Cacao Science

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Theobroma cacao L.

Chocolate, Cacao, Cocoa

  1. Uses
  2. Folk Medicine
  3. Chemistry 
  4. Distribution
  5. Ecology
  6. References


Cacao seeds are the source of commercial cocoa, chocolate, and cocoa butter. Fermented seeds are often roasted, cracked and ground to give a powdery mass from which fat is expressed. Raw dried cacao beans may also be cold-milled and ground to powder. This is the cocoa from which a popular beverage is prepared. In the preparation of chocolate, this mass is mixed with sugar, flavoring, and extra cocoa fat. Milk chocolate incorporates milk as well but reduces anti-oxidant properties. Cocoa butter is used in confections and in manufacture of tobacco, soap, and cosmetics. Cocoa butter has been described as the world's most expensive fat, used rather extensively in the emollient "bullets" used for hemorrhoids.

Folk Medicine

Reported to be antiseptic, diuretic, ecbolic, emmenagogue, and parasiticide, cacao is a folk remedy for alopecia, burns, cough, dry lips, eyes, fever, listlessness, malaria, nephrosis, parturition, pregnancy, rheumatism, snakebite, and wounds (Duke and Wain, 1981). Cocoa butter is applied to wrinkles in the hope of correcting them (Leung, 1980).  Weight loss, Laxative, soothes PMS symptoms, muscle relaxant and bone builder.  High in anti-oxidants, methylxanthines, phenylethylamine (PEA), anandamide, neurotransmitter modulating enzyme inhibitors, and tryptophan  (Wolfe, 2005).


Per 100 g, the seed is reported to contain 456 calories, 3.6 g H2O, 12.0 g protein, 46.3 g fat, 34.7 g total carbohydrate, 8.6 g fiber, 3.4 g ash, 106 mg Ca, 537 mg P, 3.6 mg Fe, 30 mg b-carotene equivalent, 0.17 mg thiamine, 0.14 mg riboflavin, 1.7 mg niacin, and 3 mg ascorbic acid. According to the Wealth of India, the edible pulp of the fruit contains 79.7–88.5% water, 0.5–0.7% albuminoids, astringents, etc.; 8.3–13.1% glucose, 0.4–0.9% sucrose, a trace of starch, 0.2–0.4% non-volatile acids (as tartaric), 0.03% Fe2O3 and 0.4% mineral salts (K, Na, Ca, Mg). The shell contains 11.0% moisture, 3.0% fat, 13.5% protein, 16.5% crude fiber, 9.0% tannins, 6.0% pentosans, 6.5% ash, and 0.75 theobromine. Raw seeds contain 0.24 mg/100 g thiamine, 0.41 riboflavin, 0.09 pyridoxine, 2.1 nicotinamide, and 1.35 pantothenic acid. The component fatty acids of cocoa butter are 26.2% palmitic and lower acids, 34.4 stearic and higher acids, 37.3% oleic acid, 2.1% linoleic and traces of isoleic. In g/100g the individual amino acids in the water soluble fractions of unfermented and fermented beans are lysine 0.08, 0.56; histidine 0.08, 0.04; arginine 0.08, 0.03; threonine 0.14, 0.84; serine 0.88, 1.99; glutamic acid 1.02, 1.77; proline 0.72, 1.97; glycine 0.09, 0.35; alanine 1.04, 3.61; valine 0.57, 2.60; isoleucine 0.56, 1.68; leucine 0.45, 4.75; tyrosine 0.57, 1.27; and phenylalanine 0.56–3.36 g/100g. Unfermented and fermented beans contain p-hydroxybenzoic acid, vanillic acid, p-coumaric acid, ferulic acid, and syringic acid, while the fermented beans also contain protocatechuic, phenylacetic, phloretic acid and the lactone esculetin and o- and p-hydroxyphenyl acids. Caffeic acid occurs in the unfermented beans (C.S.I.R., 1948–1976). According to an article in the Chicago Sun Times, people who suffer extreme depression as victims of unrequited love have an irregular production of phenylethylamine. Such individuals often go on chocolate binge during periods of depression. Chocolate is particularly high in phenylethylamine, perhaps serving as medication. Theophylline is a potent CNS and cardiovascular stimulant with diuretic and bronchial smooth muscle relaxant properties. Recently this drug was proven effective in preventing and treating apnea in premature infancy. Cocoa contains over 300 volatile compounds, including esters, hydrocarbonslactones, monocarbonyls, pyrazines, pyrroles, and others. The important flavor components are said to be aliphatic esters, polyphenols, unsaturated aromatic carbonyls, pyrazines, diketopiperazines, and theobromine. Cocoa also contains about 18% proteins (ca 8% digestible); fats (cocoa butter); amines and alkaloids, including theobromine (0.5 to 2.7%), caffeine (ca 0.25% in cocoa; 0.7 to 1.70 in fat-free beans, with forasteros containing less than 0.1% and criollos containing 1.43 to 1.70%), tyramine, dopamine, salsolinol, trigonelline, nicotinic acid, and free amino acids; tannins; phospholipids; etc. Cocoa butter contains mainly triglycerides of fatty acids that consist primarily of oleic, stearic, and palmitic acids. Over 73% of the glycerides are present as monounsaturated forms (oleopalmitostearin and oleodistearin), the remaining being mostly diunsaturated glycerides (palmitodiolein and stearodiolein), with lesser amounts of fully saturated and triunsaturated (triolein glycerides). Linoleic acid levels have been reported to be up to 4.1%. Also present in cocoa butter are small amounts of sterols and methylsterols; sterols consist mainly of b-sitosterol, stigmasterol, and campesterol, with a small quantity of cholesterol. In addition to alkaloids (mainly theobromine), tannins, and other constituents, cocoa husk contains a pigment that is a polyflavone glucoside with a molecular weight of over 1500, this pigment is claimed to be heat and light resistant, highly stable at pH 3 to 11, and useful as a food colorant; it was isolated at a 7.9% yield (Leung, 1980).


Native to South America, probably on the equatorial slopes of the Andes; now cultivated pantropically, especially in West Africa.


Ranging from Subtropical Dry to Wet through Tropical Very Dry to Wet Forest Life Zones, cacao is reported to tolerate annual precipitation of 4.8 to 42.9 dm (mean of 109 cases = 16.3), annual temperature of 18.0 to 28.5°C (mean of 108 cases = 25.3), and pH of 4.3 to 8.7 (mean of 43 cases = 6.4) (Duke, 1978). Grown from 20°N to 20°S with the bulk between 10°N and 10°S, usually below 300 m, but in sheltered valleys of Colombia at 900 m. Requires uniformly high temperatures with recommended mean of 26.6°C. Trees are wind-intolerant and therefore are often planted on hillsides for wind protection and good drainage. Being drought-intolerant, cacao thrives in climates with high humidity and rainfall. Plants are shade-tolerant, and thrive in rich, organic, well-drained, moist, deep soils. Shallow laterite soils are said not to be suitable. Maximum temperature of 33.5°C and minimum 13°C, with diurnal temperature variation between 33.5 and 18°C are suggested (Reed, 1976).


bulletBuchanan, R.L. 1979. Toxicity of spices containing methylenedioxybenzene derivatives: A review. J. Food Safety 1:275.
bulletC.S.I.R. (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research). 1948–1976. The wealth of India. 11 vols. New Delhi.
bulletDuke, J.A. 1978. The quest for tolerant germplasm. p. 1–61. In: ASA Special Symposium 32, Crop tolerance to suboptimal land conditions. Am. Soc. Agron. Madison, WI.
bulletDuke, J.A. and Wain, K.K. 1981. Medicinal plants of the world. Computer index with more than 85,000 entries. 3 vols.
bulletJenkins, B.M. and Ebeling, J.M. 1985. Thermochemical properties of biomass fuels. Calif. Agric. 39(5/6):14–16.
bulletLeung, A.Y. 1980. Encyclopedia of common natural ingredients used in food, drugs, and cosmetics. John Wiley & Sons. New York.
bulletPalotti, G. 1977. The 'time for a Coca Cola' may not be right. Industrie Alimentairi 16(12):146–148.
bulletPerdue, R.E., Jr. and Hartwell, J.L. (eds.). 1976. Plants and cancer. Proc. 16th Annual Meeting Soc. Econ. Bot. Cancer Treatment Reports 60(8):973–1215.
bulletPurseglove, J.W. 1968–1972. Tropical crops. 4 vols. Longman Group Ltd., London.
bulletReed, C.F. 1976. Information summaries on 1000 economic plants. Typescripts submitted to the USDA.
bulletSutton, R.H. 1981. Cocoa poisoning in a dog. Veterinary Record 109(25/26):563–4.
bulletTyler, V.E. 1982. The honest herbal. George F. Stickley Co., Philadelphia, PA.

Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.


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