Plant science at your dinner table: Hot chocolate vs. hot cocoa

Hot cocoa and hot chocolate are as different as milk chocolate and bittersweet chocolate but both are derived from the cacao tree.

As the snow swirls outside, the only thing that comes to my mind is to enjoy a warm toasty fire, curled up with a good book and of course a cup of rich hot cocoa. I have fond memories of my mom’s homemade hot cocoa. Yes, real hot cocoa made with cocoa powder, whole milk and sugar. None of this instant powdered hot chocolate mix made by adding a packet of sugary chocolate and powdered milk to hot water out of the microwave.

Hot cocoa and hot chocolate are terms that we often used interchangeably. Technically, hot cocoa and hot chocolate are as different as milk chocolate and bittersweet chocolate. Hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder, the way my mother made it when I was a kid. Hot chocolate is made from melting chocolate bars into cream.

Now you might be wondering what this has to do with plant science. The chocolate in your steamy whipped cream-topped drink comes from an interesting fruit from a tree native to the tropical rainforest of Central America. The botanical name for this tropical tree is Theobroma cacao. Theobroma cacao translates into the “food of the gods.” It is known today as the chocolate tree. To take it one-step further, the ancient culture of the Olmecs, and later the Mayans and Aztecs, used the cocoa beans as money, so technically money does grow on trees!

Here are some fun facts and a little history about hot chocolate and the cacao tree:

  • Chocolate appears in its raw state as melon-like pods on 40- to 60-foot tall trees in the understory of tropical forests.
  • These pods or fruit of the cacao tree grow directly on the trunk and branches of the tree.
  • Each pod contains about 40 cocoa beans surrounded by a white milky pulp. These beans or seeds are fermented, dried and roasted to make chocolate.
  • The tropical cacao tree has grown wild in Central America since prehistoric times. It is now also grown in South America, Africa, and parts of Indonesia.
  • The cacao tree only grows in regions about 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator.
  • The word chocolate is derived from the Mayan word xocoatl; cocoa is from the Aztec word caahuatl.
  • Chocolate has been drunk as a beverage for thousands of years. The first chocolate drinks were very bitter. The word chocolatl means bitter water.
  • The Mayans drank the chocolatl hot, while the Aztecs drank it cold.
  • Chocolatl was a drink for the wealthy. Kings and rich people had cacao beans buried with them in their tombs.
  • The original hot chocolate recipe was a mixture of ground cocoa beans, water, wine and Chile peppers.
  • It did not take long for Spaniards to begin heating the mixture and sweetening it with sugar.
  • After this chocolatey drink was introduced in England, milk was added and it soon became an after-dinner treat.

I hope you enjoy your favorite hot cocoa and hot chocolate recipe knowing a little of the science and history of this winter-time favorite that derives from plants!

For more information on the science of chocolate, go to these other Michigan State University Extension articles:

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