Whether your luxury of choice is a decadent milk chocolate bar or raw cacao powder sprinkled in a smoothie, you know just how rewarding to the senses the rich chocolate taste of cocoa products can be. The good news is: that reward isn’t limited to the sensation of indulgence, for cacao has a whole host of physical and psychological benefits. One of the many wonderful reasons we love to work on a farm in Hawaii is that it provides the opportunity to grow and consume flavorful, energizing cacao beans.

Theobroma Cacao: History and Geography

The biological name for the cacao tree is Theobroma Cacao, Greek for “food of the Gods.” Though the name is Greek, scientists believe that Theobroma Cacao originated in the Orinoco and Amazon River basins over 4,000 years ago. 

The Olmecs and Mocayas were the first to domesticate and cultivate cacao, and as it gained in popularity, it actually became common currency in pre-colonial South America. The Mayans were particularly fond of consuming and trading cacao. They even made an alcoholic beverage out of the pulp of the fruit.

Today, the most prominent areas of Theobroma Cacao cultivation are the tropics, tropical Asia, and West Africa. The latter is in the lead, comprising almost 70% of world production. The countries spearheading global cacao production include Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, and Mexico. If you are looking to work on a farm in Hawaii, you are likely to find a cacao tree, but you might not even recognize these exotic trees for what they really are!

Cultivating Cacao

Theobroma Cacao is a tropical evergreen tree that can grow to be 20-40 feet tall. A member of the Malvaceae family, cacao is closely related to hibiscus, okra, cotton, and marshmallow.

The shallow roots of the tree require penetrable soil and adequate drainage. Theobroma Cacao thus thrives in wet, tropical climates at altitudes ranging from 100-1,000 feet (although we have had great success growing cacao at 12,200 feet). That’s why, if you work on a farm in Hawaii, it’s not unlikely that you will encounter a cacao plant.

The tree enjoys temperatures ranging from 62-82 degrees Fahrenheit. Though cacao benefits from cloud cover and wind protection, and is thus often planted under palms or bananas, a climate that is too cold or wet will damage the tree. Cacao is particularly susceptible to fungi in such conditions, and in general, which is why farmers typically grow it on small farms instead of large plantations.

Harvesting Cacao

Although the trees can live to be 100-200 years old, they typically only produce cacao beans for 25-50 years. The cacao tree usually fruits within four years of planting from seeds or cuttings, and will yield approximately 70 fruit per year. Though a bi-annual harvest is common, some trees require continuous harvest throughout the year, as the tree doesn’t have a specified harvest season.

The “fruit” of the cacao tree is actually a large, thick pod. The pods range in color from green and gold to bright red and deep purple. The pod is firm with rough ridges. The inside, however, contains a white, sweet pulp and 20-60 cacao beans. The tropical, fruity flavor of the pulp is great for making juice and jams, but it is necessary for fermenting the cacao beans. The precious beans are what produce the prized cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and chocolate that the world adores.

Fermenting the Cacao Beans

Fermenting the beans of the cacao pod is the key to creating delicious, usable cacao. The fermentation process is what transforms the bean’s taste from bitter to rich and full.

To ferment cacao beans, one must first scoop both the pulp and the beans into a tray, box, or bag, and leave it covered. The beans must be left to ferment for 2-6 days, and occasional stirring is necessary to introduce oxygen.

Through fermentation, the pulp converts first into alcohol and then into lactic acid. To allow the liquid to drain, one must cut holes in the container. The end product is a light or dark brown cacao bean from which cocoa solids and cocoa butter are extracted.

From Cacao to Chocolate

Cocoa beans are, of course, responsible for the delightful taste of chocolate. Most chocolate is comprised of chocolate liquor, or pure ground cacao, and cocoa butter in varying ratios. Milk chocolate varieties have a much lower content of chocolate liquor and higher quantities of milk and sugar. The darker the chocolate, the more cacao it contains.

It takes approximately 400 cacao beans to produce one pound of chocolate. Of the three varieties of beans—Forastero, Trinitario, and Criollo—Forastero is the most popular, comprising 85% of world production. If you work on a farm in Hawaii, you’re most likely to encounter Forastero, though most of the cacao grown in Hawaii is non-commercial.

The areas of the world that generate the most cacao are not the areas consuming it. The western world leads global chocolate consumption. Switzerland is the world’s leading chocolate consumer at an average of almost 20 pounds of chocolate annually per capita. The United States hovers at 9.5 pounds of chocolate per person annually.

Health Benefits of Chocolate

Chocolate boasts a variety of health benefits, which is good news if you work on a farm in Hawaii. The antioxidants in chocolate protect against free radical damage and prevent the development of inflammatory conditions like cancer and depression. Chocolate also contains caffeine, which boosts energy levels and cognition.

Perhaps one of the most beneficial compounds that chocolate contains is Theobromine. Like caffeine, Theobromine blocks adenosine receptors, preventing drowsiness and energizing mind and body. However, Theobromine does not induce the same “crash” symptoms that caffeine typically does. It can also protect against high blood pressure, asthma, and depression. Theobromine boosts heart rate and brain function while simultaneously inducing sensations of calm and relaxation. As an anti-inflammatory, detoxifier, and appetite suppressant, dark chocolate may also help you shed unwanted pounds.

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