Cacao – Part 1

Most people passionately love chocolate. The deep, rich flavor satisfies taste buds and also provides a subtle sense of well-being that could be called sublime. Where does chocolate come from and what makes it a superfood?

The source of chocolate is the cacao tree, with its cacao (or cocoa) pods. These grow directly from the trunk or a large branch of the tree – not at the ends of branches, as with many fruits. The pods consist of a thick, leathery outer shell containing a lemony sweet pulp that surrounds some 30 to 50 seeds. It’s these seeds that we call cocoa beans.

The tree that produces cacao pods is called Theobroma cacao (Theobroma translates as “drink of the gods”). These trees grow only in hot, rainy, tropical climates close to the equator.

From the cacao beans, a large variety of chocolates and chocolate-flavored foods are created, including candies, desserts, and sauces such as mole.

But key to understanding cacao as a superfood is realizing that the amount of processing that is applied to the cacao bean makes all the difference: the more processing, the less nutritious. We should note, though, that experts say all chocolate is healthy food. It’s just that the closer it is to raw cacao, the more nutritious your chocolate will be.

The raw or minimally processed cacao bean is a superfood, while the more familiar cocoa that we purchase in grocery stores has generally been highly processed and mixed with other ingredients. Still, cocoa is still regarded as a healthy food, if not quite as nutritious as cacao beans that have not been so finely processed. Making cocoa involves heating the beans at a high temperature, causing the loss of some nutrients; and then mixing the beans with an alkalized solution that makes the taste less bitter.

Cacao is used in the production of cacao nibs, cacao butter (made from the pulp surrounding the seeds inside a cacao pod), cacao paste, and cacao powder. The paste and powder are produced by slowly heating nibs to preserve their nutrients. The nibs themselves are roughly chopped up raw cacao beans, and they contain all the superfood attributes of the original bean.

Cocoa is less expensive than cacao and therefore often used in cooking. If you choose to use it, select a plain cocoa powder, one that hasn’t been mixed with a lot of additional ingredients (like sugar).

Cacao will taste slightly bitter and strong compared to cocoa, if you’re used to consuming chocolate that contains additives. But many people eventually come to love the deep, rich taste of less-processed cacao.