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.
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.
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.
There are three main types of cacao tree: