Become a Chocolate Connoisseur: Impress Your Friends with Cacao Knowledge

A photograph of the author, Jason Woods.

By Jason Woods

August 13, 2019

Become a Chocolate Connoisseur: Impress Your Friends with Cacao Knowledge

The average person in the U.S. eats about 10 pounds of chocolate a year, and worldwide, the chocolate industry is worth more than $100 billionDespite its immense popularity, though, many people don’t know the origins of their favorite sweet or how to pick out a high-end chocolate bar that doesn't have a household name like Snickers or M&M’s.

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What is the difference between cacao and cocoa?

Cacao is the name of a tree native to Latin America. It produces pods that are full of seeds covered in white, fleshy fruit. Inside the pods there’s also cacao seeds, or beans, which make the base of chocolate once they’ve been fermented, dried and roasted.

Some people use cocoa and cacao interchangeably, though experts tend to use “cocoa” to describe the beans after they’re fermented or the powder created by grinding and pressing fat out of the beans. However, powder that isn’t processed as much or is made with unroasted seeds, is usually called cacao powder.

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What kinds of chocolate are out there?

Dark chocolate contains cacao, sugar, flavorings and an emulsifier, for a smooth consistency. Add milk to that and you’ve got milk chocolate, whereas white chocolate is made using a base of cocoa butter. 

If you ever want to consume chocolate like the Aztecs did, it’s not too hard to find Mexican drinking chocolate or unsweetened cacao powder at specialty stores.

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Is chocolate paleo?

Dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao is the way to go for those following a paleo diet – it’s got little sugar or other additives.

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What’s the history of chocolate?

Chocolate likely started as a bitter beverage among Aztec and Mayan communities. In the 1500s, Europeans who learned about the drink sweetened it, and by the 1600s its popularity was solidified. 

In the 1820s, a Dutch chemist named Coenraad van Houten led the way to the modern era of chocolate by further reducing its bitterness and finding a way to make production cheaper and more consistent. A couple of decades later, in 1847, Joseph Fry of England made the first chocolate bar. 

In the U.S., chocolate became popular in the 1910s. The government provided Hershey’s chocolate bars to soldiers fighting overseas in World War II and upon returning home, they brought a new appetite for the sweet with them. 

That appetite has only grown, and now chocolate is more popular than ever.

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Where does cacao come from?

Due to the demand for chocolate, cacao trees have spread from the Americas to Africa, Asia and Australia. It generally only grows 20 degrees north or south of the Equator in climates with consistently warm temperatures that have regular – not excessive – rainfall.

About 90 percent of cacao today comes from West Africa and Latin America, but Southeast Asia is increasingly exporting the crop. 

Most large companies buy their chocolate from West Africa, particularly Ivory Coast and Ghana, and Indonesia, whereas craft chocolate more often comes from South America or East Africa (Madagascar or Tanzania) – places that generally produce a more robust flavor profile. 

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What influences flavor?

Chocolate flavors can be as complicated as wine or coffee, and many factors go into how it tastes. Cacao is heavily influenced by its terroir – the topography, soil and climate where it’s grown, which can introduce flavors ranging from fruity to smoky.

The variety of cacao also makes a difference. The most common variety of cacao is overwhelmingly forastero, which constitutes at least 80 percent of world production. It’s the heartiest and easiest variety to grow and is usually thought of as the least complex cacao in terms of flavor, so it makes a good base for blended chocolates and candies.

Criollo is a much rarer variety because it’s more sensitive to pests and environmental changes. Its flavor is delicate and complex. 

Trinitario is a hybrid of forastero and criollo. Although these varieties were traditionally considered the only three, more varieties are continuing to be identified.

Of course, the style and process of the chocolate maker also plays a major part in determining the flavor of the final product.

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How do I know what kind of chocolate bar I’m buying?

Labels on chocolate bars typically list where the cacao was grown and sometimes the name of the bean type. Most high-end dark chocolate bars also include a percentage showing how much of it comes from the cacao plant. 

If the packaging says “75%” that means that three-fourths of the weight of that bar comes from cocoa powder or butter. Generally, the higher the percentage, the less sugar that’s been added, making the chocolate taste more bitter.

If the chocolate bar says “single origin,” that means all of the cacao used to produce it came from one particular region. “Single estate” means all of the beans came from one particular farm.

For a lot more information, check out the infographics at Chocolate Codex. These folks give chocolate lovers the tools to take a deep dive into their favorite confection. You can learn even more about where chocolate comes from, how it’s made, how to talk about its flavor profiles and what labels mean, as well as read reviews about individual bars.