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.
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.
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.
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.
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.