pods because machetes often cut into the beans, which can affect the fermentation process.
The beans are coated in a white, mucilaginous substance that is both sweet and tart. The coating is the seed’s food for future germination but its sugars also serve in the fermentation process.
Cacao Bean Fermentation
Many chocolate consumers don’t realize that cacao beans are fermented to remove a percentage of the astringent tannins that naturally occur in the plant.
The small import business, Heartblood Cacao, granted permission for me to use their description of the fermentation process:
To go from the cacao fruit to what we know as chocolate, there are many steps involved and each one has a major influence on the end product, both in taste and in chemical make-up. Once the fruit of the cacao tree is ripe, the pods are harvested and cut open. Inside are 30-50 seeds, covered in a white pulpy substance, the fruit of the cacao tree. The entire inner contents are brought wet to a central facility where fermentation and sun-drying happen.
If you were to taste the seed raw, right from the fruit, you might wonder if it had any relationship to chocolate, one of its end products. The fresh seed is bitter with almost no hint of chocolate flavor. It contains tannins, phytic acid & oxalic acid, all of which are unpalatable and unhealthy to consume in any quantity. It is all of the steps after harvest that produce the wonderful thing we know of as chocolate, including drastically reducing the compounds which make cacao unattractive in its raw form.
To ferment the cacao, the wet beans are placed in sizable piles inside some kind of container (like a wooden box topped with banana leaves). The sweet pulp and its sugars create an environment in which fermentation can happen. The piles of wet, fermenting beans are turned on various schedules (depending on things like ambient temperature, variety of cacao, consistency of the beans and sugar content of the pulp) until 80-90% of the beans are fully fermented.
During fermentation, important enzymatic changes occur that make the bean usable for chocolate-making. Fermentation is both a highly specialized, and under-appreciated aspect of cacao production. Cut tests are performed to check that consistency of fermentation through each batch. It takes training to recognize what a bean looks like in the various stages of fermentation, from unfermented to over-fermented or moldy.
It can take anywhere from 2-8 days to properly ferment cacao beans, depending on the variety.
After fermentation is complete, the beans are moved to a drying location. Often this happens on a concrete pad where the mix of tropical sun and thermal mass, along with adequate air flow, creates an ideal environment for drying.
Once the drying is complete, the bean is ready for the next steps in the journey of chocolate making. Most cacao is shipped in this form, as whole beans with husk on.
These essential steps of post-harvest processing are often overlooked as farmers and local cooperative associations aren’t seeing any additional income from the extra processing work and possible risk of losing the crop when not done properly. In these situations, cacao is simply washed after harvest and dried for sale. Sadly, much of the potential of the cacao is lost when this happens.
The Many Types of Chocolate
On its own, without added sweetener, cacao has a bitter taste and it’s only after it has been mixed with large amounts of sugar does it become what most Western cultures recognize as chocolate. Most chocolate makers use a combination of beans but single origin chocolate can be purchased and is usually one variety from one location. In the past three decades, chocolate has gone artisan, creating a market for highly flavorful chocolate that is measured by the percentage of cacao used in the bar.
In her book, Pure Chocolate, Fran Bigelow defines the many types of chocolate:
Semisweet - 52-62 % cacao
Bittersweet - 63% to 72%, darker and bitter flavor more pronounced (84% is now available)
Milk chocolate - 36-46% cacao; dried dairy products are added that mellows the chocolate flavor
White chocolate - not cacao seeds but cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, milk
Unsweetened - 100% cacao; bitter
Cacao nibs – fermented, dried and roasted beans that are chipped into unsweetened small nibs
Cocoa powder – Nibs are ground into a paste, the cacao butter is extracted and the remains of the bean are dried and ground into a powder which is unsweetened, bitter and alkaloid-rich, making it naturally acidic.
Dutch-process cocoa powder - natural acidity has been neutralized by a wash with potassium carbonate solution; less bitter & less acidic. Offers a more “chocolately” taste.
Note: These two types of cocoa powders are not always interchangeable in baking because the lowered acidity of Dutched powder affects the chemical reaction of leavening agents. If a recipe specifies Dutch-processed cocoa, it usually uses baking powder (instead of baking soda).
Cacao/chocolate can be enjoyed as a candy, baked goods, as a flavoring in a variety of foods, in savory sauces like moles and as a beverage. A cup of homemade hot chocolate with a whipped cream topping is a winter indulgence I enjoy. Lately, I have been drinking cacao in the more traditional style.
Traditional Hot Cacao Recipe
Add 1-2 oz unsweetened cacao paste or powder to 5-7 oz. of very hot but not boiling water. Add spices of your choice: a pinch of cayenne, cinnamon, cardamon, vanilla, mint. Add a spoon of honey if you need some sweetener. Whisk until frothy.
Want to make your own chocolate and control the amount of sugar? Check out my recipe for Healthy Homemade Chocolate.
Are raw cacao beans healthy?
Raw cacao beans are seeds that are dried at a low temperature but not fermented or roasted and have become a popular fad among raw food purists. There is much debate around it but the bottom line: raw cacao is quite bitter and tastes nothing like any kind of chocolate that most of us are familiar with. There are also concerns about pathogens on raw cacao that has not been roasted at a high enough temperature.
Like all seeds and nuts, the cacao bean (it’s a seed) contains high levels of phytic acid, which our bodies do not digest well and can actually inhibit absorption of nutrients. When beans are fermented and roasted, the phytic acid and associated toxins are deactivated.
My take on raw cacao: it can make some people bloated and nauseous, it could carry pathogens, it’s incredibly bitter and it doesn’t offer your body in any significant nutritional advantages. Think I will stick with the processed cacao beans.
In the Apothecary: Cacao as Medicine
It seems that every other month someone announces a recent study that indicates the health benefits of chocolate. We all smile while as we indulge in an afternoon Snickers bar, believing that we are eating medicine.
But many of us have wiped that smiling smirk off our faces because we now know that a Snickers bar is not medicinal. To enjoy the medicinal benefits of chocolate you have to indulge in the bittersweet version of it: chocolate that has a high percentage of cacao and much less sweetener, or ideally, no sugar. Sugar is a problem, and we eat too much of it. The candy industry has corrupted our taste buds by selling us sugar mixed with cacao. But the far less sweetened chocolate that offers benefits is an acquired taste and as one friend ironically stated: “The 72% artisan dark chocolate bar doesn’t really taste like chocolate.” We need to retrain our brain and our taste buds and accept the healthier version of chocolate.
Multiple studies have concluded that eating small amounts of cacao – in the traditional manner barely or not sweetened - is a rich source of antioxidants that offer beneficial cardio-vascular benefits including lowering blood pressure, reducing blood clots and increasing HDL (the “good” cholesterol).
Cacao is also considered slightly psychoactive because it contains the alkaloids, theobromine and theophylline, which can create a mild euphoria, increase focus and relax breathing.
Research also suggests that cacao enhances cognitive functioning, perhaps by improving insulin sensitivity. Because of its small amount of caffeine and the high levels of theobromine, cacao can be stimulating to the nervous system and some people may have problems.
Cacao beans are rich in a number of essential minerals, including magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium and manganese.
Another product of the cacao tree is cocoa butter, a saturated fat that is semisolid at room temperature and can be used in cooking, candy-making, and is known to support healthy skin. I use cocoa butter in my herbal hand salve and lip balms.
In Commerce: Chocolate for Sale
Chocolate is an $80 billion year industry with 3.5 million tons produced annually, a figure set to increase to 4.5 million tons by 2020. In fact, brace yourself, I know you probably don’t want to hear this but Americans consume almost 3 billion pounds of sweetened chocolate each year - that’s 11 pounds per person. Those cute little chocolate Kisses, chocolate chip cookies and decadent brownies add up.
Chocolate candy has been marketed into our lives over the last century: the English company, Cadbury introduced the chocolate egg for the Easter holiday.
Your love is expressed with chocolate: over 60 million pounds of chocolate candies are sold during the week of Valentine’s Day, offered as an expression of love and a hopeful aphrodisiac.
How many pounds of sugar-laden chocolate fudge are made and eaten during the Christmas holidays?
Halloween is another moneymaker for chocolate corporations and throughout the rest of the year, chocolate is considered the go-to for sweetness: brownies, devil’s food cake and chocolate chip cookies are some of the most popular chocolate baked goods.
Are our brains wired for sweet chocolate? At a recent fundraising event that featured slices of pie for sale, the chocolate torte was the first to go. It was fascinating to watch people especially young children zero in, to the exclusion of the other pies, on the chocolate torte.
Is Cacao in Trouble?
Globally, farmers, whether they believe in it or not or are aware of the concept, are witnessing and experiencing the effects of rapid and erratic climate change. As a specialized and complex plant, cacao trees in Africa (which produce 70% of the world’s crop) are suffering from excessive drying winds, hotter temperatures, lack of rain, and increase in disease and pests.
A plant with its origins in a rainforest that has predictable temperatures, sunlight and precipitation, the cacao tree is predicted to become extinct by 2050. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes that production will be reduced significantly by 2020.
There are four multi-national corporations (Mars, Hershey’s Nestle and Mondelez), referred to as “Big Chocolate,” who control much of the production and processing of cacao and they are looking to science to provide solutions. Attempts to create a hybrid that is disease resistant and easier to grow has so far resulted in bad tasting cacao seeds.
Genetic engineering is the next option but corporations are hesitant to create GMO cacao because of the public’s disdain for anything GMO. Genetic editing, the newest method of genetic engineering, has potential to increase the disease resistance and adaptability of the cacao trees but artisan chocolatiers of the world are unsure what will happen to the flavor of the bean.
The Future is the Past: Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund
Many of those same artisan chocolatiers (small, owner-made high quality chocolate often specializing in single origin beans) have joined the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, an international non-profit that supports the continued production of heirloom cacao beans by assisting the farmers dedicated to preserving the flavor and health of the uncultivated cacao bean.
Heirloom beans are grown in their preferred agroforestry environment, shaded and surrounded by abundant diversity of mulch-producing plants. These beans are more expensive and are preferred by artisan chocolate makers because of their flavor. It’s likely this will be the future of cacao and chocolate and this small-scale production could never meet the demands of the corporate masses.
Slave & Child Labor on Cacao Farms
My research into cacao as both a plant and business led me to several books about the good, the bad and the ugly side of cacao production. In her 2006 book, Bitter Chocolate: Investigating The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, author Carol Off describes the long history of using poor farmers, and child and slave labor throughout the centuries of cacao production. Sadly, little has changed in 2018.
The use of slaves and child labor in African cacao farms is a direct result of political and corporate manipulations to exploit the cacao farmers and strip them of any opportunity to make a profitable living. Greed, corruption and now weather extremes force farmers to look for ways to cut expenses and labor is the primary way. This issue deserves far more attention than this paragraph on my website, and I encourage you to read Carol Off’s book. There is also an informational website: www.slavefreechocolate.org.
in 2012, the undercover investigative 30 minute documentary, "The Dark Side of Chocolate" confirmed that Big Chocolate was not following through on its signed commitment (the Cocoa Protocol) to eradicate child labor.
The Dark Side of Chocolate Documentary
In 2016, a reporter from Fortune, Inc. investigated the issue of slave and child labor and sadly reported that despite efforts to reduce the use of children and slaves, the practice has actually increased. This 3 minute video and written report offers specifics.
Take Action Against Forced Child Labor
The most important action you can take as a chocolate consumer is to purchase chocolate made by small artisan creators who source their cacao from outside West Africa. Purchasing from Big Chocolate supports slave labor, poor treatment of cacao farmers and in many case, pesticide-laden cacao crops. Savor the deep rich flavor of exceptional quality albeit more expensive chocolate and pay the justified price for ethical and sustainable chocolate.
Wild Medicine by Guido Mase
Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet by Carol Off
Pure Chocolate by Fran Bigelow
Food as Medicine by Todd Caldecott
National Geographic Guide to Medicinal Herbs
Alchemy of Herbs by Rosalee de Foret
Author: Sue Kusch
Sue Kusch, a former community college instructor and academic advisor, incorporates her experiential wisdom, expertise and science-based research garnered from her three decades of growing vegetables, fruit and herbs into her educational writing about plants and how people use them. In addition to her BA in Social Sciences and Masters in Education, she completed the Master Gardener training in 2011 and two permaculture courses in 2001 and 2014. She has studied medicinal and nutritional uses of herbs including studies at Herbmentor.com and East West School of Planetary Herbology since 1997. Sue currently serves as President and newsletter editor of her local chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society. An avid reader, lover of historical and folkloric information, and a promising storyteller, Sue writes about the intersection of plants and people at www.plantsnpeople.com.