What is Cacao?

Cacao is native to South America and its Amazon River basin.
Chocolates containing cacao.
Theobroma cacao grows in the Orinoco River Basin.
Chocolate consists of ground up cocoa beans mixed with cocoa butter and sugar.
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  • Written By: Liz Fernandez
  • Edited By: Kathryn Hulick
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2015
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Cacao is used to describe both the unprocessed beans that are used to make chocolate and the tree they come from. The word "cacao" comes from the Olmec civilization that preceded the Mayans in the southern Gulf of Mexico. The common synonym "cocoa" is actually a misspelling of the original word. The Theobroma cacao tree is found in the Amazon forests as well as in other tropical regions. It produces three types of beans, which are the Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. All are used to create chocolate and offer distinct health benefits.

Theobroma cacao is native to South America, growing naturally in the Amazon River Basin as well as the Orinoco River Basin. It is also farmed in other areas such as Ghana, Indonesia and the Philippines. The tree grows from 10 to 30 feet (3-9 meters) in height and usually starts to bear fruit four years after being planted.

The Theobroma cacao tree's fruit is known as cacao pods. When ripe, they are a hearty yellow or orange and weigh just about a pound. Each contains many seeds referred to as cacao beans. These seeds can be extracted and made into cocoa butter. This butter is a pale-yellow vegetable fat that is used to not only make chocolate but also pharmaceuticals, ointments and toiletries.


The nib is found at the center of the bean. This is what is used to make chocolate. Nibs are rich in antioxidants as well as good fats and minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron and potassium. They have a byproduct similar to caffeine and produce a natural MAO inhibitor that can suppress overactive appetites.

The Criollo species of the bean is the rarest and most costly with only 10 percent of chocolate cultivated from this type. The taste isn't as bitter as other types of beans and the scent is more aromatic. This species is harvested mainly in Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

Forastero beans are used in 75 to 90 percent of the world’s chocolate. They are often referred to as bulk beans because of their predominant use in chocolate production. The term Forastero means foreign in Spanish. Trinitario beans are a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero and are used in about 10 percent of chocolate.

Fermentation of the beans takes three to seven days. This is necessary to develop the beans' flavors and prepare them to be roasted. In the process, sugars in the beans get converted to alcohol and germs are killed.


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Post 7

Cacao and cocoa are exactly the same, but people lately have tried to use cacao as something healthier. Cocoa or cacao beans are natural and unprocessed, and cocoa or cacao beans are the beans without shells and crushed into smaller pieces.

Post 5

I really don't like the taste of cacao beans. They are one of those plants that really makes me wonder how ancient people ever got around to eating them. Like coffee for example. It seems like such a process to make the stuff palatable it seems amazing that someone looked at the cacao plant and thought, what can we do with this?

Of course, back then I guess you ate whatever wouldn't kill you and tried everything once. All they would have to know was that the bitter taste wasn't poison and they would eventually see that it was quite a healthy food to eat, then set about making it tastier.

Still, if it had been me, I would have stuck to green leaves or berries instead!

Post 4

We have a local dairy that has been around for many years and they use Cacao in their chocolate milk. Their chocolate milk is the best I have ever tasted, along with several of their other dairy products.

When my kids were small, they could tell a difference right away if I used this brand of milk or bought a different one. You can really tell a difference when you have a true chocolate taste.

Many people who have moved away from this area, will have friends bring them some of their products when they visit or have them shipped to them because they are such high quality products.

Post 3

When I was visiting my parents in another city a few years ago we went on a tour of the local chocolate factory. One of the things they let us do at the start was try some cacao beans.

They didn't warn us how bitter the beans were going to be, but they did say that if you like dark chocolate, you were more likely to appreciate the taste of the bean.

And it was true, I quite liked the beans, although I wouldn't want to have them every day! But, my mother, who doesn't like dark chocolate either, couldn't stand more than a taste of the beans.

I keep meaning to pick up some cacao nibs at my local organic food store, but I haven't got around to it yet. I know they are quite good for you.

Post 2

You can actually buy raw, organic cacao beans that you eat right out of the bag. While these do have a sharply bitter taste, if you can stand it you can reap some amazing benefits from the beans.

Cacao beans have way more anti-oxidants than any other food and have an amazing amount of magnesium in them. On top of that you can get all the chromium you need and lots of vitamin C from ingesting the beans.

For those who are willing to give raw cacao beans a try you can purchase them quite cheaply online and in some baking supply stores. For a large bag you will probably pay around $15.

Post 1

I am a huge fan of chocolate and am always looking for producers that use high quality cacao beans in the production of their treats. For myself I feel that the difference in flavor can really be highlighted when you put a cheap mass produced piece of chocolate next to one created by a good chocolatier.

Generally I prefer to eat dark chocolate so I can get more of the benefits from the cacao beans. I have found it amazing of how much of a mood stabilizer it can be. I always crave chocolate around my monthly cycle and having it mellows me right out. I figure if I am going to splurge a little the chocolate may as well be high quality.

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