Tuesday, May 31, 2011
All about Cacao
About Theobroma Cacao
Swedish Scientist Carl von Linnaeus officially named the chocolate tree Theobroma cacao back in 1753. Literally translated “cacao, food of the goods,” he named the genus exactly what the Central Americans called it.
Cacao trees thrive best in tropical/subtropical climates and can grow anywhere from 10-30 feet high when mature. The tree flowers and produces fruit all year. The flower/fruit grow straight out of the trunk and large branches. Once pollinated, the flower develops into a pod-like green fruit that matures into the characteristic red, orange, yellow, and even blue and purple pods, depending on the variety. It takes 5-6 months for the pod to ripen. The ripe pod is about 18-20 cm long and contains 20-50 almond-like seeds surrounded by a sweet white pulp. These seeds are the cacao “beans.” Cacao is indigenous to Central/South America but now grows in most tropical climates in the 20-degree latitude zone around the world. Cacao will grow on its own but thrives best under a canopy of other mixed trees (in partial shade) in a jungle type of ecosystem.
Main Varieties of Cacao
The three major varieties of cacao that are heavily cultivated are called Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. The Criollo cacao pods are longer and deeply ridged, and are red/yellow but sometimes blue/purple. Criollo is prized for its amazingly rich, pronounced flavour and aromatic nuances. Compared to other varieties, Criollo is prone to disease, ripens late, and has small harvests, which accounts for why this variety makes up only 5% of the world cacao crop. Because of its lower productivity, Criollo is used only in very high-end chocolates since it has the best flavour. Criollo is mainly grown in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia.
Forastero was cultivated later than Criollo, and it has fruit pods that are yellow/orange, rounder, and less ridged than Criollo pods. Forastero cacaos are more vigorous, hardy trees that are very disease-resistant. Originally from the Amazon basin, they are mainly cultivated in Africa and Asia today, comprising 80% of the world's crop. The flavour of Forastero beans is less refined and complex than Criollo, but the plant is so much easier to grow.
Trinitario is the natural hybrid of the Criollo and Forastero subspecies and was domesticated in the late eighteenth century. Trinitario is the best of both worlds; it has the rich flavour and complexity of Criollo and the robust strength of Forastero. Trinitario is mainly cultivated in South America and the West Indies and accounts for 15% of the world cacao harvest.
Cacao vs. Cocoa
A slight changing of the letters represents a very major difference. “Cocoa” was the British term for cacao. The current association with the word “cocoa” is the defatted, alkalized powder form of chocolate invented by the Dutchman Coenraad Van Houten in 1828.
As early as 1815 in his Amsterdam factory, Van Houten had been developing a very efficient hydraulic press that squeezed the oil out of cacao. This new process reduced the fat content of cacao to 27% (from 50-55%), and primed it to become ground into powder. He eventually treated his cocoa powder with alkaline salts (potassium or sodium carbonates) in order to have the powder dissolve well in water. Van Houten created what would eventually be called “cocoa” or “cocoa powder.” This processing of chocolate became known as “Dutching,” which “cooked” the chocolate, giving it a darker colour and a diluted flavour. Dutching made it possible to create large-scale manufacturing and distribution of cheap chocolate, eventually available to millions of people worldwide in powdered and solid forms.
The nutritional value of cacao was further lessened then “milk chocolate” was invented due to the efforts of two Swiss men: chemist Henri Nestle and chocolate producer Daniel Peter. In 1867, Nestle developed a process to powder milk via evaporation. This single discovery has led to Nestle becoming the largest food corporation in the world. Then, in 1879, the first milk chocolate bar was produced after Daniel Peter experimented with adding the milk powder to chocolate. Although generally praised as a great milestone in the evolution of chocolate, it was this addition of powdered milk that blocked the body's absorption of the healing nutrients of cacao. The occasional person who thinks they have an “allergy” to chocolate is, with the ultra-rare exception, usually allergic to the pasteurized dairy, refined sugar, or caffeine that is in most chocolate.
Benefits of Raw Cacao
Magnesium: This is one of the most essential minerals, yet studies say that more than 80% of the US population is deficient in magnesium. In nature, the most concentrated source of magnesium is raw cacao! Other good sources of the mineral include certain nuts and any chlorophyll-rich green veggies. Magnesium is found at the center of the chlorophyll molecule. Magnesium supports the heart, increases brainpower, relaxes the muscles, increases flexibility, causes healthy bowel movements, and helps build strong bones. As one of the body's primary alkaline minerals, magnesium assists the normal functioning of several chemical enzymatic processes-facilitating more than three hundred different detoxification and elimination functions.
Chromium: This mineral helps balance blood sugar levels, and cacao has ten times the amount of chromium as whole wheat, a chromium-rich food, making it the highest food source of this mineral.
Antioxidant Power: Raw cacao beans are super-rich in antioxidant flavonols. They contain 10,000 mg (10 grams) of flavonol antioxidants (that's a 10% antioxidant concentration level!). Thai makes cacao possibly the best source of antioxidants, with 20 to 30 times more than red wine or green tea.
Vitamins B1, B2, B5, B6, C and E are all present in significant quantities in raw cacao.
Other Nutrients, such as fiber, iron, niacin, phosphorous and hundreds of other chemicals and phytonutrients, are found in cacao.
As stated earlier, cacao is highly complex in its structure, and not all its constituents have even been identified yet. It is clear that there are very special and unique properties in cacao, especially in relation to human brain chemistry. On the next page are listed the four main chemicals that are found in high amounts in cacao and certainly produce noticeable effects.
The “Happy Brain” Chemicals
Theobromine: The base chemical theobromine is sparsely distributed in teh plant kingdom, occurring in only nineteen known species, but you may have heard of these other popular theobromine-containing substances: coffee, tea, yerba mate, and the kola nut. Yes, theobromine is the sister molecule to caffeine; however, it is much milder and has only about a quarter of the stimulating power that caffeine has. Theobromine dilates blood vessels, has proven to be an effective cough remedy, and has shown cariostatic effects (it destroys the bacteria that causes tooth decay). Depending on the study, caffeine has been found in low amounts, or not at all, in the cacao bean (or in the shell and not in the bean). This inconsistency is considered to be the result of confusion between the two very similar molecules, theobromine and caffeine. One thing is for sure, cooked chocolate definitely has caffeine, a result of the chemical transformation of theobromine to caffeine when it is exposed to heat.
Phenylethylamine (fennel-ethel-uh-mean) or PEA: This is sometimes called the “love” of “happy” chemical. The brain releases PEA naturally when we are really excited, happy, or sexually aroused. PEA is the structural molecule behind catecholamine neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) in parts of teh brain that control our ability to pay attention and stay alert. When the brain is flooded with EPA, different chemical reactions take place that make one excitable, joyous, and focused! So our brains naturally produce this wonderful chemical, but it is also found pre-made by nature in (only) two amazingly synergistic raw foods: raw cacao and blue-green algae (E3Live!).
Anandamide (uh-non-da-mide): This neurotransmitter known as the “bliss” chemical is an endogenous cannabinoid naturally found in the human brain. It is a type of brain lipd (oil) that is released when we are feeling really good. The name is derived from the Sanskrit word “ananda,” meaning bliss. Cacao and cannabis (marijuana) are the only plants known to contain cannabinoids, chemicals that lock onto certain receptor sites in the brain in a “lock & key” system. The result is the feeling of being elated or high.
The chemical our body produces that normally fills the cannabinoid receptors is anandamide. Anandamide is highly involved in the chemical regulation of things like mood, memory, appetite, and pain perception. Sometimes the body releases anandamide to help cope with the stress and pain of intense exercise (like runner's high). Cacao also contains anandamide inhibitors, two structural cousins of anandamide. What these chemicals do is inhibit the metabolism of anandamide, meaning they decrease the body's ability to process anandamide. This means that natural and/or plant-derived anandamide lingers in the body longer, drawing out the elated sensation.
Tryptophan (trip-tow-fan): Cacao contains significant quantities of the essential amino acid tryptophan. Obtaining tryptophan in the diet is necessary for the production of serotonin, a major neurotransmitter. Tryptophan reacts with vitamins B3 and B6 and, in the presence of magnesium, serotonin is produced. Since cacao contains all those nutrients (tryptophan, B3, B6, and magnesium), regular consumption of cacao ensures healthy serotonin levels. Serotonin is our “stress-defense shield” and typically lowers anxiety and increases our ability to fend off stress. Tryptophan also triggers production of other tryptomine neurotransmitters such as melatonin and dimethyltryptamine (DMT), both of which are associated with sleep. Large doses of cacao will usually produce such results, despite all the stimulating qualities cacao also possesses. Tryptophan is highly heat-volatile and is usually destroyed or severely damaged by cooking.
Raw, Organic, Fair-Trade Cacao
When choosing what kind of cacao beans/nibs/powder/butter to purchase, make sure the products are raw, organic, and fairly traded. Cacao comes in whole-bean form, shelled, and broken up “nib” form, and in the form of cacao powder that has had all the fat removed from it, but without additives and cooking. Cacao powder is the most versatile of the three forms, and the most accessible as it really delivers the full-on chocolate flavour. If purchasing whole beans, check for mold contamination as this can sometimes happen.
All three forms have their own various applications, and it is nice to have all of them on hand if you are serious about cacao and raw desserts. Also available is cacao butter, with is the same as “cocoa butter” only raw. Regular, even expensive cocoa butter is generally produced using very high heats and chemical solvents like hexane. Cacao butter is produced at a raw temperature and without chemicals. This stuff is amazing and has all sorts of uses, especially for making white-chocolate-themed desserts.
Cacao should ideally be stored in airtight, glass jars. Don't keep cacao in the fridge, except for cacao butter, as the moisture can trigger mold formation.
Please support fair-trade organic cacao growers, as more than 80% of the world's cacao crop comes from West Africa, where horrible working conditions, including child slavery, degrade humanity on a daily basis (not to mention the pesticides). All the big candy companies get their chocolate from these West African growers, so vote with your dollars for fair-trade, organic cacao!
Cacao is one of the main crops contributing to the preservation of the rainforest. Since cacao naturally thrives best underneath the canopy of larger trees in a jungle setting, organic cacao is a sustainably grown crop. It is at the forefront of many plants that are helping to make the rainforest more valuable intact rather than destroyed. We can eat the most delicious, natural chocolate and save the rainforest at the same time! But only when the cacao is organic and fairly traded.