chocolate facts

BASIC Chocolate Facts

COCOA [koh-koh] is the powder made from the cacao bean.

CACAO [kuh-,kah-oh, -key-oh] refers to:

  • the tree
    (cacao tree)
  • the pod that grows on the tree
    (cacao pod)
  • the bean that grows in the pod
    (cacao bean)
  • the pure paste of the bean
    (cacao paste or cacao "liquor")

The word "chocolate" entered the English language from Spanish.

The food chocolate is produced from the seed of the tropical cacao tree.

Cacao trees are small, understory trees that grow in rain forests.
In order to thrive, they require warm, humid conditions with regular rainfall and good soil. They can't tolerate temperatures lower than 15° C (59° F), but must be shaded in their first 2 to 3 years. They begin to bear pods when they're 4 to 5 years old.

There are competing theories on the origin of the wild cacao tree.
One is that they originally grew wild in southeastern Mexico and were distributed to other parts of Mexico and South America. However, recent studies of the species seem to show that the plant originated in the Amazon and was then distributed by humans throughout Central America and Mesoamerica. Either way, today the trees grow wild in the lowland foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins.

cocoa bean

The pod of the cacao tree contains 20-60 seeds ("beans") buried in a white pulp. A pod ripens from yellow to orange, looks like a deflated football, and weighs about 1 lb (500 g) when ripe. It takes about 10 pods (300-600 beans) to produce 2.2 lbs (1 kg) of cocoa paste.

The flowers of the cacao plant grow in clusters directly on the trunk and older branches. Unlike most of the world's flowers that are pollinated by bees or butterflies, cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies. (I'll betcha didn't know that!) Cacao tree leaves are poisonous and inedible.

In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, cacao beans were often used as currency. The Aztecs, for example, "priced" a turkey at 100 cacao beans and one fresh avocado was worth 3 beans. On all conquered areas that grew cacao beans, the Aztecs levied the beans as a tax, or "tribute". At one point the Aztec empire was receiving an annual tribute of 980 loads of cacao, each load representing 8,000 beans! As late as the 1840s, cacao beans were still being used as currency in the Yucatan.

To learn more wonderful facts about chocolate, keep reading...

ENGAGING Chocolate Facts

Pure chocolate is unsweetened and contains primarily cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions.

Cocoa solids: the nonfat element of chocolate.
Cocoa butter: a pure, edible vegetable fat extracted from the cacao bean.

The 3 main varieties of cacao beans used in chocolate are Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario.

Criollo is the rarest and most expensive type of chocolate on the market.
Only 5% of all cacao beans grown are Criollo.
Forastero is the most commonly grown bean.
Trinitario is a natural hybrid of Criollo and Forastero.

The most common varieties of chocolate are dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate.

According to the FDA, a product must contain chocolate liquor in order to be called "chocolate".
White chocolate does not contain cocoa solids and, technically, is not considered "true chocolate".

Click here for more on the different Types of Chocolate

HISTORICAL Chocolate Facts

Cacao has been cultivated for at least 3 millennia in Central America and Mexico.

In 2007, archaeologists in Puerto Escondido, Honduras reported finding evidence of cacao use and cultivation dating 1100 to 1400 B.C.

According to Maya mythology, cacao was discovered by the gods in a mountain: The Plumed Serpent gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created by divine grandmother goddess Xmucane.
Similarly, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is said to have discovered cacao in a mountain filled with other plant foods.

Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to encounter cacao.

This happened in 1502 when Columbus crossed paths with a Mayan trading canoe that was carrying cocoa beans as cargo...

Click here for more on the History of Chocolate

CURIOUS Chocolate Facts

The seeds of the cacao tree have an intense bitter taste, so must be fermented to develop the flavor.

After fermentation, cacao beans are dried, cleaned, roasted, and the shell is removed. This produces what are called "cacao nibs". In order to make cocoa, the nibs are mashed into a paste, pounded to extract the cocoa butter, and then pulverized into a dry powder. (Ouch!)

Click here for more on How Chocolate Is Made

PLEASING Chocolate Facts

Even though chocolate is usually eaten for pleasure, there are potential beneficial health effects of eating chocolate.

Raw cocoa is rich in flavonoids/antioxidants that suppress harmful free radical damage in our bodies. This reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, and the effects of aging.

When the USDA ranked top antioxidant foods, dark chocolate came in first!
Milk chocolate was second!

Click here for more on the Health Benefits of Chocolate

And, finally...One of the best facts about chocolate you could ever know...

PROVOCATIVE Chocolate Fact

According to a study reported by the BBC, melting chocolate in your mouth produces an increase in brain activity and heart rate that is more intense than...

Click here to learn about the Effects of Chocolate

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