Cocoa bean (also cacao bean, often simply cocoa and cacao) is the dried and fully fermented fatty seed of Theobroma cacao, from which cocoa solids and cocoa butter are extracted. They are the basis of chocolate, as well as many Mesoamerican foods such as mole sauce and tejate.
A cocoa pod (fruit) has a rough leathery rind about 3 cm thick (this varies with the origin and variety of pod). It is filled with sweet, mucilaginous pulp (called 'baba de cacao' in South America) enclosing 30 to 50 large seeds that are fairly soft and pale pink or lavender in color. Seeds usually are white, becoming violet or reddish brown during the drying process. The exception is rare varieties of white cacao, in which the seeds remain white. Historically, white cacao was cultivated by the Rama people of Nicaragua.
The word "cocoa" is derivative of "cacao". "Cocoa" can often also refer to the drink commonly known as hot chocolate; to cocoa powder, the dry powder made by grinding cocoa seeds and removing the cocoa butter from the dark, bitter cocoa solids; or to a mixture of cocoa powder and cocoa butter.
The cacao tree is native to the Americas. It may have originated in the foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America where today, examples of wild cacao still can be found. However, it may have had a larger range in the past, evidence for which may be obscured because of its cultivation in these areas long before, as well as after, the Spanish arrived. It may have been introduced into Central America by the ancient Maya, and cultivated in Mexico by the Olmecs, then by the Toltecs and later by the Aztecs.
The cocoa bean was a common currency throughout Mesoamerica and the Caribbean before the Spanish conquest.
Cacao trees will grow in a limited geographical zone, of approximately 20 degrees to the north and south of the Equator. Nearly 70% of the world crop is grown in West Africa.
Cocoa was an important commodity in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Spanish chroniclers of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés relate that when Moctezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, dined he took no other beverage than chocolate, served in a golden goblet and eaten with a golden spoon. Flavored with vanilla and spices, his chocolate was whipped into a froth that dissolved in the mouth. It is reported that Montezuma II may have consumed no fewer than 50 portions each day, and 200 more by the nobles of his court.
The cacao plant was first given its botanical name by Swedish natural scientist Carl Linnaeus in his original classification of the plant kingdom, who called it Theobroma ("food of the gods") cacao.
|Top Cocoa Producers
|(million metric tons)|
UN Food & Agriculture Organisation
The production increased by 131.7% in 30 years, representing a compouded average growth rate of 2.8%.
There are three main varieties of cacao: Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario. The first comprises 95% of the world production of cocoa, and is the most widely used. Overall, the highest quality cocoa beans come from the Criollo variety, which is considered a delicacy . Criollo plantations have lower yields than those of Forastero, and also tend to be less resistant to several diseases that attack the cocoa plant, hence very few countries still produce it. One of the largest producers of Criollo beans is Venezuela (Chuao and Porcelana). Hacienda San José, located in Paria/Venezuela, cultivates Criollo beans. The total area of this hacienda is 320 hectares, of which 185 hectares are devoted to cacao with a density of 1.000 plants per hectare. Trinitario is a hybrid between Criollo and Forastero varieties. It is considered to be of much higher quality than the latter is, but has higher yields and is more resistant to disease than the former .
Cocoa and its products (including chocolate) are used worldwide. Per Capita consumption is poorly understood with numerous countries claiming the highest: various reports state that Switzerland, Belgium, and the UK have the highest consumption, but because there is no clear mechanism to determine how much of a country's production is consumed by residents and how much by visitors, this is all speculative.
The largest cocoa bean producing countries in the world are as follows. The figure gives the production estimates for the 2006–2007 season from the International Cocoa Organization. The percentage is the proportion of the world's total of 3.5 million tonnes for the relevant period.
|Country||Amount produced||Percentage of world production|
|Côte d'Ivoire||1.3 million tons||37.4%|
|Ghana||720 thousand tons||20.7%|
|Indonesia||440 thousand tons||12.7%|
|Cameroon||175 thousand tons||5.0%|
|Nigeria||160 thousand tons||4.6%|
|Brazil||155 thousand tons||4.5%|
|Ecuador||118 thousand tons||3.4%|
|Dominican Republic||47 thousand tons||1.4%|
|Malaysia||30 thousand tons||0.9%|
When the pods ripen, they are harvested from the trunks and branches of the Cocoa tree with a curved knife on a long pole. The pod itself is green when ready to harvest, rather than red or orange. Normally, red or orange pods are considered of a lesser quality because their flavors and aromas are poorer; these are used for industrial chocolate. The seeds are transported to the fermentation area on the plantation, either before or after being removed from the pods.
The harvested pods are opened—typically with a machete—the pulp and cocoa seeds are removed and the rind is discarded. The pulp and seeds are then piled in heaps, placed in bins, or laid out on grates for several days. During this time, the seeds and pulp undergo "sweating", where the thick pulp liquefies as it ferments. The fermented pulp trickles away, leaving cocoa seeds behind to be collected. Sweating is important for the quality of the beans, which originally have a strong bitter taste. If sweating is interrupted, the resulting cocoa may be ruined; if underdone the cocoa seed maintains a flavor similar to raw potatoes and becomes susceptible to mildew.
Some cocoa producing countries distill alcoholic spirits using the liquefied pulp.
The fermented beans are dried by spreading them out over a large surface and constantly raking them. In large plantations, this is done on huge trays under the sun or by using artificial heat. Small plantations may dry their harvest on little trays or on cowhides. Finally, the beans are trodden and shuffled about (often using bare human feet) and sometimes, during this process, red clay mixed with water is sprinkled over the beans to obtain a finer color, polish, and protection against molds during shipment to factories in the United States, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and other countries. Drying in the sun is preferable to drying by artificial means, as no extraneous flavors such as smoke or oil are introduced which might otherwise taint the flavor.
The beans should be dry for shipment (usually by sea) to the United States and Europe. Traditionally exported in jute bags, over the last decade the beans are increasingly shipped in 'Mega-Bulk' bulk parcels of several thousand tonnes at a time on ships, or in smaller lots of around 25 tonnes in 20' containers. Shipping in bulk significantly reduces handling costs, however shipment in bags, either in a ship's hold or in containers, is still commonly found.
Boy collecting cocoa
Cacao drying square in front of church, Chuao, Venezuela.
Woman drying cocoa
Throughout Mesoamerica where they are native, cocoa beans are used for a variety of foods. The harvested and fermented beans may be ground up to-order at tiendas de chocolate, or chocolate mills. At these mills the cocoa can be mixed with a variety of ingredients such as cinnamon, chilies, almonds, vanilla and other spices to create drinking chocolate. The ground up cocoa is also an important ingredient in tejate and a number of savory foods, such a Mole.
To make 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of chocolate, about 300 to 600 beans are processed, depending on the desired cocoa content. In a factory, the beans are roasted. Next they are cracked and then de-shelled by a "winnower". The resulting pieces of beans are called nibs. Cocoa Nibs (see: http://www.scharffenberger.com/) are the dry-roasted pieces of the cocoa bean. These nibs are usually sold in small packages at specialty stores and markets. Nibs can be used in cooking , snacking and chocolate dishes. Since nibs are directly from the cocoa tree, they contain high amounts of theobromine. Most nibs and are ground, using various methods, into a thick creamy paste, known as chocolate liquor or cocoa paste. This "liquor" is then further processed into chocolate by mixing in (more) cocoa butter and sugar (and sometimes vanilla and lecithin as an emulsifier), and then refined, conched and tempered. Alternatively, it can be separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter using a hydraulic press or the Broma process. This process produces around 50% cocoa butter and 50% cocoa powder. Standard cocoa powder has a fat content of approximately 10–12 percent. Cocoa butter is used in chocolate bar manufacture, other confectionery, soaps, and cosmetics.
Treating with alkali produces Dutch process cocoa powder, which is less acidic, darker and more mellow in flavor than what is generally available in most of the world. Regular (non-alkalized) cocoa is acidic, so when cocoa is treated with an alkaline ingredient, generally potassium carbonate, the pH increases. This process can be done at various stages during manufacturing, including during nib treatment, liquor treatment or press cake treatment.
Another process that helps develop the flavor is roasting. Roasting can be done on the whole bean before shelling or on the nib after shelling. The time and temperature of the roast affect the result: A "low roast" produces a more acid, aromatic flavor, while a high roast gives a more intense, bitter flavor lacking complex flavor notes.
Chocolate and cocoa contain a high level of flavonoids, specifically epicatechin, which may have beneficial cardiovascular effects on health. The ingestion of flavonol-rich cocoa is associated with acute elevation of circulating nitric oxide, enhanced flow-mediated vasodilation, and augmented microcirculation.
Prolonged intake of flavonol-rich cocoa has been linked to cardiovascular health benefits, though it should be noted that this refers to raw cocoa and to a lesser extent, dark chocolate, since flavonoids degrade during cooking and alkalizing processes. Studies have found short term benefits in LDL cholesterol levels from dark chocolate consumption. The addition of whole milk to milk chocolate reduces the overall cocoa content per ounce while increasing saturated fat levels, possibly negating some of cocoa's heart-healthy potential benefits.
Hollenberg and colleagues of Harvard Medical School studied the effects of cocoa and flavanols on Panama's Kuna Indian population, who are heavy consumers of cocoa. The researchers found that the Kuna Indians living on the islands had significantly lower rates of heart disease and cancer compared to those on the mainland who do not drink cocoa as on the islands. It is believed that the improved blood flow after consumption of flavonol-rich cocoa may help to achieve health benefits in hearts and other organs. In particular, the benefits may extend to the brain and have important implications for learning and memory.
Foods rich in cocoa appear to reduce blood pressure but drinking green and black tea may not, according to an analysis of previously published research in the April 9, 2007 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.
In June 2009, Mars Botanicals, a division of Mars Inc., the candymaker and food company, launched Cirku, a cocoa extract high in flavanols.
A 15-year study of elderly men published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2006 found a 50 percent reduction in cardiovascular mortality and a 47 percent reduction in all-cause mortality for the men regularly consuming the most cocoa, compared to those consuming the least cocoa from all sources.
Chocolate is a food product with appeal not only to the human population, but to many different animals as well. However, chocolate and cocoa contain a high level of xanthines, specifically theobromine and to a much lesser extent caffeine, that are detrimental to the health of many animals, including dogs and cats. While these compounds have desirable effects in humans, they cannot be efficiently metabolized in many animals and can lead to cardiac and nervous system problems, and if consumed in high quantities, even lead to death. However, since the beginning of the 21st century, some cocoa derivatives with a low concentration of xanthines have been designed by specialized industry to be suitable for pet consumption, enabling the pet food industry to offer animal-safe chocolate and cocoa flavored products. It results in products with a high concentration of fiber and proteins, while maintaining low concentrations of sugar and other carbohydrates, thus enabling it to be used to create healthy functional cocoa pet products.
In the industrialized world, changing attitudes to cocoa products may cause a reduced demand for them in the future. Obesity, particularly among children, has become a major health problem and chocolate—a food product with a high calorie content—is considered to be part of the problem. Additionally, consumers are becoming increasingly interested in the environmental impact of the production of cocoa, as well as what they perceive as the negative social impact of its production.
Price instability makes it difficult for small-scale farmers to predict income levels from year to year. Efforts to diversify cropping patterns and improve production and marketing efficiencies can help to address this.
An initiative, called the Roundtable for a Sustainable Cocoa Economy (RSCE), has developed from the growing requirement to face the challenges posed by sustainability. It was launched in 2007 by the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) and is steered by an independent working group with representation of major stakeholders. The mission of the Roundtable is to establish a participatory and transparent process towards economic, environmental and social sustainability in the global cocoa economy. The 1st Roundtable in 2007 brought together more than 200 stakeholders representing 25 countries, including cocoa farmers, government officials from cocoa producing and consuming countries, traders, chocolate manufacturers, donor organizations and national and international NGOs.
The relative poverty of many cocoa farmers means that environmental concerns such as deforestation are rarely a major consideration. For decades, cocoa farmers have encroached on virgin forest, mostly after the felling of trees by logging companies. This trend has decreased as many governments and communities are beginning to protect their remaining forested zones. In general, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by cocoa farmers is limited. When cocoa bean prices are high, farmers may invest in their crops, leading to higher yields which, in turn tends to result in lower market prices and a renewed period of lower investment.
Cocoa beans, Cocoa butter and cocoa powder are traded on two world exchanges: NYSE Euronext and IntercontinentalExchange(ICE). The London market is based on West African cocoa and New York on cocoa predominantly from South East Asia. Cocoa is the world's smallest soft commodity market. The future price of cocoa butter and cocoa powder is determined by multiplying the bean price by a ratio. The combined butter and powder ratio has tended to be around 3.5. If the combined ratio falls below 3.2 or so, production ceases to be economically viable and some factories cease extraction of butter and powder and trade exclusively in cocoa liquor. Cocoa Beans can be held in store for several years in bags or in bulk, during which the ownership can change several times as the cocoa is traded much the same as metal or other commodities, in order to gain profit for the owner.