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Chocolate’s Long Journey From Cacao to Candy

cacao pods

cacao pods

Nothing says “I love you” like a box of chocolates. And what’s not to like about a sweet, sensual, mood enhancer that also has antioxidants, lowers blood pressure, inhibits “bad” cholesterol, and is chock full of antioxidants and polyphenols. No wonder the scientific name of the plant that chocolate comes from, Theobromo Cacao, translates as “food of the gods cacao.”

What about that plant, though? Even though I’m a lifelong chocoholic, I’d never given much thought to the small tree that is the source of all chocolate. That sin of omission was remedied on my recent first trip to Hawaii, the only place in the United States where cacao trees grow.

There, I saw the slender tree that thrives under the shade of the tropical forest canopy, admired its brightly colored cacao pods and popped raw beans from that pod, still encased in their softly glowing slick white coating, right into my mouth. And I learned that the chocolate bar or truffle you offer your loved one (or indulge in yourself) is the end result of a long, arduous, delicate process involving many steps and many hands.

Cacao’s difficult cultivation

Cacao is not an easy tree to cultivate. It grows only in the relatively narrow band 20 degrees north or south of the equator, and in that zone, it must be planted next to taller trees whose canopy protects it from direct sun and high winds. After trees are planted, they take five or six years to start producing, and mature trees bear only about 30 usable pods per year. With between 30 to 50 beans in an average pod, a single tree produces about 1,000 beans, enough to make only about 2 pounds of bittersweet chocolate.

The cacao tree is also susceptible to pests and diseases, which many producers seek to counteract by spraying chemical pesticides. In fact, cacao is one of the most heavily sprayed crops, and the chemicals are toxic not only for the intended pests, but also for other insects, birds, animals, plants and workers. When you seek out chocolate from organic cacao growers, you are supporting farmers who work to enhance biodiversity and protect the ecosystem, including  the soil, air and water we all depend upon.

It was at the family owned and operated Ono Organic Farms, on the southeastern slope of the Haleakala volcano on Maui, that I witnessed the vegetal source of chocolate. Having never seen a cacao tree, I imagined the pods would be small and would hang from the ends of branches like “normal” fruit. Instead I saw a slender tree with improbably large pods emerging directly from the trunk. Large and pendulous, it seemed as if a gentle touch would send them tumbling earthward. The pods were the size and shape of a rugby ball and Crayola bright. Depending on the subspecies of the tree, and the ripeness of the pod, the color ranges from green through yellow, orange, red, purple and burgundy.


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Chuck Boerner, owner of Ono Organic Farms, cracks open a ripe cacao pod and explains its inner workings during a farm tour and tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

Chuck Boerner, the proprietor of Ono Organic Farms, pried a few cacao beans from a freshly opened pod and handed them to us. He instructed us to suck the thin, sticky flesh from the dark beans. That sweet, lightly acidic flesh is what kicks off the fermentation process, and although it’s not physically part of the end product, it’s where chocolate flavors begin.

Ono Organic Farms, and in fact Hawaii as a whole, have relatively few cacao trees, so we did not see the larger scale production that takes place in Africa, which produces 75% of the world’s chocolate. But regardless of the location or scale, the steps from cacao bean to chocolate bar are the same, and involve a lot of workers doing a lot of hand labor.

Because the cacao pods ripen at varying times, they must be harvested individually with machetes or knives, taking care not to damage nearby pods or buds. Workers cut the pods open, generally with a machete, and then scoop the beans out. The raw, pulp-covered beans are then placed in shallow wooden boxes, or put in piles and covered with banana leaves.

The sweet white coating on the beans gets fermentation going, as the sugar in the pulp is converted into acids that change the chemical composition of the beans. The fermentation process takes from two to eight days, and generates temperatures up to 125 F, activating enzymes that begin to create chocolate’s flavor profile.

To stop fermentation, the beans are uncovered and laid out to dry in the sun, where they stay until nearly all of their moisture has evaporated. Then they are roasted, and the dry husks are removed. This is the point at which beans are generally shipped to chocolate factories around the world to be made into chocolate hearts and bon bons and bars of all descriptions.

A journey to Fair Trade

Because so many human hands are needed to pick and process cacao, child labor is used in many places around the world resulting in mass-produced chocolate with a “dark side,” according to the 2012 CNN report on “Chocolate’s Child Slaves” and also according to John Robbins, author of “No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution.” This makes it important to look for Fair Trade labels on your chocolate, just as many people do for their coffee.

After experiencing the beauty of the cacao tree, and learning about the process that starts with the bright fruit of a tropical tree I found myself enjoying the dark tasty treat of chocolate even more. And I realized that the organic and Fair Trade labels are as important on chocolate as they are on kale and coffee, and are another way to do good while eating well, and perhaps impressing your valentine as well.

Look for the Fair Trade and organic labels to do your part to create a better world and enjoy a guilt-free treat.

Where to find cacao and chocolate in Hawaii (not a definitive listing):

  • On Maui, the exotic fruit tour at Ono Organic Farms includes cacao, but they do not process it into chocolate. Bob Dye runs Waimea Chocolate Company on Maui, which uses 100% Hawaiian cacao, with their products available at Sweet Paradise Chocolatier in Wailea and at Wailea Wine.

Pods containing 40-60 cacao beans each hang from a tree in the McBryde Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in the Lawa’i Valley on the south shore of Kauai Island in Hawaii. Credit: Terra Brockman

Zester Daily contributor Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, "The Seasons on Henry's Farm," now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.

  • C. Venzon 2·14·13

    Great article, Terra. If all chocolate were fairly priced and traded, we would recognize it as a precious luxury to be savored,. Something to reflect on this Valentine’s Day.

  • Terra 2·15·13

    Agreed! Buy the best organic and fair trade chocolate you can find, and savor it as a special treat, meditating on its deliciousness and the innumerable hands that brought it from tree to table.

  • Brooke 2·15·13

    There really is something about chocolate. It’s bitter (without all the processed sugar) and tasty at the same time. It has such a rich history too. That is so exciting you got to go to an organic cacao farm in Hawaii. Sounds like paradise!

  • Karine 2·19·13

    Unfortunately, Fair Trade is not the solution… Direct trade is better, as it is very well explained is this interview with Martin Christy, the guy behind the great site Seventy Percent