The Crop of the Day

Cacao, Theobroma cacao

The divine food

© Paul Gepts 2002
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The genus Theobroma

  • Theobroma sp.
    • Sterculiaceae: other member genus? Cola
    • ~ 20 species
    • Lowland and lower montane forests of Central and South America (Amazon, Orinoco)
    • Generally understory species: shady, warm and humid environments; small trees
cacao tree
  • Reproduction:
    • Flowers: cauliflorous, white
    • Self-incompatible; cross-pollination by midges
  • Fruit ("pods"): 20-25 cm long; 7-10 cm wide
    • Up to 50 seeds surrounded by juicy, sweet pulp --> dissemination by animals
    • Seeds rich in fat (chocolate butter): germination in dim light; loaded with alkaloids (theobromine) --> bitter
    • Seeds: limited viability; no dormancy
cacao fruit (open)

Theobroma cacao

Geographic subdivision

  • T. cacao subsp. sphaerocarpum:
    • Calabacillo  lines
    • Native to South American rain forests (Amazon, Orinoco, Guianas)
    • Trees are vigorous
    • Fruits are rounded, smooth
    • Beans are flattened, violet pigmentation
    • Fermentation time: up to a week --> roasted product with possible astringency
    • Bulk of world's cacao production from this type
    • No mention in early Spanish accounts
  • T. cacao subsp. cacao:
    • Criollo lines
    • Native to southern Mexico (Veracruz, Chiapas), Guatemala, Belize
    • Trees lack vigor, susceptible to diseases
    • Fruits ribbed and rough; pulp used by Amazon people
    • Large, white or very light purple seeds ("beans"); round cross-section
    • Short fermentation time --> high-quality roasted product with low astringency
    • Probably not truly wild; product by ancient cultivation by Mayas
    • Used by Indians (e.g., Mayas) for the production of chocolate from seeds (from Mayan: ka-ka-wa; Náhuatl: xocoatl)
  • The two subspecies are interfertile (see below): hybrids are called forasteros, of which the trinitarios (from the island of Trinidad) are a subset: productive vigor of calabacillos and good flavor of criollos

Archaeological evidence

 ceramic vessel 1
  • from El Petén, Guatemala; AD 350-550

  • from Colha, Belize; 600BC- 250 AD (from Nature , © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2002) (need subscription to access)

Early historical evidence

  • Codex Mendoza:
    • tribute (a.k.a. tax) list of Moctezuma, the last Aztec emperor
    • 100s of cargas (i.e. loads); 1 carga = 24,000 seeds
  • Utilization
    • seeds --> chocolate:
      • drink: mixed with water and other ingredients:
        • Quararibea funebris: called cacahuaxochitl or rosita de cacao: anxiety, fever, coughs; contains anticonvulsants (a relative is Quararibea cordata: zapote) (Bombacaceae). A tree to 15 m from Mexico and South America. It has small fragrant white flowers and leathery green leaves. The native peoples used the plant for flavoring chocolate and preserving food and bodies (from Tropical Flowering Tree Society).
        • Psilocybe: hallucinogenic mushrooms
        • chili peppers
      • sauce: e.g., mole negro, mole poblano
      • cocoa butter: white chocolate, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries
    • pulp: sweets, drinks
    • seeds: currency

Additional information

Some related links of interest

Later historical evidence

  • Introduction of cacao in Europe by Hernán Cortés in 1527 --> rapid increase in demand
  • Extensive planting of cacao in Spanish-controlled territories: Caribbean, South America
  • In South America: hybridization between Criollos and Calabacillos --> Forasteros: lesser quality than Criollos but higher yielding, wider adaptation --> breakfast cocoa, milk chocolate
  • In Brazil: emancipated slaves after 1880; mainly state of Bahia on small holdings--> after 1930, Brazil became largest producer in Americas.
  • In Old World (and New World): increased demand --> cacao planting in Spanish, French, Dutch, and English colonies
  • Philippines: Criollo cultivars from Mexico (galleon line from Acapulco to Manila)
  • West Africa:
    • Forastero type (from Bahia), especially self-compatible Amelonado
    • leading producers: from Ivory Coast to Cameroon
    • in small holdings, under agroforestry
  • Currently:
    • 2/3 of world production from Africa
    • only 20% from plantations; rest from small holdings


  • Steps in production:
    • harvest: year-round; cut fruit with machete
    • fermentation of wet beans and pulp: 5-7 days
      • anaerobic and aerobic with yeasts and bacteria
      • enzymatic changes associated with death of embryo

--> flavor and aroma of chocolate

    • drying in the sun: 3-5 days
    • toasting: 260-280 F
    • crushing of seeds: to remove shells and germs --> "edible gravel" called "nibs"
    • add flavoring (e.g., vanilla, sugar) --> molded into tablets
    • or: extract cocoa butter and use cocoa powder

    1. Switzerland: 22.4 lbs
    2. Germany: 21.6
    3. Belgians:  21.3
--------  9. USA:  12.2 lbs
  • Nutrition:
    • Good source of energy (cocoa butter)
    • Theobromine, similar to caffeine
    • Anti-oxidants

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