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Tropical cacao takes off winter chill

Published December 6, 2011
When the cold winter winds blow, a cup of hot chocolate hits the spot. And although we enjoy it in North America, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator said chocolate begins its journey as a football-sized fruit on a tree in a warm tropical climate.

"Theobroma cacao is its scientific name," said Nancy Pollard. "It refers to its original status as 'food of the gods' in European and South American tongues. Today we are more likely to say, 'heavenly,' or 'I'm addicted.' Though not actually addictive, chocolate is mildly stimulating, soothing, and has antioxidant qualities."

Native to the Amazon river basin of Brazil and the Upper Orinoco River of Venezuela, cacao trees are now grown in about 60 tropical countries. This doesn't include the many greenhouses and conservatories that grow cacao in temperate regions.

"Cacao trees don't make very good houseplants unless you have lots of room and perhaps an indoor pool to make them feel like they are in a rainforest," she said. "Our homes are just too dry for the thin-leaved plants. You may, however, locate one in a warm and humid conservatory or greenhouse. There you'll likely find its pinkish white flowers, which are about the size of a grain of rice, clustered on its trunk nearly any time of year."

While the precious fruit is continually present at many stages, the commercial harvest is concentrated into two periods related to the tropical rainy season. Ripe fruit must be identified and carefully picked by hand to avoid damaging the other fruit developing on the tender trunk.

After harvest, 30 to 50 seeds or "beans" are removed from each fruit. They are fermented for two to eight days to prevent sprouting and begin the development of the chocolate flavor. Then the seeds are dried. The best flavor is developed when sun dried. At this stage, the beans are shipped around the world to process into chocolate.

Debris is removed at the factory with the aid of sieves and then the beans are roasted to further bring out their flavor. Next they are cracked open to reveal "nibs." Roasted beans and nibs can be purchased online and in specialty shops.

"To make the hot chocolate so delightful on a cold winter day, the nibs are further processed," Pollard said. "They are pressed, about half of the cocoa butter removed, and the remaining solids crushed into a powder. Sugar, milk and emulsifiers may be added to make the soothing drink we love." Is it cacao (pronounced ka-kow) or cocoa (koh-koh)?

"Cacao refers more often to the "beans," cocoa, the anglicized version, more often to the powder of ground-up nibs. In our global economy, cacao is increasingly used for both. Once reserved for the elite of society, the chocolate market is expected to be worth over $98 billion by 2016," she said.

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