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Cocoa Connections: From African Forest to Belgian Boutique

Cocoa beans

Next to gold, cocoa trees - the source of chocolate - stand amongh Ghana´s treasures. Nuclear science is helping them fight a killer virus. (Photo credit: D. Kinley/IAEA)

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Cocoa was labeled "the food of the gods" when the Spanish came upon it in South America over 500 years ago. Archaeological evidence in Costa Rica indicates that cacao was drunk by Mayan traders as early as 400 BC.

For Mexico´s Aztecs, cocoa held sizeable religious significance: the cocoa tree was seen a bridge between earth and heaven. Human sacrifices to God were sanctified by serving the victim a chocolate drink. In marriage ceremonies, the couple drank a symbolic cup of chocolate and exchanged cocoa beans. Today, cocoa remains a highly-prized commodity that is grown on a large scale in a selected few countries.

Cocoa beans grow in pods that hang from the thick trunk of the cocoa tree, which is the species Theobroma cacao. The genus Theobroma, from which the cocoa tree species comes, originated millions of years ago in South America.

Cocoa Conquers Europe

Christopher Columbus was probably the first European to drink chocolate when he reached Nicaragua in 1502 seeking a sea route to the spices of the East. But it was Hernan Cortés, leader of an expedition in 1519 to the Aztec empire, who returned to Spain in 1528 bearing the Aztec recipe for xocoatl (chocolate drink) with him. It was not until sugar was added that the drink became a popular drink in the Spanish courts.

To satisfy Spanish demand, colonists planted cacao in the new territories like Haiti and Trinidad. More successful were the Spanish Capuchin friars who grew criollo cacao in Ecuador in the 1600s. European mercantile nations rushed to claim land to cultivate cacao beginning in the late seventeenth century. France introduced cacao to Martinique and St Lucia (1660), Dominican Republic (1665), Brazil (1677), Guianas (1684) and Grenada (1714); England had cacao growing in Jamaica by 1670; and, prior to this the Dutch had taken over plantations in Curaçao when they seized the island in 1620.

Africa and Beyond

Demand for affordable chocolate required yet more cacao to be cultivated. Cacao from Brazil was planted in Sao Tomé in 1830 and Fernando Po in 1854, then in Nigeria in 1874 and Ghana in 1879. The seeds planted in Ghana were brought from Fernando Po. In Cameroon, cacao was planted during the colonial period of 1925 to 1939.

Cacao from Trinidad was planted in Sri Lanka in the late-1800s. From there it was introduced in Singapore, Fiji, Samoa, Tanzania and Madagascar during the next decade. In Java, the failure of the coffee crop in 1880s encouraged the farmers to grow cacao. Today, Vietnam has become a major producer.

World Cocoa Markets

Like all commodities, changing cocoa bean prices result from fluctuations in world supply and demand. Periods of shortage, associated with adverse growing conditions or spread of diseases and pests, result in reductions in stocks and rising prices.

The existence of excessive world cocoa stocks exerted a strong downward pressure on the cocoa market and world prices remained depressed reaching a low in 1992/93. By 1997/98, market prices had recovered as the stocks-to-grindings declined to around 45%. Today, world cocoa prices are moderately high.

Chocolate Makers

Because of its long history in developing world cocoa production and trade, the Netherlands today remains the leading processor (initial grinding) of cocoa, followed by the USA, Côte D´Ivoire, Germany, France and the UK.

Dutchman, Coenraad Johannes van Houten patented a method of pressing most of the fat out of the cocoa mass in 1828 making possible the production of cocoa butter and cocoa powder. He also developed a method to enhance the taste and colour through alkalisation. The availability of cocoa butter led to the making of chocolate as we know it today.

The English company Fry is usually accredited with being the first to amalgamate cocoa powder with extracted cocoa butter and sugar to make eating chocolate in 1847. Cadbury Brothers were selling a similar product two years later. Milk chocolate was created in Switzerland in 1875 by Daniel Peter in collaboration with Henri Nestlé using Nestle´s condensed milk.

In 1894, Milton Hershey of Pennsylvania added a line of chocolate to his caramel manufacturing business. By the 20th century, people around the world would be regularly consuming Hershey Bars, Snickers, M & Ms and Lintz Pralines as chocolate products swept the world by storm. -- David Kinley III, IAEA Division of Public Information.

Next: Saving the Source of Chocolate: Ghana Targets Killer Virus »