The Cacao Bean: Food of the Gods

A bite of chocolate has the ability to make a bad day seem better.  It was appreciated by the Mesoamericans as far back as 1900 BCE, and the benefits of chocolate are many.  Like a modern-day Willy Wonka, let’s take a journey through the magic that started with the discovery of the humble cacao seed, a.k.a. the cocoa bean.

Origin of Chocolate

The Theobroma Cacao tree is native to the forested equatorial regions of Mexico, Central America and northern South America.  Plantations also thrive in similar conditions in western Africa, India, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and the three-main cocoa producing countries today are Cote d’ Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia.  In fact, the former two countries produce half the world’s cocoa.

The name Theobroma is derived from the Greek words for “food of the gods”: theos (god) and broma (food).  The trees reach maturity between 4-5 years, with each tree producing about 6,000 small flowers that are pollinated by even smaller flies, the Forcipomyia midges.  The fruits are long pods – about 20 per tree – that contain approximately 20-60 seeds within a white pulp.  These seeds have a strong, bitter flavour and comprise of almost 50% cocoa butter.

To enhance the flavour, the seeds are fermented, dried and roasted.  The seed shells are then removed to reveal the nibs which are ground to produce a mass that is a rough form of pure chocolate.  Liquid is added to the mass to produce chocolate liquor and from this can be extracted cocoa butter and cocoa solids.  To produce 1kg of cocoa paste, 1,200 seeds are needed.  The fermented pulp is used in the distillation of alcoholic spirits.

cacao tree

Chocolate in History

The earliest remnants of a cocoa drink date back to 1900 BCE and were found in a ceramic jar in Mexico.  Ancient texts described cocoa as being used for ceremonial, culinary and medical purposes.

The beans were also used as currency in Mesoamerica, before Columbus arrived. To put it into perspective, a person could buy an avocado pear for 3 beans and a long cloth cape for 80-100 beans.

The Maya believed that cacao was the food of the gods and they held an annual festival to celebrate the patron god of cacao – Ek Chuah.  The Maya thought that cacao was toxic for children and women, so only men were permitted to drink it.  We’ll never know how that belief came about; suffice to say that women were really done out of a good thing back then!

Although Christopher Columbus was the first European to see the cacao seed, the first European to sample the delights of the cacao bean was Hernando Cortez when he was offered a cocoa drink at his meeting with Montezuma at Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, in 1519.  The Aztecs could not grow their own trees, because their lands were unsuitable, so they cleverly levied a tax on the people in the areas they ruled, that had to be paid in cacao seeds.

The Europeans took cacao beans back to Spain and, within a hundred years, the bean spread to England, France and other countries in western Europe.


The Health Benefits of Cacao

“A balanced diet is chocolate in both hands.” – Author unknown.

Dark chocolate has health benefits if eaten in moderation.  The active ingredient in cocoa is theobromine which, although weaker, is similar in action to caffeine and it has a smaller impact on the central nervous system.

Theobromine is known to stimulate the heart, dilate blood vessels and increase urine production.  These actions, in turn, lower blood pressure.

A study in 2004 showed that theobromine can be used to reduce persistent coughing and to relieve asthma due to its action of relaxing the smooth muscles in the bronchi.

A report in The Journal of Nutrition states: “…results indicate that regular consumption of chocolate bars containing PS [plant sterols] and CF [cocoa flavanols], as part of a low-fat diet, may support cardiovascular health by lowering [LDL] cholesterol and improving blood pressure.”

The feeling of contentment we experience when eating dark chocolate is not imaginary – it really can make us feel better.  It contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which encourages our brains to release feel-good neurotransmitters: endorphins that reduce pain and stress, and serotonin that acts as a mood-lifter.  It’s a tasty comfort food and it’s good for us!

On the negative side, theobromine can cause anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, nausea and loss of appetite, and overeating chocolate will lead to weight gain and dental caries due to its high levels of sugar.  Other research is also pointing to the development of osteoporosis in older women who consume chocolate daily.

chocolate and banana

Chocolate Consumption

The top four chocolate manufacturers worldwide are Mars, Mondelez (previously Kraft Foods), Nestle and Ferrero.  In 2015, net sales were US$18,400 million for Mars and US$9,757 million for Ferrero.

While it’s often thought that Americans consume the most chocolate, it’s actually the Swiss that come out in the top position.  America is a surprising ninth in the list of top consumers.  The top three are Switzerland (9kgs/capita/annum), Germany (7.9kgs/capita/annum) and, jointly, Ireland and the United Kingdom (7.4kgs/capita/annum).  Americans consume only 4.31kgs/capita/annum in comparison to the top four.

cacao candies

REAL Chocolate

So, what’s the deal with dark, milk and white chocolate?  What makes them differ from each other?

Firstly, white chocolate isn’t chocolate at all as it doesn’t contain cocoa solids, just cocoa butter, milk solids, milk fat, sugar and lecithin.

The difference between milk and dark chocolate is the amount of cocoa solids in each.  Milk chocolate contains approximately 25% cocoa solids and a lot of milk.  Dark chocolate contains 70-90% cocoa solids and very little, to no, milk.

Although not as sweet as white and milk chocolate, it’s the dark stuff that does us good.


In closing, it may have been the food of the gods but just remember this:  Be kind to the Earth, it’s the only planet with chocolate! – Author unknown.