Cacao is found in the seeds of the cacao tree. We need cocoa as a dark brown powder in many pastries. However, we know cocoa best from chocolate, because it has a large share in it.
There is also the drinking chocolate. It has different names: drinking chocolate, hot chocolate, chocolate milk, and cocoa drink are the most common. You usually need milk, sometimes water. You then add cocoa powder and usually sugar, as the drink otherwise tastes quite bitter. The ready-made drinking chocolate mixes that most people buy already contain sugar.
Where does cocoa come from?
Cocoa comes from cocoa trees. They originally grew in South America and Central America. In nature, cocoa trees grow as bushes in the rainforest. They grow to a maximum height of 15 meters there. They need a lot of heat, so they only grow in the tropics, that is, near the equator. They also need a lot of water.
In biology, cocoa trees form a genus with many species. Cocoa is now extracted from many of them, but mostly from a single species called the “cocoa tree”. To avoid confusion, the scientific name for it is Theobroma cacao.
The Aztecs used the fruits of the cocoa tree for a special drink. The discoverers of America later brought the cocoa plants to Africa and cultivated them there. Later they also reached Asia. Côte d’Ivoire produces the most cocoa today, namely a third of all cocoa produced in the world. This is followed by Ghana, Indonesia, Cameroon, and Nigeria.
How do cocoa beans grow?
Cocoa trees need shade. In the jungle they have it. In the plantations, the cocoa trees are mixed with other trees, for example with coconut palms, banana trees, rubber trees, avocados or mangoes. In addition, the cocoa trees in the plantations are not allowed to grow higher than about four meters.
Cocoa trees have a lot of flowers. They are not pollinated by bees like most of our flowers, but by small mosquitoes. The more of these there are, the more cocoa beans you can harvest.
Cocoa trees bloom all year round because there are no seasons in the tropics. A cacao tree has to be about five years old before it flowers for the first time. Most flowers appear from around twelve years of age.
Ripe fruit is up to a foot long, like most of the rulers we use at school. One fruit weighs about half a kilogram. It contains pulp and up to 50 seeds. These are called “cocoa beans”.
How do you process cocoa beans?
Workers cut the fruit from the trees with their machetes, which are big knives. They also open the fruit with it. The pulp then begins to ferment immediately, meaning the sugar in it turns into alcohol. As a result, the seeds cannot germinate, i.e. cannot form roots. You also lose some of the substances that taste bitter.
The beans then usually dry in the sun. They are then only about half as heavy. They are usually then packed in bags and shipped. They are mostly processed in North America and Europe.
First, the beans are roasted like coffee beans or chestnuts. So they are heated on a grid, but not actually burned. Only then is the shell removed and the kernels broken. These pieces are called “cocoa nibs”.
The nibs are then finely ground in a special mill, resulting in the cocoa mass. You can process them into chocolate. But you can also squeeze them out and contain cocoa butter. The dry mass that remains can be ground again. This is how the cocoa powder is made.
What problems are there in the world around cocoa?
In America, cocoa is grown in large plantations. This is difficult for nature, because the same thing always grows in huge areas, and because natural land is often sacrificed for it.
In Africa, it is mostly families who produce cocoa. However, the families often cannot really live off the money they earn with it. The government and the rebels are pocketing a large part of the money to pay for their civil war. There is also the problem that children often have to help out and therefore cannot go to school. There is even slavery and child trafficking.
Today there are various companies that are committed to fair trade in cocoa beans. They want to ensure that the families receive a fair wage that they can really live on without child labor. But such cocoa products cost a little more in the shop.
Another problem lies in the trade routes. Large companies, for example, hold back the cocoa and hope that the price will rise. In fact, it can range from $800 to nearly $3,000 per ton. However, it is not the cocoa farmers who benefit from this, but the people and companies who trade with it.