The seed pods of the cacao tree grow on its branches and directly on the trunk.
Each pod is about the size of a pineapple and holds 30-50 seeds—enough to make about seven milk chocolate or two dark chocolate bars.
Cacao flowers are pollinated by midges, tiny flies that live in the rotting leaves and other debris that fall to the forest floor at the base of the tree. Those midges have the fastest wing-beats in the world: 1,000 times per second!
Cacao trees today are endangered by natural threats, such as the witch’s broom fungus and other diseases and pests. Along with the rest of the rainforest, they’re also threatened by lumber companies, which harvest the taller trees that shelter the cacao and help maintain the population of midges.
Cacao seeds are not sweet. They contain the chemicals caffeine and theobromine, which give them a bitter taste.
The scientific name of the cacao tree, Theobroma, means “food of the gods.”
Cacao is not related to the coconut palm or to the coca plant, the source of cocaine.
Africa is now the source of more than half the world’s cacao, while Mexico today provides only 1.5%.
Chocolate as food and medicine
It takes four cacao seeds to make one ounce of milk chocolate, and 12 seeds to make one ounce of dark chocolate.
Although we tend to think of chocolate as a solid today, for 90% of its history it was consumed in liquid form.
Some of the earliest European cocoa-makers were apothecaries seeking medicinal uses of the plant.
Cacao seeds contain significant amounts of naturally occurring flavonoids, substances also found in red wine, green tea, and fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids are connected with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
On the other hand, chocolate carries a heavy load of saturated fats and calories; there are much healthier ways to get the same benefits.
Chocolate contains two stimulants also found in coffee—caffeine and theobromine—but in relatively small amounts. Fifty M&M’s, for example, have about as much caffeine as a cup of decaffeinated coffee.
Who eats chocolate?
Not Africans. A great deal of chocolate is grown in Africa, but mostly for export.
Not a lot of Asians. Although chocolate’s popularity is growing in China and Japan, there is still comparatively little chocolate culture in Asia. The Chinese, for example, eat only one bar of chocolate for every 1,000 eaten by the British.
Mexicans consume chocolate more as a traditional drink and a spice than as a candy. They use it to make the wonderful sauce called mole and offer chocolate drinks at wedding ceremonies and birthday parties.
Americans for sure…an average of 12 pounds per person per year. In 2001, that came to a total of 3.3 billion pounds. (Americans spend $13 billion a year on chocolate.)
Definitely Europeans! As far back as the late 1700s, the people of Madrid, Spain, consumed nearly 12 million pounds of chocolate a year. Today, 16 of the 20 leading per-capita chocolate-consuming countries are in Europe, with Switzerland leading the pack with an average of 22 pounds per person per year. (The U.S., as of 2001, was #11.)