Cacao is the origin of all things chocolate. If you love hot cocoa, chocolate bars, chocolate milk, and chocolate chip cookies, you can thank the cacao bean from the cacao tree.
The tree is an evergreen that is native to the tropics of South and Central America. The tree produces a pod, or fruit, each of which contains between 20 and 60 seeds. These seeds are the cacao beans and are the part of the plant that is the main ingredient in chocolate.
To make chocolate from cacao beans, the beans and pulp are removed from the pods and left out to dry. The pulp ultimately liquefies and drips away, leaving just the dried beans. The process of drying is important to developing the flavor of the beans. If done incorrectly, or interrupted, the beans will not taste right.
After the drying process, the beans must be treated further in a process called fermentation, after which they are dried again. At this point, the beans are ready to be turned into various chocolate products. To do this, the beans are roasted, the shells are removed, and the inner bean is broken into pieces, called nibs. These can then be ground up and other ingredients added to make cocoa powder, chocolate, and other products.
Cacao trees and the cacao beans they produce have a long history in the Americas. They have been cultivated and used for thousands of years by native people. Archaeologists have found cacao residues in vessels dating back nearly 4,000 years. Natives to tropical regions used the beans for culinary, medicinal, and economic purposes. They served as currency during the Aztec empire and a beverage made from cacao was important in religious rituals. There is also evidence that the indigenous people used cacao to treat snakebites, to get strength and energy, and to relieve breathing problems.