Did you know that Cacao beans are fermented before becoming the yummy chocolate we know and love?
That’s right. The trees indigenous to the hotter climates of Central and South America and Africa, known as Theobroma (Greek for “food of the gods”), Cacao grow giant football-sized pods. Inside these pods are the amazing superfood cacao beans.
Cacao harvesters cut the pods down from the trees, chop them open and put the beans and the lemony pulp they are covered in into “sweatboxes,” or bury them under a pile of banana leaves to get hot and sweaty—which is where the fermentation process begins. Fermentation is the first critical process to develop the beans’ flavor and takes anywhere from two to eight days. (Unfermented or lightly fermented beans have a less chocolate flavor, but are higher in health-promoting antioxidants.)
Once fermentation begins, the sugar in the pulp is converted into acids that change the chemical composition of the beans. Fermentation generates temperatures as high as 125° F, activating enzymes that create the flavor precursors which are the beginning of chocolate as we know it. Next, the beans are placed on large bamboo mats and left to dry in the warm sunshine.
If they dry too quickly, the fermentation process is halted too soon and they may be bitter and acidic. If they dry too slowly, they risk developing mold and bacteria. In areas with too much rain or humidity the beans are dried indoors, with blowers to maintain control.
Next the beans are roasted, shelled (these are the nibs), milled and pressed … then the blending of other flavors and foods are done to create the treats we know and love. These delicious treats are easily taken for granted ... the shear convenience of chocolate at the local market, or even the gas station, makes us completely unaware of the difficult and long journey to our tastebuds.
Let me break it down for you:
Each Theobroma Cacao tree must grow to five or six years of age before it bears its first fruit. Then it must be planted in an area where there are much taller trees to protect its delicate pods from the harsh sun.
The regions where cacao grows are only within 20 degrees north and south of the Equator. All the planting and harvesting must be done by hand—a machine would cause too much damage to the farms, to the trees and to the pods. Each tree produces 30-40 pods per year, or about about 1,000 beans. It takes 500 beans to make a pound of bittersweet chocolate … Phew!
That just seems nearly impossible. Cacao truly is a superfood. And the best part? It’s actually good for you … Dark chocolate may contribute to improved cardiovascular health. Packed with natural antioxidants, dark chocolate and cocoa join the same good-for-you category as green tea and blueberries. After all, chocolate in its original form is a plant, and it’s hard to go wrong eating plants. (See my next blog entry about my new vegan diet for more information on that…)
So next time you need a chocolate fix, look for dark chocolate (42% cacao or more). Then think about the dedication and determination it took to get that wonderful treat to you, and then, think how it is so-ooo worth it, and have just a little more.