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The Amazing Cacao Bean: Some History



A fascinating three part blog on the amazing cacao bean by FSPA Food Safety Trainer & Consultant, Lisa Kleiner MSc Food Safety & Mgt, MSc Nutrition.

The beans of the cacao tree named Theobroma cacao are grown in regions within 20 degrees of the equator and originated in South America. It was enjoyed by ancient civilisations such as the Olmec, Mayas ad Aztecs long before it made its way to European shores. To the Aztecs cacao beans were so valuable they were used as currency and they believed the seedlings came from heaven and got its name as “Gods’ Food”. As far back as the 6th century the Maya civilisation were using cacao beans medicinally by using it seeds to make a drink that they considered a health elixir called “Xocolatl”. The Aztecs believed that this drink had nourishing, fortifying and even aphrodisiac qualities!

The cacao bean first came to Europe in 1513 and it was the Spanish who turned the cocoa bean into chocolate keeping the origin of the chocolate secret for many years. In 1615, Louis XIV of France appointed Sieur David Illou to develop the cacao bean for the manufacture and sale of chocolate and started a craze in Paris. Its reputation in the French Courts of been an aphrodisiac with Casanova reputedly using chocolate and champagne to seduce the ladies.

The drinking of chocolate soon spread across the channel to London where many of the “in” set would frequent chocolate houses and enjoy a “brew”…from there the rest is history! The spread of chocolate production and grinding of the nibs into cacao mass became the norm over the next few centuries, with the start up of the first chocolate factory in the US in 1765.

Cacao has many health benefits, the beans contain very high levels of flavonoids called procyanidins or you may know them as anti-oxidants, in fact cacao is very high up on the ORAC scale and gives many protective effects to the body. Theobromine is particularly high in Cacao and is a stimulant that provides sustained energy to the body. The husks are also a rich source of dietary fibre and in fact are used as a natural fortification agent…Cocoa husks have significant mineral content and is a good source of potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, copper and zinc.

Today chocolate is enjoyed worldwide in varying degrees of quality with mass production taking most of the market segment. However, trends have witnessed a rise in artisan producers worldwide highlighting the craft of chocolate making. These producers make their chocolate in a bean to bar approach using single origin high quality beans which are sustainably sourced. The emphasis been on taste, quality, naturalness of ingredients and originality.

The next blog focusses on Cacao and food safety – until next time! Part 2: Cacao & Food Safety 

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