Chocolate science, history and fun facts – Part 1

Chocolate is a fascinating plant and a fascinating food.

Cacao trees grow in rainforests and cacao pods grow directly on the trunks of cacao trees.
Cacao trees grow in rainforests and cacao pods grow directly on the trunks of cacao trees.

To start this brief serious of articles about chocolate, Michigan State University Extension will look at its fascinating history and science of this incredible confection called chocolate.

Chocolate beans are the seeds of the cacao tree. Cacao (pronounced ka-KOW) trees grow in the rainforest and the pods grow directly on the trunks of cacao tree. Nearly all cacao trees grow within 20 degrees of the equator and 75 percent of them grow within 8 degrees on either side of it. Cacao originated in Mesoamerica in the Aztec, Olmec and Mayan territories. The Mayans and Aztecs were the first to plant cacao, and have proper claims to being the first cocoa (pronounced KO-ko) farmers, but today most cacao is grown in West Africa. Ghana currently grows the highest quality cocoa beans.

A cacao tree can live over 200 years, but only produces quality cocoa beans for about 25 years. Each year a tree will produce approximately 40 pods. Inside the cacao pods are seeds called cocoa beans. These seeds are the magical ingredient in chocolate.

Cacao trees have blossoms and pods all year long, the white and pink flowers are pollenated by a gnat, who then carries the pollen from one flower to another. It takes about four months for the pod to grow to the size of a small melon and another month to ripen into a yellow to dark orange pod. Each pod contains approximately 40 cocoa beans and is surrounded by a white pulp.

These beans were so valuable to the Aztecs and Mayans that they used them for money, special gifts and offerings to the gods. Taxes of the times could be paid with cocoa beans.

Some fun facts about the value of cocoa beans:

  • 200 beans = a male turkey
  • 100 beans = a female turkey or a rabbit
  • 30 beans = a small rabbit
  • 3 beans = turkey egg or an avocado
  • 1 bean = tamale

Money really did grow on trees!

Once the pods are harvested, they are broke open and the beans are scooped out. For the next week, the pods are covered and kept in the dark to ferment. This fermentation process helps to bring out the cocoa’s deep rich flavors. It is reported cocoa beans have more than 300 flavors. After fermenting, the beans are dried in the sun which darken the almond-shaped bean and are shipped to be roasted and processed.

In ancient Mayan civilizations, humans were often sacrificed to guarantee a good cacao harvest. Many tombs dating back more than a thousand years have traces of chocolate. Motechzoma Xocoyotzin (Montezuma ll), the ninth emperor of the Aztecs, was one of the wealthiest men in the world and known as the Chocolate King. At one time he had a stash of nearly a billion cocoa beans. It is no wonder why Swedish scientist Linnaeus named the cacao tree Theobroma cacao, meaning “food of the gods.”

Chocolate is one of the oldest natural foods. Up until recent history, chocolate was a bitter drink only enjoyed by the wealthy.

In the next few articles, the history, science and health benefits of chocolate will be examined. Until then, enjoy a few chocolates along with a cup of cocoa. Remember, it’s always a great time to enjoy chocolate!


Other articles in this series

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