Who doesn’t love chocolate? But how many of us actually know where chocolate comes from?
The creation of a chocolate bar or a cup of hot cocoa starts on a tree. The main ingredient in chocolate is cocoa, which we might know as the dark brown powder used for baking our favorite sweets. Cocoa is made from beans harvested from the cacao tree. Cacao trees grow on millions of small, family-run farms worldwide in tropical and sub-tropical climates, primarily in Southeast Asia, Latin America and West Africa. Several times a year, farmers harvest cacao pods from their trees, with each pod yielding about 50 cocoa beans. The farmer often lets the wet beans ferment naturally in a pile before drying. Once dried, the beans travel from the farm through a complex system of intermediaries that purchases and transports the cocoa from the farm to a port. At the port, beans from literally thousands of locations are combined into large shipments, which then move across oceans to destinations in Europe, North America and Asia. That is the journey of a cacao bean in a nutshell.
The origins of chocolate can be traced back to the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations in Central America. Theobroma cacao-which means “food of the gods”-was prized for centuries by the Central American Mayans, who first enjoyed a much-prized spicy drink called “chocolatl” made from roasted cocoa beans. The Aztecs introduced cocoa to the Spaniards, who took it back to Europe in the 16th century. There, it became a luxury for the rich, as it was very expensive. Chocolate was solely a drink until the technique for making solid chocolate was invented in the early Victorian times.
Mmm, mmm chocolate…Chocolate as we know it today takes many shapes and forms, from candy bars to truffles, hollow shell candy–like “Easter eggs”–and much more. Chocolate flavor can vary significantly according to the ingredients used and the preparation process. Real chocolate is made from cocoa and its ingredients include cocoa solids and cocoa butter (an expensive part of the cocoa bean) and, in some cases, up to 5% vegetable fat. Compound chocolate will have less cocoa and/or more than 5% vegetable fat than real chocolate so it doesn’t have the same fine qualities and rich taste. Each year, more than 3 million tons of cocoa beans are used to manufacture a wide range of chocolate and cocoa-flavored foods around the world.
Health and nutritional benefits of chocolate
Although chocolate is one of our most popular treats, in small amounts–about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day–it may offer health benefits as well. Dark chocolate with a high cocoa content can positively affect blood circulation and blood pressure. Chemicals naturally found in dark chocolate may even keep cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels, reducing the risk of blood clots, clogged arteries therefore stroke and heart attack. Also, dark chocolate contains antioxidants that help reduce cell damage. Raw chocolate is high in cocoa butter, but some manufacturers may add other fats, sugars, milk, nuts or other additives, all of which increase its overall caloric value. Remember that excess consumption of large quantities of any calorie-rich food such as chocolate can cause weight gain and other health problems. Therefore, opt for dark chocolate with 65 percent cocoa or higher.
According to the World Cocoa Foundation, some 50 million people around the world depend on cocoa as a source of livelihood. And about two-thirds of the entire world’s cocoa production originates in West Africa-mainly from Côte d’Ivoire, where child labor is a common practice in producing cocoa beans. In the fair trade system, purchasers of products like coffee, cocoa beans, bananas, and sugar typically agree to pay an above-market price for these products
What is the environmental impact of cocoa farming?
Much as it was 100 years ago, cocoa farming remains a small, family enterprise – nothing like the larger “agribusiness” farms that produce other crops. Cocoa trees grow best in the shade of a tropical forest canopy with use of environmentally responsible techniques to control pests and diseases.
- Number of cocoa farms worldwide : 4.5 million
- Number of beans per tree: approx. 2,500
- Number of tons produced globally per year: 3.5 million
- Number of steps from farm to chocolate manufacturer: 7-10
Enjoy this delicious treat, consider fair trade products and don’t forget to indulge in moderation!