14 Facts About Cacao

Flor y Fruto del Cacao [Cocoa Flower and Fruit] (Theobroma cacao)

Cacao, the plant that gives us chocolate, has a rich history and fascinating story behind it. This delicious bean has been prized by ancient civilizations, used as currency, touted for its health benefits, and is still popular worldwide today.

Read on for 14 interesting facts about cacao you may not know:

1. Cacao originated in the rainforests of Central and South America

  • Cacao trees are native to the tropical rainforests of Central and South America.
  • The first people known to use cacao were the Olmecs in 1500 BCE. The Mayans and Aztecs later cultivated cacao and used the beans to make chocolate drinks.

2. The scientific name for cacao translates to “food of the gods”

  • The scientific name for cacao is Theobroma cacao.
  • Theobroma is Greek for “food of the gods,” an apt name considering cacao’s prized status among ancient civilizations.

3. Cacao beans were used as currency by the Aztecs

  • Cacao beans were valued so highly by the Aztecs that they used them as currency.
  • Records show that 100 cacao beans could buy a turkey hen, while 1 good cacao bean bought a tomato!

4. Only 25% of flowers on a cacao tree will be pollinated

  • Cacao trees have small pink and white flowers that rely on tiny flies called midges for pollination.
  • Unfortunately, only about 25% of cacao flowers are successfully pollinated. The rest drop off the tree.

5. It takes over a year for cacao pods to ripen

  • After pollination, cacao pods take 4-5 months to develop and grow to the size of a small melon.
  • The pods then take an additional 5-6 months to ripen before they can be harvested.
Fruto del Cacao [Cocoa Fruit] (Theobroma cacao)
Fruto del Cacao [Cocoa Fruit] (Theobroma cacao)

6. Cacao pods contain 30-50 beans surrounded by sweet white pulp

  • Mature cacao pods contain 30-50 cacao beans surrounded by sweet, white pulp.
  • This pulp was used by ancient people to make alcoholic beverages.

7. Fermenting & drying cacao beans creates chocolate flavor

  • After harvest, cacao beans are fermented in piles for 5-7 days. This fermentation develops the beans’ chocolate flavor.
  • The beans are then dried in the sun for 1-2 weeks.

8. 70% of the world’s cacao comes from small, family-owned farms in West Africa

  • It is estimated there are over 1.5 million small, family-owned cacao farms in West Africa.
  • 70% of the world’s cacao supply comes from this region.

9. Only 3-5% of cacao harvest makes it into chocolate

  • 400 cacao beans = 1 pound of chocolate
  • Yet the average cacao tree only produces 2,500 beans annually.
  • So only 3-5% of the annual cacao harvest is made into chocolate products.

10. Cacao farming is done by hand, not machines

  • Nearly all aspects of cacao farming – from planting seeds to harvesting pods – is done by hand.
  • Cacao trees are too delicate for machinery and difficult to tend mechanically.

11. Cacao trees live over 200 years but are unproductive after 25 years

  • A single cacao tree can live and produce pods for over 200 years.
  • However, their productivity declines after 25 years. New trees must be continually planted.

12. Over 50 million people worldwide depend on cacao for income

  • Approximately 40-50 million people across Africa, Asia, and Central and South America rely on cacao farming for their livelihood.

13. Cacao demand is on the rise

  • As the global chocolate market grows, especially in Asia, so does the demand for cacao.
  • It’s estimated that 4 million additional tons will be required to meet demand by 2030.

14. Cacao farming practices are becoming more sustainable

  • In response to growing demand, cacao farming practices are shifting to become more sustainable.
  • This includes using fewer chemicals, diversifying crops, and taking steps to end deforestation and child labor.

Cacao’s deliciously complex flavor and rich history has earned it global fame and an important place in the economy and livelihoods across regions that cultivate it. As the world’s appetite for chocolate continues to grow, sustainable practices that protect cacao farmers and supply are increasingly vital.

Cacao silvestre [Wild Cocoa] (Theobroma cacao)
Cacao silvestre [Wild Cocoa] (Theobroma cacao)

Frequently Asked Questions about Theobroma Cacao

What is Theobroma cacao?

Theobroma cacao, also known as the cacao tree or cocoa tree, is a small evergreen tree in the family Malvaceae. Its seeds, cocoa beans, are used to make chocolate products.

Where is Theobroma cacao native to?

Theobroma cacao is native to the tropics of the Americas, and it is widely distributed from southeastern Mexico to the Amazon basin.

How are cacao flowers pollinated?

Cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies known as Forcipomyia midges in the subfamily Forcipomyiinae. Using these natural pollinators has been shown to result in more fruit production than using artificial pollinators.

What are some major pests and diseases affecting cacao production?

Cacao production is affected by various pests and diseases, including cocoa mirids, cocoa pod borer, frosty pod rot, witches’ broom, black pod disease caused by Phytophthora spp., and cacao swollen shoot virus.

How is Theobroma cacao being conserved and researched for future sustainability?

Efforts are being made to improve the conservation and use of cacao genetic resources to develop new varieties resistant to pests and diseases. The genome of T. cacao has been sequenced, enabling molecular biology and breeding for elite varieties to ensure its future sustainability.

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