(Theobroma cacao) is a small (4-8 m tall) evergreen tree in the family Malvaceae (formerly
native to tropical South America, but now cultivated
throughout the tropics. Its seeds are used to make cocoa and chocolate.
tree grows naturally in the low foothills of the Andes at elevations of around 200-400
m in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins; it was introduced
to Central America by the
Maya people. It requires
a humid climate with regular rainfall and good soil. It is an understorey tree,
growing best with some overhead shade. The leaves are alternate, entire, unlobed,
10-40 cm long and 5-20 cm broad.
flowers are produced
in clusters directly on the trunk and older branches; they are
small, 1-2 cm diameter, with pink calyx. The fruit, called a cacao pod, is ovoid,
15-30 cm long and 8-10 cm wide, ripening yellow to orange, and weighs about 500
g when ripe. The pod contains 20 to 60 seeds, usually called "beans", embedded
in a white pulp. Each seed contains a significant amount of fat (40-50% as cocoa butter). Their most
important active constituent is Theobromine, a compound somewhat
similar to Caffeine.
scientific name Theobroma means "food of the gods", while cacao probably
comes from the Yucatec Maya word cacau.
is planted on over 70000 square kilometres worldwide with 40% of production coming
from Côte d'Ivoire. Ghana and Indonesia each
produce about 15%, with smaller amounts from Brazil, Nigeria and Cameroon.
tree begins to bear when 4 or 5 years old. In one year, when mature, it may have
6,000 flowers, but only about 20 pods. About 300-600 seeds are required to produce
around 1 kg of cocoa paste.
beans in a cacao pod
are three main cultivar groups of cacao beans
used to make cocoa and chocolate. The most prized, rare, and expensive is the
Criollo Group, the cocoa bean used by the Maya. Only 10% of chocolate is made
from the Criollo, which is less bitter and more aromatic than any other bean.
The cacao bean in 80% of chocolate is made using beans of the Forastero Group.
Forastero trees are significantly hardier than Criollo trees, resulting in cheaper
cacao beans. Trinitario, a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, is used in about 10%
of chocolate. For details of processing, see cocoa.
beans were commonly used as currency in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In some areas,
such as Yucatán, they were still used
in place of small coins as late as the 1840s.