How is cocoa grown?

Does chocolate really come from trees?

— Erick Tyson von Mueller

Chocolate is a preparation of cocoa beans. Pure cocoa has distinct flavors which may be likened in their complexities to wine. Typically, the preparation includes sugar to provide sweetness. The addition of sugar and other ingredients to blends of cocoa bean powder from different sources provides a uniform flavor profile for well-known products like branded chocolate bars.

This is an image showing cocoa bean pods growing from a cacao tree.
This is a photograph of cocoa bean pods growing on a cacao tree. Imagine if the tree itself is growing on Annobón. Note that the pods are growing from the main trunk of the tree, not from the branches. Image: Luisovalles

Great! How do we get cocoa beans? Cocoa beans come from Theobroma cacao trees. These trees can grow as tall as 12-15 m in the wild. On a commercial farm or plantation the farmers normally do not let the tree grow higher than 4-8 m so that the cacao pods grow closer to the ground and it is easier for the farmers to harvest the pods from the tree.

Under ideal conditions the cocoa tree blooms and bears fruit throughout the year. This means that cocoa has flowers and fruit on the tree at the same time. In two cycles of six months, thousands of delicate flowers adorn the stem and main branches. Each flower blooms for only a single day. Only approximately 40 on each tree during each cycle will eventually develop into fruit.

Once a flow bud is mature, the flower starts to open in the afternoon and continues to open during the night. Early the following morning, the flower is fully open and the male part of the flower releases its pollen. From that moment, it’s the job of ants and tiny flies to venture from one open flower to the next, incidentally collecting on their bodies and legs pollen from one flower and rubbing the pollen on the female part of another flower, thereby pollinating it.

The flowers that get fertilized will develop into cocoa pods over a period of about five months. You can see there is a measure of luck involved for a flower to grow into a pod.

Full-grown pods vary significantly in shape, texture and size, and can range from about 15 cm to over 35 cm in length. A ripe fruit typically contains 20 to 75 cocoa beans, each 1 cm to 3 cm long, embedded in a white pulp.

If anyone tells you to watch out for eating too many candy bars, tell them that actually cocoa beans are very nutritious and chocolate can be too.

Cocoa beans consist mainly of fat (50%) and carbohydrates (25%). In addition, cocoa contains proteins, theobromine, niacin, minerals (including calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, sodium, and phosphorus) and vitamins A, B1, B2 and B6.

The problem with many chocolate bars is the added sugar and other ingredients.

You can find dark chocolate bars that have higher percentages content of cocoa, the higher the healthier, and the better the flavor. Try placing a piece of dark chocolate on your tongue, and letting it warm and melt there. You will be able to taste the many full and subtle flavors of cocoa.

Cocoa by itself is the food of the gods, or so they say (other people, not the gods themselves).