The History of Cacao
"Cocoa (cacao is the raw form of cocoa) was first developed as a crop in many ancient South American cultures, with the Aztecs and Mayans being the most well-known of these indigenous populations.
The modern word “chocolate” stems from two words in Nahuatl, the language spoken by many native groups: chocolatl, which translated literally means “hot water,” and cacahuatl, which referred to a bitter beverage made with cocoa that was shared during religious ceremonies. The cacao bean was so significant to the local cultures that it was used as a currency in trade, given to warriors as a post-battle reward, and served at royal feasts.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the New World and began the process of invading, colonizing, and ultimately destroying the native cultures, they also discovered the value of the local cacao crop.
However, they brought their own innovation to the appropriated drink—the addition of sugar and spices to sweeten the bitter cocoa. After that point, chocolate became wildly popular amongst the Spanish, who kept the production method a secret from other Europeans for almost 100 years after their discovery.
The Spanish could not hold onto their secret forever, and chocolate quickly spread across the rest of western Europe. Chocolate—then still exclusively in the form of a drink—appeared in France, and then England, in royal courts and special “chocolate houses” that served the social elite. Hot chocolate was hailed by the upper classes as both delicious and healthy, and cocoa ultimately gained the reputation of being an aphrodisiac.
The exclusivity of chocolate was ultimately diminished by the onset of the Industrial Revolution when steam-powered machines made the production of cocoa powder significantly quicker and more affordable. Solid chocolate hit the market and found wild success by 1850, due to the discovery by Joseph Fry that adding cacao butter to the cocoa powder formed a solid mass. Sixty years later, the art of creating chocolate confections with flavored filling—referred to as pralines by their Belgian inventor, Jean Neuhaus II—went public. From there, the chocolate and cocoa industry exploded in popularity and quickly spread around the world.
Throughout its centuries-long evolution, one factor has remained consistent and cocoa has attracted devotees worldwide. Today, over 4.5 million tons of cocoa beans are consumed annually around the globe, in everything from drinks to candy bars. It’s safe to say that the ancient Mesoamericans who pioneered the crop could never have imagined the popularity cocoa would someday experience.
To secure the future of chocolate and ensure that it’s available for generations to come, it’s essential that sustainable farming practices and ethical means of production are implemented in the cocoa supply chain."
The Growing, Harvesting, and Processing of Cacao
Cacao is actually a seed that comes wrapped in a white sweet fruit inside a pod that grows on the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao).
Our cacao pods grow in a variety of colors and show defined color changes in the lines when ripe. Pods ripen at different times so the tree needs to be harvested regularly.
Fourteen pods are required to produce 1 kg of cacao, so a single tree can only produce 2-4 kg of cacao per year. The pods are then pruned and opened to release the fruit and seeds (cacao beans).
The fruit itself has a sweet juicy flavor and is also a good source of probiotics. It is possible to produce fermented probiotic drinks from the cacao fruit and is one way the fruit can be used.
Once harvested the cacao fruit is extracted and fermented for 5-7 days in fermenting containers or more traditionally wrapped in banana leaves. It is turned regularly to ensure the temperature remains relatively constant throughout fermentation.
Fermentation helps bring out the desired flavors of the cacao, and it adds a body and richness that unfermented beans lack. It also tames the cacao seed’s bitterness by reducing the number of tannins found in the beans thanks to cellular changes that occur during the process.
After fermentation, the beans are laid out to dry and slowly turned and separated until completely dry.
These beans are then ready for direct consumption or will be de-husked and sent for processing to be turned into our nibs (shredded whole beans without the husks), ceremonial paste (milled whole beans), butter (heat pressed paste to release the fat and cacao mass) or cacao powder (the leftover mass from heat pressing).
Check out the videos below to see more about how our cacao is grown, fermented, and dried.
Quality Control, Adulteration, and Heavy Metals
Cacao has a variety of potential issues that can affect the quality and purity of the finished product.
One potential issue is the use of heavy amounts of pesticides. These pose a risk for the people eating the cacao but they also persist in the soil for years to come, affecting the people who live there and oftentimes contaminating the water supplies.
Often times the people spraying and harvesting the cacao are not taught how to safely apply them or how long to wait before harvesting them.
This often leads to dangerous exposure to very high levels of these pesticides, which leads to health issues for them and high residual levels of pesticides in the final product, which affect the people eating it.
In addition, the main pesticide residue found on cacao is DDT, which is incredibly bad for people and the environment.
The second big issue affecting cacao products is adulteration. Many cacao products are adulterated with cheaper materials in order to reduce the cost of this valuable crop.
One of the most common adulterants is carob powder because it is plentiful and will not change the color of the final product.
Other adulterants include soybean flour, chestnut shells, longan shells, peanut shells, starch, wheat, and pumpkin among others.
The biggest problem facing cacao products is the very high levels of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic. These occur because of high levels in much of the soil where cacao is grown, the use of leaded gasoline, and contamination from old or improperly maintained equipment in the facilities where it is processed.
Cacao has so many wonderful health benefits, however, buying products that are contaminated or adulterated will negate many, if not all of those.
Check out the video below to learn more about heavy metals in Cacao products and how to avoid them.
Ethical sourcing of cacao is a two-part issue. The first is how the product affects the environment where it is grown.
There are several environmental issues associated with the growth and processing of cacao.
Often when growing cacao, farmers clear tropical forests in order to plant new trees, rather than using the same land. Much of this deforestation is illegally done as well. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forest are lost every year to this.
It is essential that people only buy cacao and chocolate products that are sustainably shade-grown without the use of toxic pesticides like DDT, in order to help stop the loss of these incredible natural places.
The second set of ethical issues surrounding cacao is how it affects the people who grow and process it.
One of the worst issues surrounding cacao is the use of child slavery. In the most recent report, it was found that over two million children were engaged in dangerous cacao growing, many of them slaves. This is a tragedy and causes an amount of suffering that many of us cannot even being to fathom.
Those companies could choose to end the practice immediately, but they choose to put profits over people. That is why you should boycott those companies and encourage stores to stop selling their products.
Despite the rising profits of chocolate companies many farmers live on less than $1.25 a day which is below the level of absolute poverty in those countries. So while companies like Nestle get rich, the people suffer.
You can help change this though. Commit to only buying chocolate and cacao products are truly fair-trade and that helps to improve the communities where they are sourced from.
Check out the videos below to learn more about the ethical sourcing of cacao and other foods.
So who should you buy Cacao from?
Being cacao lovers, we really really wanted to be able to offer one of our favorite foods from a source we trusted.
We spent a very long time searching to find a source of cacao that would give people the health benefits they desired, while also helping the people who grew it and protected the environment.
It was not easy but it was definitely worth the wait.
Click the big red box below to find out which cacao met our standards for ethics and quality!