What is Cocoa?
Cocoa is the powder made from cocoa beans and Cocoa beans are the dried seeds of the cocoa tree (Theobroma Cacao). Cocoa trees grow in hot, rainy climates, 20 degrees north and south of the equator, where the air is moist and there is thick vegetation to provide shade to cocoa plants. Cocoa trees are vulnerable to diseases and insects.
Cocoa plants are of two types: Criollo and Forastero. Criollo is more difficult to grow due to its extreme sensitivity to weather. The Criollo is full of flavour, but the Forastero plant is more enduring. The two types were blended together to create a hybrid variety—Trinitario—which accounts for more than 20% of the world’s production now.
Cocoa trees mature in five years and usually live up to around 50 years. They can grow in most types of soil. Each plant yields only about 20 pods. The average tree produces a little over 4 pounds of cocoa.
The 3 cm thick cocoa seeds are whitish when they are harvested and contain a sweet pulp called mucilaginous at the center. The cocoa seeds are harvested, in September-October in West Africa, then the fruit is fermented into a pulp for three to nine days. Next, the cocoa beans are dried in the sun and cleaned in machines, before being roasted to bring out flavour. The roasted beans are crushed in a machine into a powder.
Nearly 3 million metric tons of cocoa are produced in the world every year. Cocoa has 40 percent carbohydrate, 20 percent protein, and 40 percent fat. It acts as a stimulant because of theobromine, which is an alkaloid similar to caffeine.
The cocoa tree was historically native to South America, but now the majority of trees grow in West Africa. The four major producers are West African countries—the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon— which together are responsible for two thirds of the world’s cocoa.
Cocoa was historically mixed in drinks meant for the royal class. Today, Cocoa is most famous for producing chocolate, which is consumed in solid form and as beverages. The chocolate industry is the largest use of cocoa. Nearly two thirds of the cocoa beans in the world are used to produce chocolate, with the bulk of the rest going into the production of cocoa powder.
However it also yields several other popular products like cocoa butter, which is popular as pharmaceutical ingredient, and is used extensively in the beauty and cosmetics industry, included in makeup, lotions, soaps and moisturizers. Cocoa beans are also consumed whole, due to their benefits for the heart.
Brief History of Cocoa
The cocoa plant has been growing for thousands of years, but was first discovered during the early exploration of the Americas. When first discovered, Cocoa was referred to as the “fruit of the gods” in South America.
Cocoa is an “exotic” beverage that was a luxurious drink in around 1100 BC for the Aztecs, who called it Nahauti or “bitter water.” The Mayan empire drank cocoa as a bitter beverage during rituals like marriage ceremonies. Later, the Spanish royal class too championed cocoa. Cocoa beans also served as currency for trade in several areas.
However, cocoa soon expanded beyond elite circles. Cocoa came to Europe in the 1600s, where sweetening agents were added to the powder. Spain was the hotspot of cocoa consumption, but soon the drink enjoyed favour in France and England, where many cocoa shops sprang up around the country. Gradually, cocoa began to be consumed throughout Europe’s biggest cities. With mass demand, cocoa became less exclusive and less expensive.
Around 1828, when the Industrial Revolution led to the rise of mechanical mills, cocoa transitioned from being a beverage (and being consumed in a liquid form) to a solid. Cocoa beans began to be pressed to make butter (also known as cocoa liquor). This was mixed with sugar to produce chocolate and candy that was durable.
This shift in cocoa’s consumption state, created a new market for cocoa. Solid cocoa was also easier to transport and consume, while being more affordable due to machine-led cost savings. Around 1860s, milk chocolate was invented, and the demand for cocoa beans shot through the roof.
Today, cocoa is primarily consumed as part of chocolate. Around the world, 3 million tons of cocoa beans are consumed annually, and the demand for cocoa doesn’t appear to be declining anytime soon.