Cacao and chocolate

Cacao and Chocolate

You might have figured out that I like Chocolate so today I’m publishing this blog post about Cacao and how the Chocolate is made.

The Cacao fruit, bean, berry

Before living in South America I consumed and enjoyed eating a lot of dark semi bitter chocolate. Maybe 1 chocolate bar every 3-4 days… Now living in the region where the Cacao tree grows it more difficult and expensive to buy good dark chocolate. What a strange world we live in. Maybe one day we can have our own chocolate tree in our backyard like the Mayas did :-)

Green cacao

RAW cacao fruit in Costarica
Image: Green Cacao fruit growing on the tree. Did you know that it takes 20 to 25 cacao fruits to get 1 kilo of cacao!


The cocoa bean, also cacao bean or simply cacao, is the dried and fermented fatty seed of Theobroma cacao, from which cocoa solids and cocoa butter are extracted. They are the basis of chocolate.

The Botanical description of the cacao fruit:  “The capsule (berry-like,) not dehiscent, quinquelocular, with polysper- mous compartments, and a ligneous leather-like bark. Seeds nestling in a buttery fleshy pulp.”

Red cacao

Red Cacao fruit
Image: Red Cacao fruit hanging from the tree in Costa Rica, Central America. By the way did you know that Cacao works as an aphrodisiac.

All the Cacao facts in a nutshell

The Cacao fruit is native to Colombia. Chocolate is derived from the seeds (or pods) of the cacao. These fruits grow on the cacao tree. The cacao tree reaches a height from 4 up to 8 m. The leaves are oval and evergreen. The almost 1 cm big flowers grow the whole year directly at the trunk. The fruits look like fat cucumbers and are 15 to 20 cm big. During drying of the cacao fruit the skin turns from white to cacao red. In the fruit, there are about 20 to 50 brown beans. These beans are covert in a white pulp. This pulp has a sweet taste.

Main nutrients  Calcium, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Potassium, Zinc, Vitamin A, B, C and E

Orange Cacao

Image: This orange cacao fruit just kind of fell down the tree while we where passing by in Rurrenabaque the tropical part of Bolivia. It has the size of a hand grenade.


The Cacao History

Cacao may have originated in the foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, current day Colombia and Venezuela, where today, examples of wild cacao still can be found.

The Olmecs (1500 B.C. to 100 B.C.+), famous for carving colossal stone heads, were the first people known to process and eat cacao beans, which they called kakaw.


The Mayans (1800 B.C. – 1500 A.D.) where perhaps the first chocoholics, they were open about their love for cacao. They wrote about cacao as “the food of the gods”. Since the cacao was revered as the drink of the gods, only the elite in the Maya society could afford to drink it. Also in the ancient Maya culture, dried cacao seeds could be traded as currency when not being consumed.


Kakaw cacao in the Maya scriptAccording to Maya mythology, the Plumed Serpent gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created from maize by divine grandmother goddess Xmucane. The Maya celebrated an annual festival in April to honor their cacao god, Ek Chuah, an event that included the sacrifice of a dog with cacao-colored markings, additional animal sacrifices, offerings of cacao, feathers and incense, and an exchange of gifts. Cacao was offered regularly to a pantheon of Mexica deities and the Madrid Codex depicts priests lancing their ear lobes (autosacrifice) and covering the cacao with blood as a suitable sacrifice to the gods.

The Aztecs (1420 A.D. – 1520 A.D.) royals continued the tradition of drinking cacao at ceremonies. They believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the God of wisdom. Aztec rulers also demanded that their tributes, an early form of taxation paid by citizens and those they conquered, be paid in cacao. In the communities themselves, cacao seeds were used as currency, traded at the market and kept locked up. A rabbit cost between four and 10 beans, a mule was worth 50 and a turkey hen went for 100. The Aztecs used the cacao bean to produce a beverage called xocoatl.

The first real European knowledge about chocolate came in the form of a beverage which was first introduced to the Spanish at their meeting with Moctezuma in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519. The French began to make more palatable drinks from them and the English and Dutch began to make chocolate sweeter and even into bar form.

Image: A wooden boat filled with yellow cacao fruits which are delivere in Rurrenabaque from the neighbour communities in the tropical part of Bolivia, South America.


Where do Cacao trees grow?

Cacao trees will grow in a limited geographical zone, of approximately 20 degrees to the north and south of the Equator.

Cacao trees need to be planted next to tall trees in order to protect them from direct sunlight. This is why you often see cocoa trees planted amongst mango and papaya trees. The soil influences the flavours of the Cacao beans.

It takes 3 to 5 years before the cocoa tree bears fruit. Each Tree produces around 1,000 beans a year, but that is only enough to make just 1 kg of chocolate.

Cacao fruit in CostaRica
Image: Cacao comes from the seeds of a fruit pod that sprouts directly from the trunk or the main branches of the Madre Cacao tree.


Health benefits of the cacao superfood

Cacao, one of nature’s many miracles, is in fact the great super-food that many people seek. Cacao makes other so-called super-fruits pale in comparison!

Cacaois a titan of health benefits, the likes of which humanity has never known. It is the profound medicine that scientists and researchers toil to discover. If Cacao were a pharmaceutical drug, it would be hailed as the greatest medicine of all time, and its discoverer would reap the Nobel prize in Medicine. Cacao is all of that. Cacao is right out in the open, more protective than any other food, and more powerful than any medicine ever devised.

  1. Cardiovascular Health – One of the main health benefits of cacao is for the arteries in your heart and brain. Eating cacao foods such as chocolate several times per day may decrease your likelihood of having a stroke or heart attack, according to clinical studies published in the “Journal of the American College of Cardiology” and the “Journal of Internal Medicine.” In both studies, the frequency of stroke and heart attack in human subjects declined with an increase in chocolate intake.
  2. Antioxidants – In my opinion this is the best reason to eat cacao nibs or dark chocolate in general. Antioxidants help fight off free radical damage in the body which can cause DNA damage, premature aging and even cancers. Think of antioxidants as firefighters putting out a blaze. And cacao is one of the highest sources of antioxidants.
  3. Flavonoids – They come from plants and can be responsible for giving pigmentation and colors to being involved in UV filtration. They are similar to antioxidants in that they  have a free radical scavenging capacity and have anti-cancer properties while other flavonoids show potential for anti HIV function. We get flavonoids from fruits, vegetables, teas, wine and a significant amount from cacao. Essentially the antioxidant activity comes from flavanoids.
  4. Can Fight Cardiovascular Disease – There is a positive relationship between intake of flavonoid rich foods such as cacao and lower rates of cardiovascular-related mortality. In the 1930′s to early 50′s flavonoids were actually referred to as ‘Vitamin P’ because of the effect they had on the permeability of vascular capillaries. That study linked here has shown that as little as 5 grams of cacao powder is sufficient to elicit significant vasodilation of the brachial artery.
  5. Fiber  – There is a huge amount of fiber in just a one ounce serving of cacao nibs. 9 grams! This can help control your blood pressure and blood glucose levels. This fiber can also help lower blood cholesterol as well as helping keep bowel movements regular. You and I are close now and I think we can definitely talk about that…
  6. Magnesium  – A one ounce serving of cacao nibs has 64 milligrams of magnesium making it one of the best dietary sources of it.

Lets do some Chocolate

The first chocolate bar was made in Switzerland in 1819, and in 1875 milk chocolate was invented.

While Btina and myself where exploring Costa Rica in May 2014 we visited a Cacao Museum where we where able to create Chocolate with raw Cacao. It was a great experience and now I can recycle the photos for this blog post about exactly the same topic.

Yellow Cacao fruit = Harvest time

Yellow Cacao fruit
Image: Yellow Cacao fruit growing on the tree in Costa Rica. When the fruit turns green-ish to yellow, it is ripe and ready to be harvested.

We open the Cacao fruit and extract the beans

Cacao fruit opend
Image: Inside the ripe cacao pods are cocoa beans. These are covered with a soft white flesh that can be sucked. It has a sweet taste. Similar to chewinggum.

The beans are dryed a few days on the fresh air and sun

cacao drying
Image: Staircase system where the Cacao beans are dried, first at the top level and the more dry they get the further down they get placed.

Drying the Cacao seeds on the sun
Image: Now that the Cacao beans are dry they are sorted

cacao seeds selection

Image: Sorting the Cacao beans nead a lot of hands

Roasting the beans in a pan

cacao cooking

yago cooking some raw cacao

Did you know that Chocolate has an anti-bacterial effect on the mouth and protects against tooth decay.

Raw Cacao Seeds chocolate
Image: Before cracking the shell of the beans, they are roasted in a heating pan. The shells are thrown away.

RAW cacao beans Costa Rica
Image: Cacao beans. Did you know that eating dark chocolate every day reduces the risk of heart disease by one-third.

Btina cacao dreschen
Image: The cacao beans are pre-grinded by hand

Yago grinding the cacao
Image: The beans are grinded by hand. The beans have a percentage of butter inside them. When heated with the friction of the grinding process, they turn the crushed beans into a paste. cacao now almost chocolate
Image: Final step to transform the cacao into chocolate

The cocoa paste is in its raw form, 100% cocoa, it has abitter taste. Spices and flavors –butter, chile, black pepper, honey, sugar, coconut and others– can be added to create a different taste and to reduce the percentage of cocoa.

Image: This was a cup of raw cacao with chili. Tasty but very spicy experience I can say. Did you know that the smell of chocolate increases theta brain waves, which triggers relaxation.

Cacao Red