Uses of Cocoa Beans

Uses of Cocoa Beans. (Image: Westend61/Westend61/GettyImages)

The Mayans of Central America are believed to be the first to discover cocoa. They learned how to harvest the beans inside the cocoa pods to make a liquid treat. When he arrived in Nicaragua in 1502, Christopher Columbus became the first European to drink chocolate.

In 1528, Hernan Cortes brought chocolate to Spain where it was initially snubbed, but after sugar was added to it, it became a popular drink. Today, even though delicious treats made from the chocolate derived from cocoa beans are enjoyed around the world, it has many other uses.

Cocoa beans have been proven scientifically to provide health benefits. Per a study published in the "British Journal of Nutrition_,"_ chocolate can help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol and cardiovascular disease functions. Though the benefits vary based on the cacao content, it's available in many forms: liquid, powder, blocks and chips.

Cocoa Bean Production

Although cocoa beans are harvested year-round, harvest typically occurs from October to February and from May to August. Once the seed pods have ripened, the beans and surrounding pulp are removed and drained. The pulp is then fermented for several days, dried, then packed for shipment. The cocoa beans are cleaned to remove contaminants such as twigs, stones and dust. They are roasted to bring out their flavor. Growers use a winnowing machine to remove the shells from the beans, leaving just the cocoa nibs.

Indulgent Chocolate

CNBC reports that almost 18 percent of the world's chocolate is consumed by Americans. It's found in different varieties such as baking, bittersweet, milk chocolate, dark chocolate and liquid chocolate. These products are used to make chocolate milk, cakes, chocolate bars, chips and other confections. It's one of our oldest and most beloved foods.

Types of Chocolate

  • Cocoa powder is unsweetened unless it's part of a hot chocolate mix. Don't substitute the instant cocoa mix for unsweetened cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is used to make cakes, brownies or to coat pans instead of flour when baking before adding batter. You may also add it to your oatmeal for a flavor kick.
  • Baking, unsweetened or bitter chocolate must contain between 50 and 58 percent of cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is the cream-colored vegetable fat that's extracted during the process of making chocolate and cocoa powder. It's used to add smoothness and flavor.
  • Bittersweet chocolate is also known as sweet chocolate. By U.S. standards, it must contain 35 percent chocolate liquor and more than 60 percent cacao. Bon Appetit suggests using this type of chocolate in pies and buttercream frosting or even when making pancakes.
  • You can opt to use semisweet chocolate instead of bittersweet. It's available in blocks and chips, and it contains about 60 percent cacao and 15 percent to 35 percent chocolate liquor. Semisweet chocolate is an all-purpose option that works well for baking and eating. Purchase it in blocks, discs, chips or squares.
  • Milk chocolate must contain at least 10 percent chocolate liquor and 12 percent milk solids along with added sugar and cocoa butter. It's milder in taste and sweeter than darker chocolates. It works well in recipes for pancakes and muffins.
  • Dark chocolate is the generic term used to describe bittersweet, semi-sweet and sweet chocolate. It's rich in cocoa solids that contain compounds known as flavanols. Flavanols have been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure as well as to improve cognition. Enjoy its benefits by using it to make pudding, ganache and mousse.
  • Liquid chocolate is specifically made for baking, and it's available unsweetened and sweetened. It's good to have on hand; when you're in a pinch, it saves you from having to melt a bar or block. The texture is different because it's produced using vegetable oil instead of cocoa butter.
  • White chocolate is made with cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin and milk products. It isn't really considered chocolate, doesn't taste like it and doesn't contain cacao. It's sweet and works well with salty items such as nuts. It also doesn't have the health benefits that are often credited to dark chocolate.
  • Chocolate-type coatings are produced much the same way as regular chocolate except some or all of the chocolate liquor is replaced with cocoa powder. It's often referred to as "sweet cocoa and vegetable fat coatings." Find it as a topping for ice cream and other frozen desserts.
  • Chocolate-type beverages are made when fresh cocoa pulp juice is collected and used in the production of sodas and spirits. According to the National Council on Cocoa, for the production of alcoholic drinks, such as brandy, the fresh juice is boiled, cooled and fermented with yeast.

    After about a four-day fermentation process, the alcohol is considered distilled. It's also sometimes infused into tequila, bourbon, whiskey and vodka.

  • Find hot cocoa pre-made in your local grocery store, but making it from scratch allows you the opportunity to control both its flavor and sugar content. It can be made using warmed cow's, nut, soy, rice or oat milk. Top with whipped cream for an extra treat.

Other Edible Types of Chocolate

  • The pectin used in jams, jellies, preserves, and marmalades is extracted from the pulp juice of the cocoa bean along with alcohol. It's then distilled and recycled and undergoes additional extraction. Pectin, a water-soluble substance, is used to thicken dishes.
  • Cacao and coffee grounds are often used as a rub for steak and roasts. Mix cocoa powder with pepper, salt and chili powder. Rub it into the meat and cook on an oiled and heated grill. Try adding a tablespoon at a time to your favorite chili recipe.

Cocoa Extract

Cocoa extract is a dietary supplement that's derived from the cacao bean, and according to the National Cancer Institute, its flavonoids have anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular, neuroprotective, cognition-enhancing and chemopreventive properties. When administered orally, it can improve blood flow and protect the body from oxidative stress and DNA damage.

Other Uses for Cocoa Beans

  • Animal feed for poultry and pigs is sometimes produced using 100 percent cocoa pod husks, which are the waste products created during cocoa processing. The husks are sliced into flakes and then partially dried.
  • Pure cocoa butter is often used as a base for lotions and creams. Extremely hydrating, it's good to help banish dry skin, and is often used in soap as well. Its antioxidant content can help protect your skin from free radicals.
  • Whip up a homemade facial mask with cocoa powder, and leave it on for 15 minutes. Repeat as necessary. Cocoa's anti-inflammatory qualities can help reduce breakouts and improve your skin's hydration.
  • The shells of cocoa beans are often used as mulch and soil conditioner for gardens. Unlike typical mulch made from shredded bark or wood chips, its production reuses a waste product that might otherwise be thrown away. As cocoa mulch breaks down, it can add nutrients to the soil. Moreover, the smell of chocolate in your garden is a big bonus!

Cocoa vs. Cacao Powder

Though the terms cocoa and cacoa powder are often used interchangeably, differences exist. Many experts use "cacao" for the pods, beans and ground-up contents of the beans, and calling the powder left after the fat is pressed out of the ground beans "cocoa."

Cocoa Butter vs. Cacao Butter

During the process of creating cacao from cacao beans, oil is created. This oil contains omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids, which provide pure cacao butter. Most cacao butter is edible, and you can use it as you do coconut oil. Cocoa butter, though similar, has been exposed to high heat.

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