Where Chocolate Comes From: From Cacao Beans to Candy Bars

Chocolate can be found by a shopper browsing in nearly any kind of store, from convenience stores to supermarkets to high-end department stores. In fact, chocolate is so ubiquitous in the Western world that it is largely taken for granted. However, chocolate is a commodity virtually unknown by consumers in its countries of origin. The world’s largest consumers of chocolate are the Swiss (21 pounds per year per person), followed closely by Great Britain (18 pounds per year per person), Belgium (16 pounds per year per person), and the United States (12 pounds per year per person) (The Great Book of Chocolate, David Lebovitz, Ten Speed Press). In contrast, the majority of the world’s chocolate comes from Côte d’Ivoire, Brazil, Ghana, and Indonesia (The Emperors of Chocolate, Joel Glenn Brenner, Random House).

Where does chocolate come from, how it is produced, and why is it a relatively scarce product in its countries of origin? What, in a nutshell, does the chocolate industry predict for its product in the future?

The Origin of Chocolate

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree, a plant native to West Africa that has since been cultivated around the globe. Cacao tree fruits, or pods, are about the size of a football and contain 20-50 cacao seeds, which are termed “cacao beans”. Fully 350 cacao beans are needed to produce a single pound of chocolate (Brenner).

The pods must be harvested by hand because cacao trees are exceedingly fragile. Workers cut the pods from the trees when they are ripe, and the beans are carefully removed. The cacao beans are then processed, eventually yielding delicious chocolate bars and candies (Brenner).

How Chocolate Goes from Bean to Candy Bar

  1. Fermentation: After the cacao beans have been removed from the pods, they are placed into pits or wooden crates, covered with banana leaves, and left to ferment. Fermentation is vital for producing a good quality, delicious-tasting chocolate.
  2. Drying: The fermented cacao beans are dried, and once dry, they are prepared for shipping. The vast majority of cacao beans are exported from their native lands to other countries for further processing and consumption.
  3. Roasting: The beans are roasted at 210-290 degrees Fahrenheit (100-145 degrees Celsius), and then quickly cooled.
  4. Winnowing: The cooled beans are cracked, removing their hard outer shell and freeing the inner bean. The inner bean is crushed to yield “cacao nibs”, which are made into chocolate.
  5. Conching: The cacao nibs are crushed and ground into a paste (“chocolate liquor”) by granite or metal rollers. The longer conching continues, the smoother and higher-quality the finished chocolate will be. Depending on what type of chocolate is desired — dark, semi-sweet, or milk — cocoa butter, sugar, and dried milk powder may be added in different amounts to the chocolate liquor (Lebovitz).

Why Chocolate Candy is Common in Temperate Regions but Scarce in the Tropics

Cacao trees grow in wet, tropical regions, typically within a 20-degree “band” around the equator. In precisely these regions, chocolate tends to have a poor shelf life due to the heat and humidity. Refrigeration, of course, can extend its shelf life, but chocolate stored in a refrigerator often develops an unsightly gray “bloom” which many consumers find off-putting. Chocolate is best stored at room temperature (between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit) and moderate humidity (no more than 50% humidity) (Lebovitz).


The Future of Chocolate

According to the International Cocoa Organization (www.icco.org), chocolate prices are on the rise because of increasing demand for dark chocolate compared to milk chocolate. In addition, more consumers are buying chocolate products that meet social, ethical, or environmental standards, such as sustainability.

Chocolate’s Sweet Origins and Future

Cacao beans, after they are picked, fermented, dried, roasted, and crushed, become part of the world’s favorite chocolate confections. Although demand for all types of chocolate remains high, the market for dark chocolate, premium, and “sustainable” chocolates is particularly robust.

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