For the Love of Chocolate

Chocolate, along with roses, are standard gifts for Valentine’s Day. While chocolates are popular gifts, have you ever wondered how chocolate is produced and the origins of this tasty treat? 

A hand holding a pile of dried cocao beans.
Dried cacao beans in bags. Photo by Cindy Haynes.

Chocolate is produced from the fruit of cacao (Theobroma cacao). Cacao is a large shrub or small tree that grows 10 to 20 feet tall. The tropical plant is commonly grown 20 degrees north or south of the equator. Major cacao producing countries are Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Ghana, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mexico and Nigeria. Cacao requires hot, humid conditions, regular rainfall and some shade for best production. After a few years of establishment, plants produce pods (fruits) that contain 30 to 50 seeds called “beans.” The pods grow along the stems or trunk and as the pods ripen, they turn orange. The ripe pods are harvested by hand and the beans extracted and allowed to ferment for a few days in the shade. Afterwards, the beans are dried for a few days in the sun, before they are bagged, sold and processed into chocolate bars, powder, candy and other concoctions.

Cacao is the term used for the plant and beans before drying or processing. After processing, the terms chocolate or cocoa is used. Cocoa is the processed powder used in cooking or for hot drinks. Cocoa is mainly solids from processing the cacao beans that removes much of the cocoa butter or natural fat.  Chocolate refers to anything made from the beans and often contains both cocoa butter and solids. 

History of Chocolate

Historians believe chocolate has been cultivated for at least 2,000 years, possibly as long as 4,000 years. The word chocolate has been traced back to the 15th century Aztec and Mayan cultures where a bitter drink was brewed from the cacao beans. This unsweetened hot chocolate was only used for sacred rituals and special ceremonies. At the time, cacao beans were thought to have magical properties. The Latin translation of the scientific name literally means “Food of the Gods.”

A tree with cacao pods on it.
Pods ripening along the trunk of a cacao tree in Ecuador. Photo by Cindy Haynes. 

For many years, cacao was considered a delicacy or luxury. The beans were once traded as currency by the Mayans and Aztecs. Spanish explorers brought the

beans back to Spain and shared them as a hot drink sweetened with sugar or honey. By the 17th century, hot chocolate had become popular with the royalty and wealthy across Europe. 

The popularity of chocolate skyrocketed in the 19th century. In the early 1800’s, a Dutch chemist found a way to separate the cocoa butter from the ground nibs (the meat inside the shelled beans) in processing to produce a powder called cocoa. This innovation allowed others to create the chocolate bar and candies that are enjoyed today. By the mid to late 1800’s Cadbury was selling boxes of chocolate candies in England, Henri Nestle’ was selling chocolate with milk (or milk chocolate), and Milton Hershey began molding drops of chocolate into kisses in the United States. Today chocolate manufacturing is a four billion dollar industry in the United States alone.

Because cacao can be grown and processed relatively cheaply and the amount of chocolate in many of the treats has declined, the price of chocolate products has fallen over the years, allowing nearly everyone to afford and enjoy chocolate. More recently, the trend is for more artisanal, handmade chocolates from single-source cacao farms that practice sustainable farming and harvesting methods. As you might imagine, this leads to increased costs and prices for these high-quality chocolates.

Types of Chocolate

Chocolate from Ecuador.
Unsweetened chocolate processed and for sale at market in Ecuador. Photo by Cindy Haynes. 

There are several types of chocolate available for sale on the market today. The most common types of chocolate sold are dark, milk and white chocolate. Dark chocolate is made by mixing a thick chocolate paste from the ground nibs (called chocolate liquor) with cocoa butter and sweeteners. Adding milk or milk powder creates milk chocolate. White chocolate does not contain the cocoa solids or chocolate liquor. Because it lacks the cocoa solids, some contend that white chocolate should not be classified as a type of chocolate. A ruby chocolate was introduced to the market a few years ago.  This pink chocolate is purportedly made from cacao bean varieties with pinkish beans.

While the terms and processes surrounding chocolate may sound confusing, buying chocolates today is easy. When purchasing chocolate for yourself or someone special in your life, the biggest dilemma may be deciding on dark, milk or white chocolate. In reality, there is no bad selection. Since they all taste great, enjoy one (or more?) of each this Valentine’s Day!


Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Yard and Garden, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on February 10, 2020. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.