Wednesday, October 10, 2012

All About Cacao

Theobroma cacao: a food so prized it was once used as currency in Colombia and offered to Mayan gods in worship. Now, finding cacao only requires going to the grocery store and picking up a cheap bar of chocolate. In Western countries, vegans have grown an underground raw cacao movement complete with “un”cooking classes and chocolate-themed dance parties. Cacao’s reviews, however, are a mixed. Some claim the bitter pods are a superfood, while others denounce cacao as an adrenal-exhausting stimulant.

Origin of Cacao
According to the book, “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs,” cacao’s origins have two different theories: One holds that the fruit came from southeastern Mexico and was carried to the Amazon basin. The other theory points to cacao’s genetics as native to the Amazon, from where the fruits spread to Central America and Mesoamerica. Adding to the confusion, cacao’s domestication occurred independently in both Mexico and Amazonia.

Christopher Columbus discovered cacao during his voyages in 1502, though it was the Spanish who brought the cacao beans back to Spain. Montezuma served the Spaniards so fine a beverage that they immediately realized its delicious potential. In 1544, Spanish royalty tasted the chocolate drink and it spread throughout Europe within a century.

As is the case with several fruits, the British erroneously credit themselves with introducing cacao to India. In fact, cacao was already growing in Asia and the Pacific Islands since 1560 by way of Venezuela’s many voyages to Java. As per the book, “Genetic Diversity of Cultivated Tropical Plants,“ natives of Indonesia’s Maluku islands brought cacao cultivation to Tamil Nadu in 1798.

Though Africa is one of the world’s largest cacao producers today, they only began cultivating the fruit as of the mid 1800’s.

Availability of Cacao in India
Figures published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reveal that India is the 2nd largest producer of cacao in SE Asia, and the 19th largest producer of cacao in the world. Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia are the top producers, respectively. India’s produces enough cacao to export approximately 520,000 kilograms of cacao beans to Sri Lanka, and almost 12,000 kilos to Germany.

The Indian government’s Directorate of Cashewnut and Cacao Development explains that cacao is a new crop, grown commercially only since the 1960s. As of 2012, Andhra Pradesh grows most of the country’s cocoa on 68,000 hectares, with Kerala dedicating 11,000 hectares to production. Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka also grow cocoa in smaller volumes. Most Indian cacao farmers sell their the yield in advance to large chocolate giants like Cadbury and AMUL. Indeed, the large chocolate multinational’s demand has the single biggest influence on the price, and therefore the livelihoods of Indian cocoa farmers.

Where to find Cacao in India
India’s cacao season occurs twice: Once from September through January, and again from April through June. Unless living near a cocoa plantation, obtaining cacao pods is a colossal feat. While fresh pods are on offer in parts of Indonesia, India has no such commercialized efforts for its fresh fruit. Cacao pods do not keep for more than a week, and thus adds to the difficulty of purveying them fresh.

Instead of selling cacao directly to the consumer, farmers pre-arrange the sale of the cacao beans to third parties, who then buy the pods as raw material for chocolate. Ironically, the chocolate manufactured overseas gets reimported to India at a premium. Chocolate isn’t cheap in India, either. The price of a subpar, waxy Cadbury bar is the same price as it is in Western countries; higher-end brands may cost eight times the price of mediocre bars. Despite growing cacao, India does not have the same craftsmanship or variety of chocolate as, say, Belgium or the US. 

Though some local vendors offer wholesale distribution of raw cacao, it is not widely distributed at the retail level. A few online outlets offer raw cacao to consumers, but at a much higher price than in the States and other Western countries. There are exceptions: India’s cities that attract subcultures of western hippies sell packs of raw cacao in limited quantities: Auroville near Pondicherry and Arambol in Goa are examples.

2016 EDIT: It is with great excitement to report a bourgeoning cacao and gourmet chocolate trade in India. Several local artisans purvey both chocolate bars and raw cacao. Specifically, Auroville's Mason Chocolate Co, Mumbai-based Bean Therapy, and Mysore's own Earth Loaf. These companies specialize in high quality, hand-crafted chocolates,using primarily locally sourced ingredients. As a warning, these products are not cheap and are cost prohibitive for most. For example, one Mason chocolate bar costs 270 Rs (as of Dec 2015). 200g of Earth Loaf's cacao nibs run 310 Rs. If looking for a splurge, however, such items are worth the cost. 

Checking for Ripeness in Cacao
Ripe cacao pods have bold, magnificent colors of yellow, orange, mauve, red, and purple. Because the pod colors vary substantially, the best indicator of ripeness is sound. When tapped, the pod should sound hollow—this indicates the seeds have become “unstuck” from within. The exterior should feel hard and almost rubbery, and emit a citrusy, tropical floral smell when ripe.

If unripe, the cacao pods remain firmly attached to the shell, as they lack sufficient moisture. Use the shake test before opening any pod.

Taste of Cacao
Raw cacao is intensely bitter and deemed inedible by many. Similar to red wine, cacao can overwhelm the palate with rich, woody earthiness. Once chewed, the saliva elicits cacao’s bitter, astringent qualities. The texture of a cacao bean resembles a roasted coffee bean: dense and somewhat crunchy.

Anyone with an aversion to eating 90 percent dark chocolate, baker’s chocolate, or cocoa powder will most certainly dislike the bitter taste of raw cacao. Raw cacao is to chocolate what espresso is to coffee: dark, intense, and bitter.

Cacao pulp—the white flesh encasing each cacao seed/bean—is much more agreeable and resembles mangosteen’s taste and texture: citrusy, plum-like, sweet, and pulpy.

Nutritional Value of Cacao

One raw cacao product from Navitas Natural lists this nutrition label:

According to the USDA nutrient database, 100 grams of dry, unsweetened cocoa powder is thus:

57.9g Carbs (45% RDI)
33.2g Fiber (133% RDI)
13.7g Fat (21% RDI)
.4g Omega-6 (4% RDI)
8.1g Saturated Fat (40% RDI)
19.6g Protein (43% RDI)
.1mg Thiamine/B1 (7% RDI)
.2mg Riboflavin/B2 (22% RDI)
2.2mg Niacin/B3 (16% RDI)
.3mg Pantothenic acid/B5 (5% RDI)
.1mg Pyridoxine (9% RDI)
32ug Folate (8% RDI)
2.5ug Vitamin K (3% RDI)
128mg Calcium (13% RDI)
3.8mg Copper (421% RDI)
13.9mg Iron (77% RDI)
499mg Magnesium (181% RDI)
3.8mg Manganese (213% RDI)
734mg Phosphorous (105% RDI)
1524mg Potassium (32% RDI)
14.3mg Selenium (26% RDI)

6.8mg Zinc (85% RDI)

Health Effects of Cacao
Cacao has mixed reviews regarding its health benefits. Given the nutritional information above, cacao appears to be a powerhouse of essential vitamins, minerals and macronutrients. Some report that eating cacao induces sensations similar to coffee, including mild euphoria, light-headedness, and relaxedness; others feel jittery, anxious and short-tempered.

The Benefits
The nutrients in cacao provide the following benefits:
--Its high magnesium boosts brain chemistry and alleviates PMS symptoms. With 80% of Americans deficient in magnesium, cacao may be one delicious way to rectify this problem. Magnesium also reduces headaches and anxiety, staves off depression, relaxes muscles and improves heart health.
--Cacao contains MAO inhibitors known to reduce appetite. These inhibitors also and assist the brain with circulating crucial serotonin and subsequently, reduces depression.
--Cacao is rich in anandamide, also known as the bliss chemical due to its ability to induce mild euphoria and replicate the feeling of runner’s high.
--Cacao’s tryptophan reduces stress and boosts production of serotonin
--A study at the University of Nottingham found that eating chocolate enhanced brain function, reduced fatigue and reduced the effects of ageing.
--Cacao contains phenylethylamine, a chemical known to increase the sense of wellbeing typically experienced when falling in love.
--Italian researchers found that chemicals in cacao had potent anti-inflammatory properties.
--The Chemistry Central Journal reported in 2011 that cacao has more antioxidants than any fruit or fruit juice on the market, including pomegranate juice. Though Hershey funded this study, other findings support the conclusion that cacao is a potent source of antioxidants.
--The catechins in chocolate guard the heart against cancers and other diseases

The Risks
--Cacao contains oxalic acid, which inhibits calcium absorption. Other food sources containing high oxalic acid include figs, spinach and kale.
--Most of the market’s processed cacao contains a carcinogenic mold, aflatoxin.
--Though stimulating the brain’s production of serotonin and dopamine is a touted benefit, one concern is that overconsumption inhibits the brain’s natural ability to produce these chemicals, thereby resulting in dependency upon the stimulant to perform these crucial functions.
--Some compare cacao to a drug, citing that it too can over stimulate and deplete the body’s feel-good chemicals. This neurotransmitter imbalance may create a host of problems including anxiety, fatigue and nervousness.
--Cacao may cause stress on the adrenal glands. If overworked, the body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol, as a coping mechanism. This process generates negative symptoms such as depression, tiredness and anxiety.
--Some have experienced negative reactions from eating cacao, including panic attacks, mood swings, emotional outbursts and an inability to focus.

Where one aligns on the cacao debate will probably be a reflection of their views on coffee: those who cannot go without a morning cup of coffee and laud its health benefits will probably enjoy cacao, and see no harm in eating it. Those wary of any substance capable of affecting their mood and wellbeing might want to think twice before sampling cacao.

How to Open/Cut Cacao
Open cacao by cutting a slit lengthwise from each point of the pod. Use a sharp knife, as the exterior is tough. If it’s still too difficult to pry open, then keep cutting around the pod. Pry open or remove the shell to expose the fleshy white kernels attached to the vertebrae.

If worried that using a knife will destroy the bean’s integrity, then open the pod by smacking it against the ground. Rotate the fruit and smack again if it doesn’t open the first time. Professional cacao openers use a machete to hack around the pod until it opens with ease.

Once open, remove the pulpy white pods from the vertebrae—suck the sweet, citrusy pulp surrounding each seed. Then, spit out the cocoa bean and set it aside for later use.

Processing cacao into chocolate is a lengthy process: Before being finely ground into cocoa powder, the bean must be fermented, sun-dried, and roasted. Once powdered, it is made into chocolate bar by adding sugar, lecithin, milk and other ingredients.

Consume a fresh cacao pod within a week—otherwise, it will ferment.

Store cacao nibs in an airtight container and keep out of direct sunlight. Place in the refrigerator, as doing so will keep the cacao’s oils in tact. Gray blooms might cause slight discoloration, but this will not affect the nibs’ edibility.

Cacao Recipe Ideas and Uses
For cacao powder, consider the following ideas:
--Add to smoothies. Complementary ingredients include berries, bananas and/or peanut butter. Or, create a chocolate “milkshake” by adding cocoa powder with iced almond milk, butterfruit or nut butter, vanilla, dates, and sugar.
--Make hot chocolate by adding two tbsp. of cocoa powder to hot water, chai tea, or nut milk. Add sugar, a pinch of salt, and a few drops of vanilla. To impart a rich nutty flavor, consider adding half a teaspoon of coconut oil.
--Make chocolate pudding by whipping avocado, soaked dates, and coconut milk. Blend in cocoa powder, vanilla and salt. Thicken the pudding by refrigerating it overnight. Use as a pie or tort filling as well.
--Create chocolate sauce by adding cocoa powder to agave, maple syrup or honey. Or, make a healthy chocolate dip for use in fruit fondue by blending cocoa powder, banana, and coconut oil. If desiring a thinner consistency, add water.
--Add chocolate powder to muffin, bread, cake and cookie batters. Expect to add more sugar to the recipe to counterbalance the powder’s bitterness.
--Make a chocolate bar by combining cocoa powder, coconut oil, and sweetener such as sugar syrup. Pour in tinfoil-lined ice cube trays or ideally, chocolate molds and then transfer to the freezer. Recipe combinations are endless: consider adding other ingredients like orange zest, cacao nibs, mint extract, dried fruit, dried coconut, chopped nuts, salt, caramel, or peanut butter.
--Create chocolate fudge by processing cocoa powder, coconut oil, vanilla extract, a pinch of salt, and finely ground nuts (cashew is recommended). Add more nuts to increase the fudge’s chewiness. To reduce the fat, replace some of the nuts with soaked dates.
--Stir cocoa powder into marinades, particularly barbeque and tamarind-based sauces. Slather atop grilled tofu.

For cacao nibs
--Add the nibs to nuts, raisins, chopped apricots, dates, and goji berries to make a trail mix.
--Add cacao to oatmeal or mueslis
--Fold the nibs into sorbets and ice cream
--Sprinkle into granola bar recipes.

--Use cacao nibs as a topping on desserts, be it yogurt, cheesecake, pudding, or smoothies.

Flavor Complements
Fruit: Coconut, banana, orange, citron, lemon, lime, pineapple, papaya, date, mango, butterfruit, strawberry, cherry, peach, pear, apple, fig, sea buckthorn, goji berry, pomegranate, quince, peach, apricot, phalsa, tamarind

Vegetables: Tomato, pepper, eggplant

Spices, herbs, and oil: Vanilla, coconut oil, coconut flakes, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, rose water, almond, walnut, cashew, pecan, ground nut, hazelnut, pistachio, raisin, red wine, espresso/coffee, chai, coconut milk, honey, nut butter, sea salt, chili powder, achiote, pepper, cayenne, achiote, citrus juice, citrus zest, basil, mint, bay leaf, licorice

Random Facts
Like wine, cacao fruit’s subtle nuances depend on the region and soil. Some fruits have strong vanilla notes, while others are citrusy.

Women were not permitted to participate in Mayan rituals involving chocolate. Today, however, women consume more chocolate than men.

Before their hearts were ripped out, the Aztec’s human sacrifices were fed chocolate.

Scientific Name
Theobroma cacao

*Literally translated, “theobroma” means “food of the gods.” Mesoamerican tribes such as the Aztecs believed that cacao was a portal to the gods. As explained by Deborah Prinz in her book, On the Chocolate Trail, “Chocolate fed the dead, escorted the soul’s travels, and promised the possibility of rebirth. It anointed the transition from one world to the next, blurring life and death and easing the sadness of mourners.”

Other Names
Kakkavo (Tamil)
Kokkoo (Malayalam)

Related Fruit

West Indian elm (Theobroma gauzuma)


  1. informative..glad i read ya article :)


  2. HI!
    I enjoyed your blog, but since you are vegan and super conscious with your food,
    How come you do not give importance to Organic?
    Just wondering.....

    1. Hi Matilde! Thanks for checking out the blog. To answer your question, I am a believer in organic produce--it's more nutritional, better for the soil, human health, and the planet at large. I think the reason I'm not promoting it as much is because veganism is already such a niche diet here in India. If I inspire people to simply eat more fruits and vegetables, I feel like I've done my job. I don't want to make it seem like organic is the ONLY way to go, as I think that might deter people from making those baby steps towards healthier eating. Also, India doesn't allow GMOs, so advocating for organic isn't as important as it is in the US because at the very least, the produce sold here isn't genetically modified. I hope it stays this way, and you'll find a few articles where I lambast the biotech companies trying to break their way into India.

      Hope that answered your question!

    2. The biotech companies already have!

  3. Hi Catherine, I read your blog & finds it very informative. I wanted to buy raw cocoa powder in delhi but i am unable to find a good quality of cocoa powder. I wanted u to do me a favor by help me to get the best quality of cocoa, if you can do any help like sharing the contact details of cocoa vendor or anything. Please hit me back at or

    1. Hi Nikhil, I actually know of a supplier in the Auroville area who supplies to some of the shops here in Tamil Nadu. The shop's name is Coffee Ideas, from Marc's Coffee. I know coffee's mentioned, but they do sell raw cacao, too. I tried to get the website but it's not functioning anymore... here's a few links for the lead:

      Try emailing, as well. Hope you can track them down, and good luck!

  4. It is a great feeling to finally find someone who is going through this journey of life.
    I have been vegan for 3-4 months now earlier I was a vegetarian.
    It's very difficult to find things specifically when you don't have time. I never thought that Cacao could be available in India..I have searched soooo many shops but no body even understands what Cacao is showed pictures to many but couldn't find. Do you know places in Delhi if possible or weblinks or anything that would help me through my journey to absolute health. Thanks :)

    Hello friends,
    this is our contact now....Feel free to do it !

  6. Where can I buy these plants in karnataka? Please let me know.

  7. Dear Mahesh,
    you can buy them in cacao states.I have got mines from A place close by Mangalore.
    Hope this helps!

  8. Dear deepti,
    We sell raw cacao beans

    Have a nice day!

  9. Hi ! Your blog is wonderful. You have summerised all the info i needed about raw cacao succintly. Generally ,i have found such informative blogs to be written by americans for their you have described the harvesting season top state producers etc ! Really great work. - shobhana sridhar ,new delhi

  10. Hi this is David from Earth Loaf, I've been reading your blog from the past 4 years, am a huge fan, and was very pleasantly surprised to see you've made a mention of us and our colleagues on your blog!

    Keep up the great work, and do tell me how I can order a copy of your ebooks as I couldn't figure out good reads.

  11. This is our new website:

  12. Cocoacraft produces premium chocolates using local ingredients that are free from harmful trans fats.

  13. You can contact for the best quality cocoa nibs which you can make cocoa powder with your mixer grinder. Or they sell cocoa powder itself.

  14. This is chocolaty and yummy. It is pretty expensive but a nice treat about my cacao bliss reviews.

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