The Unknown Fruit Behind the World’s Most Well-Known Food

Though chocolate is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and popular foods in the world, the cacao fruit – the plant at the very origins of everyone’s favorite sweet treat – still remains relatively unknown. While most people tend to assume that the story of chocolate begins and ends with cacao beans, the truth is that there is a lot more to cacao than just the beans. Cacao fruit actually has a rich and interesting history that dates back thousands of years to the Aztec and Maya civilizations of Central America, when cacao was referred to as “the food of the Gods.” Since then, we’ve continued to discover numerous ways to use cacao fruit beyond just making chocolate, as well as a number of health benefits that make cacao one of the world’s leading superfoods.

The story of cacao fruit

An ancient wonder

Centuries before humans realized that cacao beans could be used to make chocolate, the cacao fruit itself was a treat for the small animals who lived deep in the equatorial forests of South America. They enjoyed cracking open the gourd-like pods that grew on the cacao trees and eating the white pulp that surrounded the seeds inside. The animals would then discard the seeds; over time, this led to the spread of cacao trees across South and Central America, where cacao eventually became a mainstay in the diet of the humans who populated this area.

  • (: Fun Fact Approximately 400 cacao beans, which are 10 cacao pods, are needed in order to make a single pound of chocolate.
  • The pride of Mesoamerica
    • It was the Maya and the Aztec civilizations who began to really cultivate cacao for the first time. The beans of the cacao fruit were used to make a bitter drink that was most often consumed during ritual occasions, and were even used as currency for trading until the arrival of the Spaniard conquistadors under the command of Hernán Cortés in the early 16th century. As the Spaniards began to conquer and plunder the continent in search of riches, word traveled to the Aztec emperor Montezuma II that a vessel full of men had arrived in Tenochtitlán. Possibly believing Cortés to be Quetzalcoatl – an Aztec deity who legend claimed would one day return to Tenochtitlán bearing “all the treasures of Paradise” – Montezuma II greeted Cortés and his men with gifts, including large quantities of cacao.
  • A worldwide phenomenon
    • Cortés laid siege to Tenochtitlán and to the Aztec civilization, but not before accepting the gifts offered to him by the emperor Montezuma II. The Spaniards and other European colonizers brought cacao fruit and cacao tree saplings with them on further conquests, leading to the spread of cacao across the Caribbean, West Africa, and Southeast Asia. This in turn brought chocolate to the European continent.And the rest, as they say, is history.

Better understanding the cacao fruit

Cacao fruit is the product of cacao trees whose genus name is Theobroma cacao. Cacao trees require a shady environment within a hot and humid climate in order to grow properly, which is why they’re cultivated largely in equatorial regions around the world. Each cacao tree produces an average yield of 30-40 pods – these individual pods are the cacao fruit. Each fruit has three elements: the shell, the pulp, and the beans.

  • (: Did you know? ? Just like there are different varieties of grape used to make wine, there are also different varieties of cacao trees that each produce their own kind of cacao fruit with distinctive flavor and culinary characteristics.

There are three main types of cacao tree:

  • Criollo
    • The word criollo means “indigenous,” and this was the name imparted by the Spanish to the cacao tree cultivated by the indigenous populations of South and Central America. Criollo is truly the mother of all cacao – it’s the tree said to have been cultivated by the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, and was the only kind of cacao tree that could be found in nature, prior to its domestication by humans. While this type of cacao tree is only produced on a very small scale today, higher end chocolate manufacturers try to always use a small portion of beans from criollo cacao fruits alone or in combination with other varieties to produce chocolate.
  • Forastero
    • This is again a Spanish word, this time meaning “foreign,” for the cacao trees that originate in the upper Amazon. This is the variety of cacao that the Spanish colonists later implanted in West Africa, where they now account for nearly 80% of the world’s cacao production. Forasteros produce the most widely used type of cacao fruit, though forastero cacao beans are typically used in blends as they have a bitter, acidic flavor.
  • Trinitarios
    • Trinitarios are a cross between criollo and forastero trees, and they are native to the island of Trinidad. Originally, farmers in this area grew criollo trees, but following a devastating hurricane in the 18th century, the farmers switched to hardier forastero trees instead. Over time, this allowed for the emergence of a new variety of cacao tree and thus cacao fruit – the Trinitario. Today, Trinitarios produce about 10-15% of the world’s cacao beans, which are known for being of particularly high quality.
  • Nacional
    • There is a fourth variety of cacao, called Nacional, that is extremely rare and endangered. Many thought it was extinct, but some Nacional cacao trees were re-discovered in Ecuador in 2009 and its yield is used for prestigious and high end quality chocolate bars.
  • ? Fun Fact to spice things up: Cacao beans are made out of a plant known as Theobroma cacao, which literally translates to “food of the gods” in Greek, and was also referred to and treated as food of the gods by the ancient aztecs who devoted its crop to their divine king. By this fact alone we can assume that they knew more about it, as we only start to understand what is so wonderful about this fruit. Today we learn more and more everyday about how this name the aztecs gave the cacao aligns perfectly with the amazing amount of nutrients found in it.

Whole cacao for sustainable wellness

  •  Probably the question we get asked the most often is whether or not it’s possible to use the whole cacao fruit, and if cacao fruit has the same health benefits as cacao beans. The short answer? Yes! All three parts of the whole cacao fruit – shell, pulp, and beans – are edible and can be used in a variety of products. Each part is also rich in health benefits that are naturally found in cacao.
  • (: Fun Fact To’ak chocolate company charges $300 for a single chocolate bar, which is by far the most expensive chocolate bar you can get.
  • % Let’s Talk Numbers


  • The Shell
    • The shell of the cacao fruit can be ground down to make cacao shell flour. This flour can then be added to different flours to create a variety of healthy culinary creations, including in baked goods, breads, and pastries. Cacao shell flour is rich in theobromine, dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, which make it a much healthier option than traditional flour. It is also gluten free!
  • The Pulp
    • The white pulp found on the inside of the cacao fruit is a really delicious and unique part of the whole cacao. While cacao pulp is usually discarded when cacao farmers harvest the beans for chocolate, cacao pulp actually has both culinary unique qualities and nutrition functional values! Cacao pulp can be used in any number of ways, including to make smoothies, granola bowls, jams, jellies, ice cream, and cacao water, a hydrating and healthy beverage.
  • The Beans
    • The most famous part of the cacao fruit – the beans – are typically used to make chocolate. However, cacao beans can also be eaten by themselves in the form of cacao nibs, which are simply fermented and roasted cacao beans that have been crushed up during the winnowing process of chocolate making. Cacao nibs have all of the same health benefits of cacao beans and can be eaten on their own, or added to yogurt, a smoothie, baked treats, or mixed into granola.


Functional Compounds
& Wellness Benefits

  • ? Did someone say Superfood? it is almost hard to believe the amount of naturally occurring substances cacao is full of.
    It has so many that it is considered to be one of the leading superfoods on earth (“food of the gods, remember?). They are all found in their most basic form in the cacao bean itself, thus consuming it in its raw form means you get the full potential of health benefits it offers:

  • ! Cacao Beans & Cacao Nibs: They actually are almost the same
    thing and what distinguishes them is that cacao nibs are simply crushed raw cacao beans. So, now that we know what differentiates the two, let’s learn a little more about them.
  • ? Did someone say Superfood? Cacao fruit is loaded with functional nutrients, like energy-boosting theobromine and antioxidants that reduce inflammation and protect our bodies from damage-causing free radicals. An antioxidant-rich diet is the best way to combat free radicals, and cacao ranks as one of the most antioxidant-rich foods on the planet, which makes it a powerhouse in the fight against inflammation and disease.
  • Theobromine: An Energy Pioneer
    • While many people turn to coffee for a boost of energy to help them get through the day, the high amounts of caffeine found in coffee can also have some undesirable side effects. One of the health benefits of cacao fruit is that it is rich in the alkaloid theobromine, which makes it ideal for combatting low energy and fatigue. Theobromine acts as a stimulant similar to caffeine, but without the negative side effects like the jitters or energy crash.
  • King of Antioxidants
    • One of the many health benefits of cacao fruit is that it is absolutely loaded with antioxidants, and especially flavonoids – more by weight than any other food, in fact. Antioxidants help protect against and repair the damage done to our bodies by molecules called free radicals, Cacao fruit has been found to have significantly higher antioxidant capacity than nearly all other fruits, making it that much more powerful in the fight against disease-causing free radicals. Incorporating more antioxidants into our diets is a key way to fight against free radicals and maintain our overall health and wellness.
  • Rich in essential plant-based nutrients
    • Cacao is a natural source of potassium and magnesium. Potassium is one of the most important minerals in our bodies; it helps to regulate the nervous system, promotes good blood circulation, and decreases the likelihood of strokes, kidney stones, and osteoporosis. Next to potassium, magnesium is one of the most powerful minerals in the human body – it literally repairs our DNA, converts food into energy, and is essential to muscle health.
  • Queen B1
    • Cacao is a great source of B vitamins, which help make sure the body functions the way it should by helping to convert food into cell energy. B vitamins also help regenerate blood cells, and maintain the overall health of our cells. Cacao fruit in particular is extremely rich in Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1. Thiamine is responsible for the creation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP); this is a molecule that transports energy within and between cells. 25 grams of cacao fruit crystals contain 8% of the recommended daily intake of thiamine.
  • Vital Minerals
    • Finally, cacao fruit is an excellent source of copper and iron, both of which enable our bodies to form red blood cells. Copper helps maintain the health of our bones, blood vessels, and nerves, and also assists in the body’s absorption of iron. Together with copper, iron maintains our immune system, gastrointestinal health, and promotes energy and focus. 90 grams of pure cacao fruit pulp contains 10% of the recommended daily intake of copper, and just 28 grams of dehydrated cacao fruit pulp provides us with 6% of our recommended daily intake of iron.