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What Is Cacao?

Liz Fernandez
Liz Fernandez

Cacao is a both a tree, known scientifically as Theobroma cacao, and its fruit, sometimes also called a “cocoa bean.” Despite the similarity of spellings, the terms “cacao” and “cocoa” aren’t normally interchangeable except as describing the bean itself. The latter is typically used only to describe the fruit in its raw, unfinished and unrefined state. Raw flesh is commonly used in health foods and certain recipes, and also has a complex history of ancient and historical uses. Fermenting and roasting the flesh typically turns it into cocoa, which is the primary ingredient in chocolate. The tree is found in the Amazon forests as well as in other tropical regions and can produce any one of three types of beans, namely the criollo, forastero and trinitario. Researchers have identified a number of compelling health attributes of all three types of raw fruit, including a range of important phytonutrients and antioxidants. Many of these have also been claimed for chocolate more broadly, but the manner in which the chocolate was made, as well as any other ingredients that have been added, can negate if not eliminate these benefits entirely.

Plant Basics

Chocolates containing cacao.
Chocolates containing cacao.

The Theobroma tree is native to South America, growing naturally in the Amazon River Basin as well as the Orinoco River Basin. It was a popular asset to many of the ancient civilizations in what is today Mexico and Central America. In addition to use as a nutrient, it had a number of ceremonial uses and was believed to have a number of mystical powers, and fruit pods were often traded as currency.


Today the plant is commercially farmed throughout the Americas as well as other regions with similar climate; many of the largest modern commercial plots are in Ghana, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The tree typically grows from 10 to 30 feet (3-9 meters) in height and usually starts to bear fruit four years after being planted.

Fruit Harvesting

The fruit tends to be oblong and between 2 and 4 inches (about 5 to 10 cm). When ripe, they are a hearty yellow or orange in color and weigh just about a pound (0.45 kg). Each contains many seeds referred to collectively as cacao beans; these are often more immediately recognizable, and are often about the size and shape of almonds. Beans can be extracted and made into cocoa butter. This butter is a pale-yellow vegetable fat that is used to not only make chocolate but also a number of pharmaceuticals, ointments and toiletries.

Chocolate Production

Chocolate consists of ground up cocoa beans mixed with cocoa butter and sugar.
Chocolate consists of ground up cocoa beans mixed with cocoa butter and sugar.

The nib is found at the center of the bean. This is what is used to make chocolate. Nibs are rich in antioxidants as well as good fats and minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron and potassium. They have a byproduct similar to caffeine and produce a natural MAO inhibitor that can suppress overactive appetites.

Before the nib can be turned into chocolate, though, the beans usually need to specially prepared through both fermentation and roasting. Fermentation typically takes three to seven days, and is a necessary process to develop the beans' flavors and prepare them to be roasted. In the process, sugars in the beans get converted to alcohol and germs are killed.

Roasting typically happens over low heat in a fire, furnace, or commercial oven. The heat smolders the outside coating of the pod and releases a new range of flavors.

Different Types and Varieties

Most commercial chocolate, usually anywhere from 75-90%, is made from forastero beans. These beans often referred to as “bulk beans” because of their prevalence in the market and their generally low cost.

Theobroma cacao grows in the Orinoco River Basin.
Theobroma cacao grows in the Orinoco River Basin.

The Criollo species of the bean is the rarest and most costly and are typically only used to make the world’s finest, most expensive chocolates. The taste isn't as bitter as other types of beans and the scent is more aromatic. This species is harvested mainly in Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Trinitario beans are a hybrid of criollo and forastero and are used in about 10% of chocolates, typically by exclusive confectioners in limited-release products.

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Discussion Comments


Cacao and cocoa are exactly the same, but people lately have tried to use cacao as something healthier. Cocoa or cacao beans are natural and unprocessed, and cocoa or cacao beans are the beans without shells and crushed into smaller pieces.


I really don't like the taste of cacao beans. They are one of those plants that really makes me wonder how ancient people ever got around to eating them. Like coffee for example. It seems like such a process to make the stuff palatable it seems amazing that someone looked at the cacao plant and thought, what can we do with this?

Of course, back then I guess you ate whatever wouldn't kill you and tried everything once. All they would have to know was that the bitter taste wasn't poison and they would eventually see that it was quite a healthy food to eat, then set about making it tastier.

Still, if it had been me, I would have stuck to green leaves or berries instead!


We have a local dairy that has been around for many years and they use Cacao in their chocolate milk. Their chocolate milk is the best I have ever tasted, along with several of their other dairy products.

When my kids were small, they could tell a difference right away if I used this brand of milk or bought a different one. You can really tell a difference when you have a true chocolate taste.

Many people who have moved away from this area, will have friends bring them some of their products when they visit or have them shipped to them because they are such high quality products.


When I was visiting my parents in another city a few years ago we went on a tour of the local chocolate factory. One of the things they let us do at the start was try some cacao beans.

They didn't warn us how bitter the beans were going to be, but they did say that if you like dark chocolate, you were more likely to appreciate the taste of the bean.

And it was true, I quite liked the beans, although I wouldn't want to have them every day! But, my mother, who doesn't like dark chocolate either, couldn't stand more than a taste of the beans.

I keep meaning to pick up some cacao nibs at my local organic food store, but I haven't got around to it yet. I know they are quite good for you.


You can actually buy raw, organic cacao beans that you eat right out of the bag. While these do have a sharply bitter taste, if you can stand it you can reap some amazing benefits from the beans.

Cacao beans have way more anti-oxidants than any other food and have an amazing amount of magnesium in them. On top of that you can get all the chromium you need and lots of vitamin C from ingesting the beans.

For those who are willing to give raw cacao beans a try you can purchase them quite cheaply online and in some baking supply stores. For a large bag you will probably pay around $15.


I am a huge fan of chocolate and am always looking for producers that use high quality cacao beans in the production of their treats. For myself I feel that the difference in flavor can really be highlighted when you put a cheap mass produced piece of chocolate next to one created by a good chocolatier.

Generally I prefer to eat dark chocolate so I can get more of the benefits from the cacao beans. I have found it amazing of how much of a mood stabilizer it can be. I always crave chocolate around my monthly cycle and having it mellows me right out. I figure if I am going to splurge a little the chocolate may as well be high quality.

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      Chocolates containing cacao.
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