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A Brief History of Cocoa Beans

By Philip McIntosh | Last updated: April 7, 2021
Key Takeaways

While no longer used as currency, cocoa beans are still a prized commodity for equatorial nations. Processed into chocolate, they retain their value globally as gifts, key ingredients in baked goods, and one of the most popular treats on the planet.

Don’t you wish chocolate grew on trees? Wait it minute, it does!

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The chocolate tree, Theobroma cacao (L.) is native to the equatorial zone of the Americas where it was cultivated possibly as long as 5,000 years ago. Now, the tree carrying the much-loved cocoa bean is found in a geographic band encircling the Earth near the equator. The original cocoa trees are thought to have come from Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil.

Cocoa beans were so valued at one time that they were used as a form of barter currency in the Aztec civilization. Since then, production has shifted to the Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Ghana, and Nigeria.

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Cocoa trees flower year-round and the fruit do not all ripen at the same time, so they require constant attention and significant labor to successfully produce profitable crops. Cocoa beans are, of course, the seeds of the cacao tree. They form in groups of 20 to 60 inside the fruit known as a cocoa pod. The seeds are a source of food for mammals.

Read also: The History Of Hydro

Once the seed containing pods form, and before the mammals get them, they are cut from the trees to have their seeds taken out to be dried in the sun. The white pulp surrounding the seeds in the pod must remain attached to the beans as they dry, otherwise the required microbial action won’t take place. After a short fermentation period, the seeds become darker in color, often a brownish red inside, and have now been transformed into cocoa beans.

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Then the beans are converted into either cocoa butter or chocolate solids. Beans are dried, roasted, and ground to become cocoa mass which is then either melted to make cocoa liquor or squeezed really hard to make cocoa butter. The cocoa bean can be up to 50 percent fat which makes it an excellent candidate for extraction to make butter.

The cocoa liquor can be molded into chocolate blocks ready for many uses and the butter is used to mix with chocolate powder and other ingredients to obtain the delicious range of textures that are such an important part of the chocolate-eating experience.

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Read also: A Brief History of Strawberries

And just what does this chocolate-eating "experience" consist of? Is chocolate some kind of drug that people come to crave? Well, chocolate does contain small amounts of the heart stimulant theobromine, a mild shot of caffeine to wake you up, and in many cases a dose of sugar and fat that humans tend to like because they contain lots of energy, taste good, and have a pleasant effect on the palate.

The cocoa bean’s versatility can’t be overstated and the continued introduction of new creations by innovative chefs is impressive. In making chocolate the fundamental material is cocoa liquor, which contains no alcohol. By blending cocoa butter back onto chocolate powder or melted block chocolate a myriad of flavors and textures can be created as evidenced by the many chocolate dishes that exist.

One way of classifying chocolate is by color. White chocolate contains cocoa butter along with milk and sugar — no chocolate solids. Milk chocolate is light brown in color due to the combination of chocolate liquor, milk, and sugar to make a very popular smooth and sweet confection. The darkest chocolate is made from straight chocolate liquor and sugar — no milk. Even with sugar, dark chocolate is known for its less sweet, bolder, perhaps a bit bitter, chocolate flavor.

Read next: A Brief History of Avocados

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Written by Philip McIntosh | Science & Technology Writer, Teacher

Profile Picture of Philip McIntosh
Philip McIntosh is a science and technology writer with a bachelor’s degree in botany and chemistry and a master’s degree in biological science. During his graduate research, he used hydroponic techniques to grow axenic plants. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he teaches mathematics.

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