Cocoa is the dried, fermented bean of Theobroma cacao, from which cocoa solids and cocoa butter are extracted. Cocoa belongs to the in the Malvaceae family, along with okra, cotton, and hibiscus. The cocoa fruit or pod has a rough, leathery rind about 3 cm thick. It is filled with baba de cacao, a sweet, gelatinous pulp surrounding 30 to 50 large seeds that are fairly soft and white to a pale lavender color. Workers typically use machetes to open the harvested pods and expose the beans. They remove the pulp and cocoa seeds and discard the rind. They then pile the pulp and seeds in heaps, bins, or grates for four to seven days and mix them every two days. During this time, the seeds and pulp “sweat”: the thick pulp liquefies as it ferments, and then trickles away, leaving the cocoa seeds behind. Sweating reduces the bitterness of the beans, removes their “raw potato” flavor, and makes them less susceptible to mildew. The fermented beans are then spread out over a large surface and constantly raked for five to fourteen days to dry. During this time, the seeds become violet or reddish brown. The beans are later roasted in a factory, cracked, and then shelled. The resulting pieces of beans are called nibs. Most nibs are ground, using various methods, into a thick creamy paste, known as chocolate liquor or cocoa paste. This “liquor” is then further processed into 50% cocoa butter and 50% cocoa powder. Treating with alkali produces Dutch process cocoa powder, which is less acidic, darker, and more mellow in flavor than what is generally available in most of the world.
The cacao tree may have originated in the foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, current day Venezuela, where wild cacao still grows. The Olmecs cultivated it by 1500 BC in equatorial Mexico, and were likely the first humans to consume cocoa. They crushed the cocoa beans, mixed them with water and added spices, chili peppers, and herbs. The Mayans (600 BC) also cultivated cocoa, and used it in religious rituals dedicated to Chak ek Chuah, the Mayan deity of cocoa. The Aztecs (400 AD) used cocoa in rituals dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god responsible for bringing the cocoa tree to man. Both later cultures used cocoa as an offering at the funerals of noblemen. The cocoa bean was used as a monetary unit and as a measuring unit. The Chimimeken people levied taxes in the form of cocoa beans against conquered Aztecs and Mayans regions. Cocoa production advanced as people migrated throughout Meso-America but consumption of the drink remained a privilege for the upper classes and for soldiers during battle. For these civilizations, cocoa was a symbol of abundance.
In 1502, Columbus saw cocoa beans on a canoe in Nicaragua, but its true importance was not recognized until Hernando Cortez drank it with the Aztec emperor Montezuma, and brought it back to the Spanish court in 1528 along with the equipment necessary for brewing it. Following the downfall of the Aztec civilization, Cortez intensified cultivation efforts in New Spain, with the intention of developing a trade with Europe. The Spanish court soon adapted it to their taste, adding cane sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and pepper. Initially Spain reserved cocoa for its exclusive use, carefully guarding its existence from the rest of the world. English pirates confirmed that the rest of Europe remained unfamiliar with chocolate. In 1579, one English pirate ship burned an entire Spanish shipload of cacao beans, under the impression that they were sheep droppings. In 1585, the first regular cargo of cocoa beans arrived on the Iberian Peninsula from New Spain, launching the trade in cocoa.
During the 17th century, cocoa began arriving in other ports throughout Europe. Chocolate beverages were first enjoyed by the French court following the royal marriage of King Louis XIII to the Spanish Princess Anne of Austria in 1615. In 1650 chocolate beverages first appeared in England, along with tea from China and coffee from the Middle East. For many years, it remained a treat reserved for the upper classes. In 1765, North America discovered the virtues of cocoa. In 1776, the French began using a hydraulic process to grind cocoa beans into a paste, facilitating the first large-scale production of chocolate. In 1828, Dutch Chemist Coenraad van Houten invented a process for extracting cocoa butter, allowing for the extraction of cocoa powder. Cacao trees will grow in a limited geographical zone, of approximately 20 degrees to the north and south of the Equator. In 1870, Tetteh Quarshie traveled from his home in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to the island of Fernando Po (now Bioko in Equatorial Guinea) in 1870 and returned in 1876 to introduce the crop. The cultivation of cocoa in Africa led to the slow decline of production in South America. Since the start of the 20th century, Africa has become the biggest cocoa producer. Nearly 70% of the world crop is grown in West Africa.
People have used cocoa medicinally throughout history. Cocoa contains approximately 43.6 mg of flavonoids per gram. Flavonoids are part of a powerful group of antioxidants known as polyphenols, and cocoa is one of the highest polyphenol-containing foods. Cornell University food scientists tested the antioxidant content of cocoa, green tea, black tea, and red wine. On a per serving basis, the antioxidant concentration in cocoa was the highest: almost two times stronger than red wine, 2–3 times stronger than green tea, and 4–5 times stronger than that of black tea. Drinking cocoa may help to fight cancer, heart disease and aging through its antioxidant boosting effect. Most commercial cocoa powders have the antioxidant-containing flavonoids removed because they taste bitter; therefore, in order to obtain the health boosting benefits, consider buying raw cocoa nibs, or raw cocoa powder, which is a minimally processed cocoa powder and very high in theobromines and other phytochemicals.
In 2007, researchers from Harvard Medical School studied the effects of cocoa and flavanols on Panama’s Kuna people, who are heavy consumers of cocoa. The researchers found that the Kuna Indians living on the islands had significantly lower rates of heart disease and cancer compared to those on the mainland who do not drink cocoa. The improved blood flow after consumption of cocoa may help your heart and other organs. In particular, the benefits may extend to your brain and have important implications for learning and memory. A 15-year study of elderly men published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2006 found a 50% reduction in cardiovascular mortality and a 47% reduction in all-cause mortality for the men regularly consuming the most cocoa, compared to those consuming the least cocoa.
According to a 2011 study by Harvard researchers, who analyzed 21 studies with 2,575 participants using mostly sugar-free, dark chocolate, cocoa consumption is associated with decreased blood pressure, improved blood vessel health, and improvement in cholesterol levels, among other benefits. The health benefits come from the high level of flavonoids in cocoa, specifically epicatechin, which may prevent cardiovascular disease. In addition to decreasing blood pressure and improving blood vessel health, cocoa decreased low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol among people under age 50, and increased high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol. Cocoa consumption reduces insulin resistance and may reduce risk for diabetes, which is also a major risk factor itself for cardiovascular disease. Cocoa did not raise levels of triglycerides, a type of blood fat that have been linked to coronary artery disease at elevated levels. Nor did cocoa increase risk of obesity.
Cocoa may provide mental health benefits, including helping to promote a positive mood by increasing the levels of the following neurotransmitters in your brain:
- Serotonin: This is the neurotransmitter that antidepressants target in order to boost overall happiness levels. Cocoa raises the level of serotonin in the brain and therefore acts as an antidepressant, promoting an overall sense of well-being.
- Endorphins: These are your natural pain and stress chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which act as natural “happy” opiates and are responsible for the highs that you often feel after exercising, laughing, having sex, or getting good news. Cocoa stimulates the secretion of endorphins, which can help to produce a pleasurable feeling.
- Phenylethylamine (PEAs): PEAs are neurotransmitters that are also created within your brain and released when you are in love. It acts as a mild mood elevator and an antidepressant, and it helps increase focus and alertness.
- Anandamide. Anandamide is known as the “bliss chemical” because it is released by your brain when you are feeling happy. Cocoa contains N-acylethanolamines that are believed to temporarily increase the levels of anandamide in your brain, along with enzyme inhibitors that slow its breakdown. This promotes relaxation for a longer period of time.
Cocoa contains a high level of xanthines, specifically theobromine and to a much lesser extent caffeine. Theobromine has stimulant properties, but it is much milder compared to caffeine and has a mood-improving effect. The low levels in cocoa have not shown any harmful effects in humans; however, chocolate also appeals to many other animals. While these compounds have desirable effects in humans, they cannot be efficiently metabolized in many animals, including dogs and cats, and can lead to cardiac and nervous system problems, and if consumed in high quantities, even lead to death.
In addition to the above possible health benefits of cocoa powder, it may also reduce the risk of blood clots, boost cognitive performance and provide essential minerals such as calcium, potassium, and nickel. Standard cocoa powder has a fat content of approximately 10–12 percent. A two tablespoon serving of cocoa contains just 25 calories and 1.5 grams of fat. It also provides you with 3.6 grams of fiber (14 percent of the daily value), 8 percent of the daily value of iron, and 54 milligrams, or 14 percent of the daily value of magnesium. In fact, cocoa is reputedly the richest source of magnesium, essential for mental health and heart function. The seeds are rich in copper, sulfur, and vitamin C.
High-quality cocoa powder makes more than just a delicious beverage. Some other ways to use it:
- Blend frozen pineapples, bananas, cocoa powder, and coconut milk in a food processor for a tropical smoothie.
- Combine cocoa powder, dates, and macadamia nuts in a small food processor, and process until the mixture forms a ball. Shape into bars for a raw energy treat.
- Add cinnamon, ground ginger, and a few spoonfuls of cocoa powder to hot oatmeal for a spiced chocolate breakfast treat.
- Purée coconut milk, raw cocoa nibs, and dates, and freeze in an ice cream maker for dairy-free ice cream.
- Mix with organic sugar and cinnamon, pour into a shaker, and sprinkle on toast for a chocolate twist on cinnamon toast.
- Combine in a blender with avocado and dates, and process until thick and creamy for a raw chocolate pudding.
- Add cocoa powder and chopped chipotles to chili for a deep, spicy flavor.
- Mix cocoa powder with salt, pepper, chipotle powder, and cumin, and use as a rub for vegetables before grilling.
According to Dr. Andrew Weil, “My preferred way to get the health benefits chocolate has to offer is enjoying an ounce or two of dark chocolate that’s 70 percent cocoa several times a week. You have no cause for concern about the fat in dark chocolate – it is stearic acid, a type of saturated fat that does not raise cholesterol levels. And chocolate that is 70 percent cocoa does not contain much sugar.”