Cacao – Part 3

Interesting Facts about Cacao

Chocolate is tasty, to put it mildly, and we deeply love eating it. There’s just something about its velvety richness that seems like heaven in your mouth. Other sweet confections can be fun, but chocolate positively makes us swoon. A symbol of romantic love, it’s essential on Valentine’s Day, and we include chocolatey delights at most holiday celebrations – if not much more often than that!

And it’s a star in other arenas besides eating. Chocolate is featured in many beloved movies: remember Chocolat, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Like Water for Chocolate? Certainly we’ll never forget Forrest Gump’s “Life is like a box of chocolates.” There aren’t a lot of stories about lemon drops or caramel chews. Chocolate is in its own special world.

A little history …

Cacao was originally cultivated in Central America and Mexico as many as 3000 years ago. In the Mayan and other ancient cultures there, it was an important part of social life. Cacao was a featured part of social rituals like initiations and marriages. At first, the pulp of the pod was used to make a mildly alcoholic beverage. It was only later that people discovered how the beans could be used, and in addition to eating them, the Mayans sometimes used them as currency. Cacao’s health benefits were recognized even in these early days, and the beans were often applied medicinally.

When the Spaniards came to the Americas in the mid-17th century, they brought the beans back to Europe, where – of course! – the delightful flavor quickly became a favorite.

Droughts and diseases that are fatal to cacao trees have resulted in decreased cultivation in the Americas today, though Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean remain on the list of countries with the most production. Today the highest concentration of growers is in Côte d’Ivoire on the West African coast.

In the past 30 years, and even more recently, accusations have surfaced of child slavery related to cacao tree cultivation and harvesting. This “Big Chocolate” abuse is in response to growing worldwide demand for the irresistible taste and satisfaction that chocolate affords. While it’s hard to know if the chocolate or cacao that you’re purchasing was produced using child labor, you’re safer buying cacao from Latin American countries, where such practices are not allowed.

Are there any environmental threats to cacao?

In addition to the plant diseases already mentioned – notably Frosty Pod and Witch’s Broom– which have affected the cacao trees in the Americas, it may be that cacao in West Africa is threatened by climate change. The conditions required to grow cacao trees are highly sensitive, and if the planet warms too much, the trees could have a hard time surviving. Not only temperature is important; the survival of certain insects to pollinate the fruit is also key to the health and productivity of the trees.

How will my family benefit from eating cacao?

The sublime taste of chocolate is the obvious answer – most everyone loves eating it in whatever form. Nothing wrong with ensuring that everyone in your family regularly enjoys a delightful chocolate moment!

But if you’re sure to use only the most pure and least processed chocolates, the health benefits listed above accrue to every member of your family. So why not include it in your daily diet?!

Note, however, that cacao does contain a small amount of caffeine, so you will want to limit consumption by children to a small amount at each serving.  Adults, as well, always see the best results from moderate doses. Still, a daily dollop makes happy health sense.

Somewhat more refined cacao, such as that in Dutch Chocolate, may be cheaper and easier to find in the stores and for these reasons you may use it instead of actual cacao. Dutch Chocolate cocoa powder has been mixed with an alkalized solution to decrease acidity and make the flavor mellower, but it’s a better choice than cocoa with added sweeteners or fillers.

Lesser known chocolate facts

Here are a couple unexpected things about chocolate.

Just for entertainment, consider a recent application of the wonders of the cacao bean:  as a party drug! Apparently a recent craze involves parties centered around the sweet soulfulness of chocolate, taking the place of alcohol or other drugs. The parties, found mostly in Europe, feature cacao drinks, pills, and even a device that lets you sniff chocolate like cocaine (not recommended by this author). Users claim that the endorphin release is better than any high!

Did you know this? Dogs are not supposed to eat chocolate. Here’s why: the cacao bean contains theobromine, which is a nervous system stimulant like caffeine, and a poison for dogs.