Cocoa is a rich, bitter bean that is used to make dozens of different chocolate products. It’s cultivated mainly along the equator and traces its history back to the times of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. Jump into the world of chocolate and learn about the history, production, and uses of cocoa.
What Is Cocoa?
Cocoa is a seed from the cacao tree known as Theobroma cacao. The seed is used to make dozens of products ranging from cocoa powder for hot cocoa to cocoa butter to moisturize skin. The seeds are often referred to as cocoa beans or cacao beans — more on this in a minute.
The cacao tree is native to the Amazon rainforest in South America. Historically, cacao has played a significant role in civilizations across the continent. It was central to Aztec and Mayan society, where it was considered the food of the gods. Chocolatea was so vital to Mesoamerican society that cocoa beans were even used as a form of currency.
Chocolate was brought to Europe by Spanish exploration groups after forays into the South and Central American regions. Later, the plant would make its way to Africa during the period of colonization.
Today, the majority of the world’s cacao production occurs on the Ivory Coast of West Africa including Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. The cocoa tree thrives in equatorial regions and requires a warm, humid environment for growth. Once the cocoa beans are harvested, many are shipped overseas for production.
Popular varieties of cocoa products are now widely created across the European continent including Dutch dark chocolate bars, French chocolate macarons, and Swiss milk chocolates. White chocolate is made from cocoa butter but does not contain cocoa solids so it is not considered a true cacao product.
Cocoa Vs. Cacao
The terms cocoa and cacao are used interchangeably. Many experts in the cocoa sector use the terms to differentiate between cocoa that has been processed. When referring to the natural seeds, experts use the term cacao beans. They then use the term cocoa to refer to a product that has been processed into a powder or other product. Cocoa is typically used to refer to cacao products that have been fermented (1).
Cocoa Production Process
Due to the nature of the cocoa tree, harvest season can last year-round in many regions. Once the seed pods turn a light yellow or orange color, they are ready for harvesting.
Cacoa pods feature a rough skin that is similar to leather. The pods grow directly out of the tree trunk instead of from stems. They can be more than one inch thick and encase 30 to 50 cocoa seeds inside. The chocolate seeds are usually a light lilac or muddy purple in color.
The seed pods are harvested using long curved knives or machetes. Once the pods are cut down, the pulpy seeds are removed. The seeds are laid out on large mats or grates and allowed to ferment. The seeds sweat and produce a moisture-laden environment where microbes and good bacteria grow and cause fermentation.
The liquid oozes from the pods, resulting in wet beans, which are then dried for several days in direct sunlight. Once the beans are dried, they are roasted, crushed, and ground to produce chocolate products.
Uses of Cocoa
Cacao beans contain essential vitamins and minerals that are beneficial for human health. Highly concentrated cacao is a good source of zinc and selenium. It also contains high amounts of magnesium and iron, which may have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health (2). It’s important to note that the amount of chocolate is vital to health benefits. This specific research analyzed the healthy compounds in 90 percent cacao. If you’re looking for healthy chocolate options, opt for dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate.
Cacao is also rich in antioxidants which can help fend off free radicals and oxidative damage. Additional research shows that cacao contains the amino acid known as tryptophan. This amino acid works in the nervous system to increase relaxation (3).
Cacao also contains compounds known as flavonols, which may help lower blood pressure. A study published in Science Daily found that cacao consumption helped to lower blood pressure and improved blood vessels flexibility in both young people and older individuals (4).
Keep in mind that most of these benefits are related only to highly concentrated chocolate forms. You won’t see many health benefits simply from drinking a cup of hot chocolate. Cacao nibs and dark chocolate are your best bet when choosing healthy chocolate products. It’s also important to note that chocolate contains sugar that can have negative side effects when consumed in large amounts.
Side Effects of Cocoa
Chocolate contains caffeine, which may cause side effects for people who are sensitive to caffeine. Eating highly concentrated forms of cacao right before bed may interfere with sleep patterns. Caffeine from cacao beans may also cause irritation, nervousness, and increased heart rate.
Chocolate may also cause allergies in certain individuals. Stop use if you experience allergy symptoms such as a runny nose, difficulty breathing, or itchy eyes. Chocolate is often processed in facilities that also handle nuts and allergens that may cause issues for certain people.
Try sweet chocolate today to enjoy the rich cultural history of a beloved South American treat. Highly concentrated forms of cocoa offer the most authentic flavor and deliver the best benefits. Whether you like rich, dark chocolate or prefer milk chocolate, you can enjoy the tasty treat that dates back to the times Mayan and Aztec gods.