18th of October 2022
Everything you thought you knew about chocolate may just be wrong. Heck, even the History Channel can’t get their chocolate timeline straight (keep reading to see what they missed). Here are 15 chocolate facts that bust all sorts of myths around chocolate’s origin, name, science, value, and more. You’ll be looking at your next piece of chocolate in a totally different way after reading this.
1. Cacao is not a bean—it’s a fruit.
The term “cacao bean” is technically incorrect. Cacao beans are neither beans nor legumes—they’re seeds found in the pod-shaped fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree. Each cacao pod contains a gelatinous, sweet, white pulp (the heart of the fruit) that holds roughly 20 to 50 seeds. This fruity pulp is vital to the early stages of the chocolate-making process.
Once the pod is opened and the pulp is exposed to the outside world, its sugars start to ferment, producing a potent microbial cocktail of yeasts, bacteria, and enzymes that significantly transform the flavor and cut the bitterness of the cacao seed (or bean). Without the pulp, chocolate would not be the delectable wonder we know and love. But don’t just call it a fruit—you can call cacao a “super fruit.”
2. Cacao was first discovered and enjoyed in present-day Ecuador—not Mexico.
Sorry, History Channel. The real history of chocolate does not start with the Olmecs or Maya of southern Mexico. In 2018, archaeologists busted this myth when they discovered cacao residue and DNA evidence in artifacts used by the ancient Mayo-Chinchipe culture as far back as 5,300 years ago. Living in what is now southeast Ecuador, the Mayo-Chinchipe people likely enjoyed both the cacao seeds and pulp as a ceremonial and daily source of sustenance.
You can make a similar concoction with a 100% Everyday Cacao Powder.
3. For most of its history, chocolate was consumed as a liquid—not a bar.
Over the millennia, cacao has mostly been venerated as a liquid luxury. Some of the earliest cacao sippers may have been the Mokaya people of what is now the Chiapas area of Mexico. Here, researchers found traces of cacao in vessels dating back to 1900 BCE, concluding that the Mokaya were likely grounding cacao beans and consuming chocolate as a drink.
When cacao made its way to Europe in the 1500s, it was transformed into a sweet hot chocolate beverage, a delicacy of choice for the elite. It wasn’t until 1847 that the first chocolate bar was created by British chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons. Chocolate has experienced quite the fast evolution ever since.
4. The origin of the word “chocolate” is up for debate.
In their 2013 book The True History of Chocolate, archaeologist Michael Coe and anthropologist/food historian Sophie Coe offer evidence that the ancient Olmec in present-day Veracruz, Mexico, called cacao kakawa, a term used as early as 1000 BCE. This word was later adopted as kakaw in Classic Maya and cacahuatl in the Aztecs’ Nahuatl language. The Aztecs allegedly called their liquid form of chocolate xocoatl or xocolatl, meaning “bitter water,” and this is generally linked to the word “chocolate.”
However, this has been challenged, with some believing that the Aztecs actually called it chicolatl, roughly translated as “beaten drink.” Meanwhile, the Coes surmised that the Spaniards combined the Maya word chocol (“hot”) and the Aztec word atl (“water”) to come up with chocolatl.
5. Cacao and cocoa are the same thing.
Speaking of etymology, let’s get this out of the way, too. There’s no difference between cacao and cocoa. The story goes that the word “cocoa” originated from an English importer’s misspelling of “cacao” that appeared on a ship’s manifest in the 18th century. “Cocoa” is simply an Anglicized word; it doesn’t denote anything different.
Some claim that “cacao” refers to the pure unroasted, unprocessed version of the bean, while “cocoa” is an inferior product. In reality, it’s all just marketing. To avoid any confusion, we prefer to simply use “cacao.”
6. There are at least 11 varieties of cacao.
Cacao is of its own unique species, but it comes in many different varieties. Traditionally, cacao beans have been categorized into three types:
However, in 2008, Juan Carlos Motamayor identified 10 genetic groups named by geographical location or traditional cultivar. Since, the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) has slightly tweaked that list, coming up with a few different terms and adding one more variety to make for 11 total:
- Contamana (Motamayor’s term) aka Ucayali/Scavina (USDA-ARS)
- Iquitos (Motamayor) aka Iquitos Mixed Calabacillo (USDA-ARS)
- Marañon aka Parinari
What’s the best cacao variety in the world? It’s a close race between the extremely rare and flavorful Nacional and Criollo.
7. Chocolate has hundreds of chemical compounds and no one knows exactly how many.
The health, flavor, and psychoactive magic of chocolate comes from its potently diverse mix of chemical compounds. There are so many, in fact, that scientists don’t really know the actual amount. Some will say there are roughly 600 volatile (or aroma-defining) compounds, others upwards of 800. Meanwhile, the Australian Academy of Science claims there are over 1,500 flavor components identified in chocolate (though, we’re not sure where their proof is or what a “flavor component” entails).
What we can all agree on is that these compounds work together to make for one of the most satisfying and healthiest foods on the planet.
8. Chocolate is one of the healthiest foods on the planet.
If not the healthiest—especially if you’re talking about 100% cacao. All of those chemical compounds mentioned above make for a truly life-giving combination, led by the mild stimulant theobromine, essential minerals like magnesium and iron, and a robust package of antioxidants. Speaking of, cacao is one of Mother Nature’s richest sources of polyphenols and flavanols, all of which offer impressive anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects. There’s evidence that chocolate can:
- Improve cognitive function
- Boost the immune system
- Boost your mood
- Support the cardiovascular system
- Protect against chronic diseases
- Enhance performance
- Support the gut
- Slow down aging
9. The amount of caffeine in chocolate varies substantially.
One of the most common questions we hear is how much caffeine is in chocolate and how does it compare to coffee? The answer: it depends. Caffeine levels in cacao vary significantly between countries of origin. In this report analyzing over 200 samples, researchers discovered that cacao from Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru had more than 2x as much caffeine as cacao from West African countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast.
One of To’ak’s 50-gram Signature chocolate bars will contain roughly the same amount of caffeine as a single shot of espresso (75 mg). But unlike coffee, chocolate also contains theobromine and all those other psychoactive compounds discussed above, creating an “entourage effect” that results in fewer jitters and greater focus than a cup of java.
10. Chocolate has similar effects to cannabis—sort of.
Anandamide is a naturally occurring fatty acid neurotransmitter in the brain nicknamed the “bliss molecule” due to its ability to activate cannabinoid receptors in brain cells—much like THC in cannabis. Dark chocolate may contain small amounts of anandamide, but, more significantly, it features two compounds—N-linoleoyl ethanolamide and N-oleoylethanolamide—that inhibit the breakdown of anandamide as well as other cannabinoids like CBD and THC.
This means that, when you consume dark chocolate, you’re able to better experience the “bliss” effects of anandamide since it won’t be broken down so quickly. This also means that dark chocolate can heighten the effects of a cannabinoid like CBD when consumed together.
11. For the love of cacao, don’t store your chocolate in the fridge!
If there happens to be any leftover chocolate in your house, don’t be tempted to store it in the fridge. Chocolate keeps best in a dry, dark environment between 65°F and 70°F (about 18°C and 21°C). Your fridge is likely set at 40°F (4°C) or below. Such a cool, moist environment will lead to an aesthetically unappealing phenomenon known as sugar bloom.
Even worse, the rich, fatty cacao butter in your chocolate will absorb the odors of everything in your fridge, ruining the heavenly flavor and experience you’ve been craving. Instead, check out these tips on how to store chocolate.
12. Put down the red wine. These are better dark chocolate pairings.
While it may seem the ultimate luxurious pairing, red wine and dark chocolate aren’t often such great companions. Both contain tannins, which are often bitter and astringent and tend to clash with one another instead of complement.
Instead, pair your dark chocolate with a sweet dessert wine, vintage Port, or something stronger like whisky, cognac, tequila, or even absinthe. Note that each To’ak chocolate selection includes pairing recommendations since each harvest will bring out a different aroma and flavor profile.
13. Fair Trade chocolate is not what it appears.
While there has been a concerted effort to address major issues in the chocolate industry—including child labor, deforestation, and fair pay—fair trade organizations are still far from living up to their claims. One of those programs, Rainforest Alliance, only audits around 1 in 3 large farms every year, while another, Fairtrade, recognizes that child labor is still a pervasive problem in West Africa—even on Fairtrade-certifed farms.
This is why companies that champion sustainability, conservation, and transparency are the gold standard—and future—of chocolate. See To’ak’s transparency report to see what we pay cacao growers and learn about how we are using cacao to reverse deforestation.
14. Chocolate is on its way to becoming a $10+ billion industry in North America.
While there are fears that cacao could eventually go extinct—unless more companies start focusing on our last point about conservation and regenerative cacao—it isn’t stopping the chocolate industry from growing exponentially.
Statista forecasts that the market for cocoa and chocolate in North America alone will reach $10.4 billion by 2027. That’s about a 30% increase from 2016. Globally, they predict that the “chocolate confectionery” market will reach over $223 billion by 2025. Small-batch craft chocolate accounts for just a tiny, tiny sliver of that, with massive brands like Mars and Lindt raking in the most.
15. The most expensive chocolate in the world goes to …
Speaking of $$$, Guinness World Records has the “most expensive chocolate bar sold at auction” listed as a 100-year-old Cadbury chocolate bar that went on Captain Robert Scott's first Discovery expedition to the Antarctic. It sold in 2001 for $687. In 2009, that same company—Cadbury—turned heads with its $1,630 Wispa Gold chocolate bar covered in edible gold leaf and protected in a gold leaf wrapper. In 2019, Guinness World Record awarded the “most expensive chocolate” to Swiss company Attimo for their $689 80-gram chocolate bar that includes exclusive Swiss saffron and Venezuelan Chuao chocolate.