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Cocoa beans: origins, production and properties

Cocoa beans: origins, production and properties

When we think of chocolate, we are used to imagining it in the form of a bar, with a sweet or intense taste depending on whether it is milk chocolate or dark chocolate and with that unmistakable aroma, immediately able to stimulate our senses.

This is only the result of a long processing procedure of what, in nature, we would find in the form of berries: the cocoa beans, in other words the seeds contained in the pods of the cacao tree, the Theobroma Cacao, originally from South America.

These berries constitute the basic ingredient for the production of chocolate, have numerous properties, are rich in vitamins, mineral salts and antioxidants, which make them an excellent food.

Let’s discover their best-known varieties, how they are processed, and what are the characteristics and principal use of these particular seeds.

Cocoa beans: types and processing

There are three types of cocoa beans, according to the tree that they come from, but the harvesting technique, preparation and processing remain the same.

Types of cocoa beans

There are three sub-species of cacao plant, based on their geographical origin:

  • creole cacao or noble cacao: originally from Ecuador and Venezuela. The seeds of this cacao plant are white, highly perfumed and not very bitter; because of the low productivity of the plant, the beans are used only to produce the highest quality chocolate;
  • alien cacao or consumption cacao: originally from Western Africa and Brazil. Its seeds are a brown purplish-blue color, with a strong and bitter taste.Because it is a very commonly found and fruitful tree, around 80% of the cocoa produced in the world comes from this variety;
  • Trinitarian cacao: a hybrid between the creole cacao and the alien cacao, it has intermediate characteristics between the two and can be found in Mexico, the Caribbean, Colombia and Venezuela.

The processing of the cocoa beans

The pods of the cacao plant (called cabossa), are long in shape and contain around 30-40 seeds or beans which, in terms of their features and size, are reminiscent of almonds.

The beans are surrounded by a whitish pulp which is sweet and slightly sour and, in their original form, have a distinctly bitter taste.

The processing of the cocoa beans is long and must follow a specific procedure:

  • preparation: the pods are harvested and opened directly on site, freeing the cocoa beans from the white pulp, which are then laid in baskets;
  • fermentation: the fermentation process takes place in special tanks where the seeds are collected, with temperatures reaching 50°C. This step is fundamental for the bitter compounds present in the beans to transform, giving the chocolate its characteristic taste;
  • drying: the seeds are left to dry in the sun to halt the fermentation process, and allowing them to acquire their characteristic brown color;
  • roasting: within the processing plant, the beans undergo the roasting process which gives them their typical chocolate aroma;
  • decortication: using special machines, the seeds are separated from their dry shells. The beans, in this state, are ready to be sold and consumed, or it is possible to proceed to the shredding to produce cocoa and, subsequently, chocolate.

Cocoa beans: properties and uses

As we have already specified, the seeds of the cacao plant are not used exclusively for producing chocolate.

It’s quite the opposite, they can also be consumed on their own. In fact, these cocoa beans are rich in essential nutrients whose properties make them a very healthy food for our bodies; raw or toasted, eaten on their own or used in recipes, their consumption has increased significantly over the past few years.

Which to choose? Raw or toasted cocoa beans?

It is possible to find both raw cacao beans and toasted beans for sale.

However much the roasted seeds may seem more inviting, thanks to their crunchiness and a flavor that is closer to that of chocolate, it is always better to select raw cocoa beans; the toasting actually means that many particles are lost, and thus the beans lose a significant proportion of their beneficial properties.

In comparison with those that have been roasted, the raw seeds contain a higher level of vitamins, mineral salts and antioxidant substances, as well as alkaloids, such as caffeine and theobromine. Furthermore, they hold a higher percentage of water inside, raw cocoa beans contain fewer fats, sugars and proteins.

Caloric contribution, use and contraindications of cocoa beans

Being a low-calorie food (around 230 Kcal per 100 g of product), cocoa beans can be consumed as a “hunger-busting” snack, alone or mixed with yogurt or as a milkshake, or also used as additional ingredients for certain dishes.

Furthermore, thanks to their energizing power, they prove to be an excellent snack before physical training or for anyone who must concentrate for long periods of time. 
However it is always a good idea not to overindulge, seeing that the presence of caffeine and stimulating substances may cause tachycardia, anxiety and headaches; the dose usually recommended is around 5 beans a day, bearing in mind that we are talking about a food that is not recommended for anyone suffering from serious hypertension.

Beneficial properties of cocoa beans

The seeds of the cacao plant may be considered excellent allies as part of a healthy diet and correct lifestyle in that they possess numerous beneficial properties:

  • they are antioxidants: the presence of substances such as polyphenols and flavonoids, helps to combat the action of free radicals, fighting against cell aging and helping to protect against certain pathologies such as arthritis and tumors;
  • antidepressants: if chocolate is considered an excellent ally for putting you in a good mood, raw cocoa beans have this characteristic to an even greater extent. In fact they have the capacity to induce the secretion of endorphins and serotonin, the “happiness” hormone;
  • energizing: rich in magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium and B-group vitamins, cocoa beans may be considered real dietary supplements. Furthermore, the presence of theobromine (an alkaloid with vasodilatory effects) together with that of the caffeine (in a very small percentage) stimulates the nervous system;
  • metabolism stimulants: the cytokines (antioxidants of the flavonoid family), also present in green tea and wine, accelerate the metabolism of fats and sugars, acting as coadjutants in maintaining body weight.

Background and curiosities

And finally, some background information and curiosities about this plant of ancient origins.

It would appear that the very first people to grow cacao plants were the Maya and the Aztecs. The cocoa beans, which they called cacahuat, were considered a luxury good and were used as exchange currency, with the name of amygdala pecuniaria (pecuniary almond). Besides their economic value, cacao was given a strong religious significance.

It was in fact known as the “food of the gods” and its consumption was limited exclusively to the privileged noble classes. What many people do not know is that the real discovery of cocoa beans should be attributed to the monkeys of the tropical forests; in fact, these animals, greedy for the sweet pulp surrounding the seeds, split open the pods to eat this sweet sugary substance, letting the bitter seeds fall to the ground.

In this way, not only were the cocoa beans discovered but, left on the ground, the seeds were able to bring forth new trees, thus avoiding the extinction of the plant.

Now that you know everything there is to know about cocoa beans and we have whet your appetite for chocolate, why not take a look at our range of chocolate bars with mouth-watering extra ingredients?

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