Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) Overview, Health Benefits, Side effects

Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) Overview, Health Benefits, Side effects

Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) Overview

Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) other names: Beurre de Cacao, Cacao, Chocolat, Chocolat Noir, Chocolate, Cocoa Bean, Cocoa Butter, Cocoa Oleum, Cocoa Seed, Cocoa Semen, Cocoa Testae, Dark Chocolate, Dutch Chocolate, Fève de Cacao, Graine de Cacao, Theobroma, Theobroma cacao, Theobroma sativum, Theobromine, Théobromine.

There is an interesting anecdote related to the ‘discovery' of the chocolate by the modern civilization. During one of his explorations in 1519, the Spanish traveler Hernando Cortez and his warriors were spectators to a bizarre ritual at the Aztec emperor Montezuma's royal court. While his subjects keenly watched him with admiration and awe, seated on a elevated golden throne, emperor Montezuma, who was considered to be the ‘living God' by his countrymen, continually drank an infusion from a golden goblet. On enquiry, Cortez and his men came to learn that the bitter and dark brown drink was called ‘chocolatl' by the native Indians, who showed their respects to the Spanish explorer and his soldiers by offering them the drink. The natives informed Cortez that the beans from with the drink were prepared was derived from the heaven and every sip of ‘chocolatl' infused wisdom and knowledge among the people. In fact, the Aztecs held the chocolate beans in such high esteem, that they were rendered the value of currency. And believe it or not, one could get a wild turkey in exchange of four beans and 100 beans would enable one to purchase a live slave!

Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) Overview, Health Benefits, Side effects
Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) fruit

So impressed was Cortez with the essence and flavor of chocolate that he immediately sent a letter to the Spanish ruler Charles V, enthusiastically appreciating the qualities of the brown beans and even carried substantial qualities of the beans back home with him. The passion for the new drink made tastier with the addition of sugar and vanilla spread chocolate to different parts of Europe and it finally reached the French emperor's court. According to many, even in Europe, people initially drank chocolate mixing it with sugar and around 1550, nuns in a Mexican convent extra flavor to it by adding vanilla to the drink. Significantly, in those days chocolate was believed to be aphrodisiac (a substance that increases sexual arousal/interest) and was contentedly consumed by all who could afford it. Gradually, chocolate was introduced in England and the English enhanced the drink's flavor adding milk to it. This new recipe became immensely popular all over Europe and people set up chocolate houses in England and Netherlands where the aristocrats or members of the upper strata of the society drank this blissful drink in retreat.

Indigenous to Central and North America, the cocoa tree is evergreen with lots of branches. If left to thrive naturally, cocoa trees grow up to a height of 40 feet, but when grown on plantations they are generally trimmed to a height of 20 feet. The trees bear small scented pink or cream colored flowers in clusters that blossom either directly on the trunk or on the main branches. The flowers eventually mature into wooded and football-shaped fruits that are up to one foot long. The fruits can be found in different colors, including reddish, brown and yellow. Inside each fruit one will find a jelly-like pink colored fleshy tissue that contains about 50 seeds. These seeds of cocoa beans are bitter to taste.

Planters harvest the fruits and scratch the beans and pulp all together into the fermenting trenches. During the fermenting process, the pulp or the sweet soft tissues turns to liquids, while the beans give up their strong astringent taste. Following this, the beans are dehydrated, roasted, removed of their shells and their different ingredients are processed separately. While chocolate is very popular as a drink worldwide, it may be noted that more than 50% of the cocoa beans are turned into a yellow colored cocoa butter rich in fat content. However, unlike most other fats available in the market, cocoa butter is not oily. In addition, cocoa butter has a soothing scent and does not rot easily. These qualities of cocoa butter make it an important ingredient of soaps and various toiletry products. Cocoa butter is also used in the manufacture of comforting creams as well as suppositories (small pellets inserted through the anus into the rectum to lubricate or stimulate bowel clearance).

Normally cocoa is the fat-free minced remains of the beans. It is blended with sugar, hot milk or water and though to be a warming and stimulating drink that many people still consider as the ‘food of the Gods'. Different kinds of chocolate candies, including soft milk chocolate, hard chocolates, and bitter blocks are made by confectioners by blending cocoa with an assortment of items like cocoa butter, milk, vanilla and sweeteners. Chocolate is able to fight against fatigue and provides a spout of instantaneous vigor owing to the presence of stimulants like caffeine and theobromine in it. This is the primary reason why soldiers from the American Civil War to these days carry chocolate along with them to the warfronts. Interestingly, recent researches by scientists have established that chocolate also produces a comforting effect on disturbed minds.

Although cocoa is indigenous to Mexico and Central America, it in can be found in all the tropical regions across the globe. The cocoa plant is bred in various ways, including cuttings, grafting and budding, the cheapest way to grow cocoa is by raising saplings from its seeds. The cocoa seeds sprout when they are ripe and become feasible in a short span. The cocoa seeds may be stored for a period of 10 to 13 weeks provided their moisture content is maintained at 50 per cent.

Fruits of cocoa trees ripen round the year, but generally only two harvesting - one main and another secondary - is done. For instance, in West Africa, the main harvesting begins in September and lasts till February. A smaller harvest is during the months of May and June. A cocoa fruit required five to six months from fertilization to harvesting and normally the harvesting season continues for around five months. After the cocoa pods are chopped from the trees, they are left on the ground for some period to allow them to smoothen. Once they have mellowed, the pods are broken and the beans taken out. The dry shells of the pods are burned. Next, the beans are dried in the sun for duration between two to eight days and later fermented in barrels or casks. During this period, the color of the beans changes from purple to brown. Following fermentation, the beans are packed in bags and readied for shipment. To be able to be used for food, the beans are processed further and the procedure includes roasting, mashing, separating the core or seed, pulverizing the nibs and extracting the yellowish cocoa butter, which comprises 50 per cent of the bean content.

After the harvesting of the cocoa pods, they are split open with a sharp knife or blade and the pulp or soft tissues found inside along with the seeds are removed separately. The shell of the pods is thrown away. The pulp together with the seeds are then kept in heaps, stored in baskets or spread out on iron grills for many days at a stretch. During this period, both the cocoa seeds and the pulp undergo ‘sweating' or fermentation and the bulky pulp transforms into a liquid form. The fermented pulp gradually seeps away leaving behind the seeds to be collected separately. It may be noted that the ‘sweating' process is very important for the quality of the cocoa beans. Originally, the cocoa beans have a very bitter or astringent taste. The ‘sweating' process removes this astringent taste from the beans. In addition, if the ‘sweating' process is disturbed, the cocoa derived from the seeds is spoilt. At the same time, if the process is underdone, the cocoa seed will have a heady flavor like raw potatoes and may even be vulnerable to yeasts and mushrooms. Although the liquefied pulp is generally discarded by most, in some cocoa producing countries it is effectively put to use to purify alcoholic spirits.

On the other hand, the fermented cocoa beans are left to dehydrate by spreading them over large areas, while they are constantly scraped manually. In large plantations this process is carried out by placing the fermented beans in large trays under the sun or by applying heat from other artificial sources. This not only makes the work lighter for the planters, but also speeds up the drying process. This procedure also has its demerits and many plantations avoid drying cocoa beans through artificial heat as this might not only add some extraneous flavor to the beans, but they may even be affected by smoke and oil. Using artificial heat may also give the cocoa beans a tainted flavor. In minor plantations, the same process is carried out by spreading the cocoa beans either on smaller trays or alternatively on cowhides. In the next phase, the beans are trampled upon and jumbled up often by the bare human feet. During this procedure, red clay mixed with water is sprayed over the beans with a view to obtain a better color, polish as well as to protect them from molds and yeasts while they are shipped to factories in the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and many other countries across the globe.

Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) Health Benefits

Cocoa is the plant from which chocolate is made. Bitter chocolate is produced by pressing roasted cocoa kernels (seeds) between hot rollers. Cocoa powder is produced by squeezing the fat (cocoa butter) from bitter chocolate and powdering the remaining material. Sweet chocolate is produced by adding sugar and vanilla to bitter chocolate. White chocolate contains sugar, cocoa butter, and milk solids.

Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) Overview, Health Benefits, Side effects
Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) flower

Long regarded as a food treat, cocoa is now used by some people as medicine. Cocoa seed is used for infectious intestinal diseases and diarrhea, asthma, bronchitis, and as an expectorant for lung congestion. The seed coat is used for liver, bladder, and kidney ailments; diabetes; as a tonic; and as a general remedy. Cocoa butter is used for high cholesterol.

As mentioned earlier, the Latin name of chocolate, ‘Theobroma', literally means the ‘food of the Gods' in English. The Aztec, who are said to have discovered the drink, called chocolate as xocoatl (cocoa) and used it both as a currency and a beverage that was drunk by the aristocrats in golden goblets. Chocolate became known to the remaining world only when the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez brought home supplies of the beans from the Aztec in Mexico way back in 1519. For over a century, the Spanish kept chocolate as a secret and it spread to other parts of Europe only when it reached the court of the French emperor years later. Initially, cocoa was simply drunk as a sweet or bitter beverage and it is only about 150 years ago that it began to be used in confectionery. A yellowish butter prepared from the cocoa beans is extensively used as the base for many creams, an emollient as well as an important constituent in present-day cosmetic and toiletry manufacture.

Cocoa also has a number of medicinal qualities and for centuries the Central Americans have effectively used cocoa to heal pains during pregnancy and childbirth. Cocoa is also beneficial in curing coughs and fevers. Cocoa contains a substance called theobromine that is basically alkaloid and produces a consequence that is comparable to caffeine. Hence, cocoa is useful in invigorating the muscles, heart as well as the kidneys. Theobromine is also closely linked to theophylline that helps in healing asthma. As a result, theobromine and caffeine also helps in alleviating blockages during colds by opening or enlarging the bronchial tracts in the lungs. In addition, theobromine is also beneficial in calming down the muscles in the digestive tracts. Owing to the presence of methylxanthines in cocoa, it also has diuretic, bronchyolitic and vasodilatory actions.

Some people apply cocoa butter to the skin to treat wrinkles and to prevent stretch marks during pregnancy.

Worldwide cocoa is popular as a food item, but cocoa also has several medicinal values and is beneficial as a stimulant for the nervous system. Herbal practitioners in Central America as well as the Caribbean also prescribe cocoa seeds as a stimulant for healing heart and kidney ailments. Even the cocoa plant has therapeutic value as it may be used to cure angina and also as a diuretic (a tonic that enhances urine flow). Butter made from cocoa beans is also used as a lip cream and forms the base for the manufacture of suppositories.

Don’t confuse cocoa with coca leaf (Erythroxylon coca).

Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) Side effects

Eating cocoa is likely safe for most people. Cocoa contains caffeine and related chemicals. Eating large amounts might cause caffeine-related side effects such as nervousness, increased urination, sleeplessness, and a fast heartbeat.

Cocoa can cause allergic skin reactions, constipation, and might trigger migraine headaches. Cocoa can also cause digestive complaints including nausea, intestinal discomfort, stomach rumbling, and gas.

Applying cocoa butter to the skin is also likely safe for most people. It can, however, cause a rash. 

Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) Overview, Health Benefits, Side effects
Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) tree

Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Cocoa is possibly safe in pregnancy and during breast-feeding when used in moderate amounts or in amounts commonly found in foods. But be sure to monitor your intake. Cocoa in larger amounts is possibly unsafe because of the caffeine it contains. Caffeine found in cocoa crosses the placenta producing fetal blood concentrations similar to the mother’s levels. Although controversial, some evidence suggests that high doses of caffeine during pregnancy might be associated with premature delivery, low birth weight, and miscarriage. Some experts advise keeping caffeine consumption below 200 mg per day during pregnancy. Keep in mind that chocolate products provide 2-35 mg caffeine per serving and a cup of hot chocolate provides approximately 10 mg. Caffeine is also a concern during breast-feeding. Breast milk concentrations of caffeine are thought to be approximately half the level of caffeine in the mother’s blood. If the mother eats too much chocolate (16 oz per day), the nursing infant may become irritable and have too frequent bowel movements because of the caffeine.

Anxiety: There is a concern that the caffeine in large amounts of cocoa might make anxiety disorders worse.

Bleeding disorders: Cocoa can slow blood clotting. Consuming a lot of cocoa might increase the risk of bleeding and bruising in people with bleeding disorders.

Heart conditions: Cocoa contains caffeine. The caffeine in cocoa might cause irregular heartbeat in some people and should be used cautiously in people with heart conditions.

Diabetes: Cocoa seems to be able to raise blood sugar levels and might interfere with blood sugar control in people with diabetes.

Diarrhea. Cocoa contains caffeine. The caffeine in cocoa, especially when taken in large amounts, can worsen diarrhea.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Cocoa seems to hinder the effectiveness of the valve in the food tube (esophagus) that keeps the contents of the stomach from coming back into the food tube or the airway. This could make the symptoms of GERD worse.

Glaucoma: Cocoa contains caffeine. The caffeine in cocoa increases pressure in the eye and should be used cautiously in people with glaucoma.

High blood pressure: Cocoa contains caffeine. The caffeine in cocoa might increase blood pressure in people with high blood pressure. However, for people who already consume a lot of caffeine, it might not cause a big increase.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): Cocoa contains caffeine. The caffeine in cocoa, especially when taken in large amounts, can worsen diarrhea and might worsen symptoms of IBS.

Migraine headaches: Cocoa might trigger migraines in sensitive people.

Osteoporosis: Cocoa contains caffeine. The caffeine in cocoa might increase how much calcium is released in the urine. Cocoa should be used cautiously in people with osteoporosis

Surgery: Cocoa might interfere with blood sugar control during and after surgical procedures. Stop eating cocoa at least 2 weeks before a scheduled surgery.

Rapid, irregular heartbeat (tachyarrhythmia): Cocoa from dark chocolate can increase heart rate. Cocoa products might also make irregular heartbeat worse.