I am a huge chocolate lover so jumped at the chance to do a chocolate farm tour when holidaying on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I went with the ‘Garden Island Chocolate’ company and our hosts Koa and Angela were extremely passionate and knowledgeable.
In this post, I have written up everything I learnt from them about cacao farming, processing and the health benefits of eating cacao.
The History of Chocolate
Cacao trees are native to Central America. It was first consumed by farmers who noticed animals such as monkeys and squirrels sucking on the sweet white pulp. Like the animals, the farmers enjoyed the taste of the pulp but not the bitter beans. However, they discovered that if they fermented the beans, dried them out in the sun, roasted them over a fire, ground them in to a paste and finally stirred in some water and spice, they had a drink. This bitter drink they called chocol haa. It gave them strength and prosperity. It soon became an important part of these people, the Mayans, life. It also became popular amongst the Aztecs.
In 1519, when the Aztecs were conquered by a Spanish man named Hernan Cortes, cacao beans made it to Europe. Years later, cacao beans were made into the first chocolate bar. An English chocolate maker named Francis Fry did this by mixing together warm cacao butter, cacao nibs and sugar. Soon factories were making chocolate and shipping it around the world.
Growing and Processing Cacao
The cacao tree is an understory tree, so it grows best in the shade of other trees. Its bright coloured fruit are referred to as pods.
If you cut open a pod you will see white pulp covering the many cacao beans. They are also known as seeds. Each pod contains 30-40 beans. The beans are removed and fermented for four to seven days, then dried for seven days and roasted. This process makes them brown, they are actually white originally!
Then the beans are cracked into nibs. I use these for sprinkling on top of smoothie bowls and banana nice cream. The nibs can also be separated into their two parts: cacao butter which is white and cacao powder which is brown. Chocolate is made by combining cacao beans with more cacao butter, a sweetener such as cane sugar, milk (unless dark chocolate) soya lecithin and vanilla beans. The reason more cacao butter is added is that it gives it a more mellow flavour and helps it hold its shape better.
Someting interesting I learnt is that there is no such thing as raw chocolate. During the fermenting process the beans reach quite a hot temperature of up to 52 C. For something to be considered ‘raw’ it needs to not have reached temperatures above 48 C. Fermenting is actually a very beneficial process and is done to other foods such as cabbage to make sauerkraut and grapes to make wine. I believe eating a fully raw diet is in no way beneficial for optimal health. Heating food breaks down starch molecules actually making it easier to digest. I found this interesting as I have made ‘raw’ chocolate before in my thermomix in which the author states it is raw because it is cooked at 37 C. They obviously don’t know the ingredients they are using (cacao butter and cacao powder) have already been heated above what is no longer considered raw.
Health Benefits of Cacao
There are many benefits associated with consuming cacao beans. You can get these benefits from eating the whole bean which remember is crushed up to become ‘nibs’. Or you can eat the nibs separate parts: the cacao powder or the cacao butter. If you eat a chocolate bar, be aware that the benefits are diluted because there will be other ingredients added such as a sweetener, vanilla beans, soya lecithin, nuts, dried fruit etc.
Other Cacao Facts
- The scientific name for the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao. This means ‘food of the gods’. The word ‘cacao’ is derived from the Aztec language.
- Cacao beans have approximately 1/5 the caffeine of coffee.
- Cacao is pronounced ‘ka-KOW’
I hope you enjoyed learning more about cacao and how chocolate is made. For me, seeing how cacao is grown and processed really made me feel better about eating it. Eating just the cacao powder, cacao beans (or the crushed version: nibs) or cacao butter is as natural as eating any other seed, nut or fruit. Enjoy your cacao and remember how natural and nutrient-packed it is. It’s only the added sugar which makes chocolate an ‘eat sometimes’ food.