We’ll get to the the cacao bean/rainforest connection soon. But first, here’s a bit about what exactly you’re getting when you bite into a cacao bean…
What are they? The seeds of the tropical cacao plant which develop inside the pulp of the plant’s fruit. They are the base of all chocolate products.
What’s the difference between a cacao bean and a cocoa bean? Nothing, they’re alternate spellings for the same seed. “Cacao” (pronounced “kuh-kow”) came first then was adapted as “cocoa” in English. Note, when referring to the plant the spelling and pronunciation is always “cacao”, you wouldn’t say “cocoa plant”.
Are they healthy? They fit well into a mindful, nourishing diet. Cacao beans are rich in antioxidants, fiber and minerals including magnesium (helps with muscle relaxation, necessary for calcium absorption) and iron (essential for healthy blood).
Are they sweetened? No, cacao is a whole food in its purest form; nothing added and nothing taken away. They have a strong, pleasantly bitter, complex flavor ranging from fruity to nutty. You’ll definitely taste notes of chocolate.
Do they contain caffeine? Yes. And also a substance called theobromine which acts as a nervous system stimulant, just like caffeine. So don’t go mad with them.
Are they vegan? Yes, they’re a plant-based food.
Are cacao beans a raw food? Yes, if labelled “raw” then they’ve only been fermented and dried. If not, they’ve most likely been roasted as well.
How do I eat them? Just straight out of the container they come in. I prefer purchasing whole cacao beans as opposed to cacao nibs which are beans that have been pre-chopped into small fragments. The beans still have their skins intact, which keeps them fresher longer. I like to snack on a few whole beans like I would raw almonds. I also like to chop the beans into pieces to stir into trail mixes and blitz them into “no-recipe energy snacks“.
Are they a sustainable food? Never an easy question since sustainability is not a black and white topic. Every form of food production is capable of negative and positive effects on the earth, no matter how mindful and ethical the intentions of the producers are. Our responsibility is to seek out the foods which tip the balance in favor of positive effects. According to the Worldwatch Institute, cacao farming has the potential to ameliorate the devastation of the rainforests:
Cocoa is one of those crops, like shade-grown coffee, that can supply an economic rationale for preserving tropical forest canopy, albeit in a modified state. Cacao has several other characteristics that could make it a valuable ally of the forests. In the first place, it’s fairly easy on the soil, because of its heavy, soil-building leaf litter and because its nutrient demand is relatively low, at least for moderate levels of production. Second, it’s a rainforest exclusive: because of its temperature and moisture requirements, it cannot be grown commercially outside tropical rainforest areas. Any value that cocoa adds to these areas cannot therefore be depreciated by production elsewhere. Finally, it’s a hotspot crop. All the major cocoa-producing areas are so rich in biodiversity that they rank as hotspots: the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, Mesoamerica, the west African forests, the Indonesian-Malaysian archipelago, and Southeast Asia. If cocoa can be fashioned into a tool for conservation, it would appear to be a tool of considerable strategic importance.
In order for cacao farming to be beneficial to the rainforests, it must be shade-grown, organic and fair-trade. Look for these labels when selecting your beans. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to subject all your chocolate products to the same scrutiny.
The Rainforest Alliance provides much more information about the sustainability of cacao.
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Image Credits: Cacao Beans