Have you ever heard that chocolate is good for you? Buzz words like 'antioxidant', 'superfood', and 'aphrodisiac' are often used to tout this amazing food's benefits. They aren't just buzz words when it comes to cacao.
Cacao, cocoa, chocolate. What's the difference? Below, I go into more detail about this terminology and give you some fun facts about the history of this delicious plant. Fair warning, this article is not all sweet and lovely. Cacao is bitter! And so is it's story.
Let's get to know this plant:
Theobroma cacao is the botanical name for the cacao tree, the small evergreen tree in the Malvaceae family (that's mallows!), native to deep tropical regions of Mesoamerica. The flowers from which the cacao fruits, or pods, mature, grow directly from the trunk and older branches of the tree, instead of from newer growths and shoots. This is called cauliflory. Cacao flowers are pollinated by tiny flies called Forcipomya midges. The seeds that grow inside this mature fruit are what we know as cacao beans.
Cacao refers to the beans that have not been roasted. Cocoa refers to the beans that have been roasted. It is also believed that the name 'cocoa' (kōkō) is just a translation whoopsie that has stuck around because it is easier to pronounce than cacao (kəˈkou). Say them out loud. Is it that challenging?
It takes about 20 cacao pods to produce one pound of cocoa paste (also known as cocoa liquor, meaning liquid or fluid). Cocoa paste is the product of fermented, dried, roasted, and ground cocoa solids and cocoa butter in equal proportions. This paste is what is used to make chocolate.
I'm starting to drool...but, guess what? Raw and roasted cacao is bitter!
More vocabulary words and a quick note on sustainability: Cacao beans are considered recalcitrant seeds, which means they do not survive drying or freezing below 50 degrees F. So, to reproduce, cacao trees depend on natural growth. Various forms of conservation have been set in place, like National parks, but climate change is a still real threat. It is suggested that those areas will not be suitable for growing as soon as 2050. Are you crying as hard as I am?
For now, we still have cacao. Not only is it grown on small farms in South America, it is also grown largely now in Africa. Nearly 70% of the world's cacao grows in Western Africa.
The health benefits of the best plant on earth (did I just pick a favorite?! Don't tell Nettles...or Red clover or Peppermint or Chamomile or Scullcap or.......) are great. As mentioned above, the antioxidant properties of cacao benefit humans' cardiovascular health. Antioxidants are compounds that plants manufacture to prevent their own cells from premature destruction due to exposure to heat, light, air, moisture and time. They act similarly in our bodies. Cocoa is especially rich in polyphenols, a group of protective antioxidant compounds found in many plant foods such as red wine and tea.
Have you ever noticed that you reach for chocolate when you're feeling low? We call it stuffing our faces...I mean self medicating...or eating our feelings. There is an absolute connection with cocoa and our mood. Chocolate affects our feel good brain chemicals, serotonin and dopamine. In other words, cocoa possesses anti-depressant, mood-elevating properties. You guys! I guess I've just been bummed out for (counting on fingers) a long time. Actually, I eat chocolate when I'm super happy too. It's just freaking delicious.
There is evidence that cacao has been farmed for over 3500 years. The Olmec and Maya grew, harvested, and imbibed this divine energy drink, and even used it as currency. Traces on pottery fragments suggest that cacao originated in the Amazon River Basin and travelled north with the Olmec or Maya peoples. Traditional cacao drink was thick, not sweet, but had added to it other sensuous herbs such as vanilla, and hot chilies. The sugarcane we add to it today is native to India and did not make its way to the Americas until the sixteenth century. What sweetness the original drink may have had would have been that from maize.
Cacao was treated with respect, included in ceremonies and rituals, and even buried their royals with pots of it to sustain them in the afterlife, much like the ancient Egyptians did with treasures, spices, and cats.
Legendary Aztec ruler, Montezuma, is said to have enjoyed fifty golden goblets of cacao a day. He then would toss the empty goblet into the lake and go off to visit his three hundred wives! He did this as a show of power, as he would demand cacao beans from conquered peoples. And...obviously it had an effect on his libido. Montezuma also shared this drink with those who contributed to military service.
When Cortez, the Spanish conquistador, set on finding gold, encountered the Aztecs, they mistook him for Quetzacoatl, the feathered serpent deity, and Montezuma had cacao whipped and frothed for him to drink. The Aztecs were thusly conquered and Cortez introduced the drink to Spain. Once the delicious discovery had been shared with the Spanish courts of Charles V, chilies were replaced with sugar and became the favorite of the Spanish people. They managed to keep it a secret for nearly 100 years before it spread throughout Europe. The rest is, well, evident. To put this in perspective, chocolate as we know it, has only been around for 500 years.
During the Revolutionary War, injured American military medics gave wounded, sick, and tired soldiers cacao to increase strength and expedite recoveries. They were also rationed small portions of chocolate to make the drink themselves. This is something still done to this day and is mentioned below regarding Clinton's Executive order. Read more on that here.
Cacao is not a bioregional plant here in Ohio. Obviously. But I did snap this photo of a cacao blossom at the Franklin Park Conservatory because there, we can explore plants from around the world!
Knowing where your chocolate comes from isn't just smart, it's necessary to support fair trade. While we won't ever be able to source local (Ohio) cacao beans, it will take some work on our parts to learn how to spot responsibly sourced snacks. This post is a resource for you to know how to tell if your chocolate is supporting fair trade farmers or child slave labor.
Oof, I said it: child. slave. labor. Did reading that make you squirm? It did me when I first learned about it years ago. While not all of the commercially available chocolate desserts originate with child labor, about two thirds of the world's chocolate comes from West Africa where, according to a 2015 U.S. Labor Department report, more than 2 million children were engaged in dangerous labor in cocoa-growing regions. Furthermore, representatives of some of the biggest and best-known brands — Hershey, Mars and Nestlé — could not guarantee that any of their chocolates were produced without child labor.(3)
And here I was, holiday after holiday, purchasing and gorging on Kisses, Peanut Butter Cups, and M&Ms. So learning about this was a punch in the kisser. But what's really difficult to accept is that the companies mentioned above have made an effort to reduce the amount of child labor in their supply chain, but have yet to reach their goals of 100% responsible sourcing set in 2001. Soon after setting that goal, they lowered their expectations of themselves to 70%. Before I go hate on these large corporations, I must say that they are making an effort. It's not all their fault. Here is where I really want insert a big f***that, it is their fault, but I must talk about the nuances of it first. Briefly. Because I'm becoming red-faced.
Child trafficking, promises of education, lures of earning money for their families, are all happening still. It has actually increased, rather than decreased!
World economics are complicated. And we wealthier countries love our snacks. We also love our gourmet idealism. These large corporations are not the only culprits. Chocolatiers who pride themselves on decadent dessert creations stand by their suppliers for specific quality and low price points. As consumers, we love the specialties they offer. I can't help but think of all the children without whom, much of these chocolates would not be possible. *deep slow breath
Let's not get too distressed though. Because we have a say in this! We talk with our money. And our faces. This list, put together by the organization Slave Free Chocolate, will help you find fair trade chocolatiers. The below sources, if you can stomach looking into them, will equip you with talking points for having conversations with your friends and coworkers, family and neighbors.
On to the nuance of the chocolate industry...
In 2001, under pressure from Congress, chiefs of the biggest chocolate companies signed a pledge to eradicate, within 4 years (that's a 2005 deadline), the worst forms of child labor from West African cacao suppliers (It is now 2021). While Bill Clinton, in 1999, signed an executive order that prohibited federal cacao imports be 100% child slavery free, that did not include chocolate. So, all that had to be done to approve child labor chocolate to be imported by the government is to roast the bean. Remember the lighter info I started out with above? Feels like a whole new article doesn't it?
I can scarcely go on with all of this bummer story so I am going to leave you with these references. And the reminder that there are responsible producers out there! And their products are amazing. I know. I eat them. A lot. Because...chocolate.
I would LOVE to know what you think about all of this. Let me know in the comments!
Slave Free Chocolate
Ethical Chocolate Companies
Sarah is a community herbalist, raising children, teaching children and adults the ways of herbalism and nature, and handcrafting herbal products for the community.