Cocoa trees (or cacao trees) of the species Theobroma cacao are medium-sized evergreen trees of Sterculiaceae family, native to the Americas. The famous products of the Sterculiaceae family are chocolate and cocoa powder (from Theobroma cacao) and cola nuts, though some of species of this family may also be used for timber.
Cocoa plants have their origins in the Amazon region where they have been growing from around 1900 BC, from where they were initially taken to other regions in the Americas by the original inhabitants.
Cocoa plants grow well in humid tropical type of climate in which rainfall is abundant, and in fertile soil conditions in which the trees can grow without much human attention. It is ideal for shady places, and for cultivation among tall trees, as they can grow even under the shadow of other trees.
The cocoa leaves can be 10 to 40 cm long and 5 to 20 cm wide. They are alternate leaves and produce very thick foliage. The leaves are toxic, and contain a milky unpleasant liquid.
The cocoa tree will generally produce flowers when it is about five years old, producing thousands of flowers a year, but it may yield only about 50 cocoa pods per tree. The flowers bloom as clusters on tree trunks and older branches, and not on the apex. The flowers are usually 1 to 2 cm in diameter, off-white, with slightly yellow or pink calyxes. Cocoa flowers are pollinated by tiny flies, unlike other flowers pollinated by bees and butterflies.
Cocoa fruits (cacao pod) are 10 to 25 cm long and 5 to 10 cm across, and somewhat ovoid. They are green to dark green when tender, and when ripe they turn yellow, orange, or brown in color, weighing about 500 g. A pod may have 30 to 50 cocoa seeds (beans) surrounded by white pulp. The seeds are used for processing food products like chocolate commercially. Each seed can contain 40% to 50% cocoa butter in which the active constituent is theobromine (also known as xantheose), a bitter alkaloid compound, just like coffee beans have caffeine.
As the percentage of theobromine content of chocolate is very small by volume, it can be safely consumed as a food item. But on a large scale, it can cause theobromine poisoning for chocolate-addicts who consume large quantities of chocolates, especially for elderly people. Also, theobromine is one of the compounds responsible for chocolate’s so-called role as an aphrodisiac.
There are three main cultivar groups of cocoa. About 80% to 90% of all commercial cocoa comes from Forastero, which is not a ‘fine grade’. The Crillo, the Venezuelan variety with higher theobromine content, is the rarest and the most sought-after cacao variety, accounting for about 5% to 10% of total global production. The Trinitero, a hybrid of Forastero and Crillo, grown mostly in the Antilles, has some of the best qualities of both and it accounts for the rest of the world production of cocoa.
It is believed that the first Europeans to come across cacao were Christopher Columbus and his companions (1502) after which cacao along with other new agricultural crop finds from the New World were brought to Spain.
In about a century, news about the culinary and medical uses of cocoa and chocolate had spread to France, England and other European countries. Later, colonial powers like France and Spain started commercial cultivation of cocoa in their overseas colonies in the Caribbean, Philippines, etc.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) some of the top cocoa-producing countries in 2005 were Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Malaysia, Dominican Republic, Peru, Venezuela, Sierra Leone, Togo, India, Philippines, and Solomon Islands.
From the 1980s, cocoa consumption has increased considerably, and it brought more cultivable land under cocoa cultivation. This has helped many underdeveloped and developing countries to start cocoa cultivation to provide employment and better incomes to rural populations, especially in countries of Africa and Asia, where cacao is grown both by small village farmers and large agro-commercial plantation companies.