Theobroma cacao also cacao tree and cocoa tree, is a small (4–8 m (13–26 ft) tall) evergreen tree in the family Malvaceae, native to the deep tropical regions of Central and South America. Its seeds, cocoa beans, are used to make cocoa mass, cocoa powder, and chocolate.

Distribution and domestication
​T. cacao is widely distributed from southeastern Mexico to the Amazon basin. There were originally two hypotheses about its domestication; one said that there were two foci for domestication, one in the Lacandon area of Mexico and another in lowland South America. More recent studies of patterns of DNA diversity, however, suggest that this is not the case. Motomayor et al.  sampled 1241 trees and classified them into 10 distinct genetic clusters. This study also identified areas, for example around Iquitos in modern Peru, where representatives of several genetic clusters originated. This result suggests that this is where T. cacao

was originally domesticated, probably for the pulp that surrounds the beans, which is
eaten as a snack and fermented into a mildly alcoholic beverage. Using the DNA
sequences obtained by Motomayor et al. and comparing them with data derived from
climate models and the known conditions suitable for cacao, Thomas et al. have
further refined the view of domestication, linking the area of greatest cacao genetic
diversity to a bean-shaped area that encompasses the border between Brazil and
Peru and the southern part of the Colombian-Brazilian border. Climate models
indicate that at the peak of the last ice age 21,000 years ago, when habitat suitable
for cacao was at its most reduced, this area was still suitable, and so provided a
refugium for the species. Thomas et al. speculate that from there people took cacao
to Mexico, where selection for the beans took place.

​Cacao trees grow well as understory plants in humid forest ecosystems. This is equally true of abandoned cultivated trees, making it difficult to distinguish truly wild trees from those whose parents may originally have been cultivated.

History of cultivation 

​Cultivation, use, and cultural elaboration of cacao were early and extensive in Mesoamerica. Ceramic vessels with residues from the preparation of cacao beverages have been found at archaeological sites dating back to the Early Formative (1900-900 BC) period. For example, one such vessel found at an Olmec archaeological site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico dates cacao's preparation by pre-Olmec peoples as early as 1750 BC.[9] On the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico, a Mokaya archaeological site provides evidence of cacao beverages dating even earlier, to 1900 BC. The initial domestication was probably related to the making of a fermented, thus alcoholic beverage. 

​Several mixtures of cacao are described in ancient texts, for ceremonial or medicinal, as well as culinary, purposes. Some mixtures included maize, chili, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), and honey. Archaeological evidence for use of cacao, while relatively sparse, has come from the recovery of whole cacao beans at Uaxactun, Guatemala[11] and from the preservation of wood fragments of the cacao tree at Belize sites including Cuello and Pulltrouser Swamp.[12] In addition, analysis of residues from ceramic vessels has found traces of theobromine and caffeine in early formative vessels from Puerto Escondido, Honduras (1100-900 BC) and in middle formative vessels fromColha, Belize (600-400 BC) using similar techniques to those used to extract chocolate residues from four classic period (circa 400 AD) vessels from a tomb at the Maya archaeological site of Rio Azul. As cacao is the only known commodity from Mesoamerica containing both of these alkaloid compounds, it seems likely these vessels were used as containers for cacao drinks. In addition, cacao is named in a hieroglyphic text on one of the Rio Azul vessels. Cacao was also believed to be ground by the Aztecs and mixed with tobacco for smoking purposes.

​Cacao production has increased from 1.5 million tons in 1983-1984 to 3.5 million tons in 2003-2004, almost entirely due to the expansion of the production area rather than to yield increases. Cacao is grown both by large agroindustrial plantations and small producers, the bulk of production coming from millions of farmers who have a few trees each.

​A tree begins to bear when it is four or five years old. A mature tree may have 6,000 flowers in a year, yet only about 20 pods. About 1,200 seeds (40 pods) are required to produce 1 kg (2.2 lb) of cocoa paste.

​Historically, chocolate makers have recognized three main cultivar groups of cacao beans used to make cocoa and chocolate. The most prized, rare, and expensive is the Criollo group, the cocoa bean used by the Maya. Only 10% of chocolate is made from Criollo, which is less bitter and more aromatic than any other bean. The cacao bean in 80% of chocolate is made using beans of the Forastero group. Forastero trees are significantly hardier than Criollo trees, resulting in cheaper cacao beans. Trinitario, a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, is used in about 10% of chocolate. The criollo cacao beans from Chuao in Aragua, Venezuela are widely regarded as some of the finest in the world. In November 2000, the cacao beans coming from said region were awarded an appellation of origin under the title "Cacao de Chuao" (from Spanish-cacao of Chuao) effectively making this one of the most expensive and sought after types of cacao.

​A new, genetically based classification of 10 groups may well help breeders to create new varieties that are both pest- and disease-resistant and contain valued flavours.

​Major cocoa bean processors include Hershey's, Nestlé and Mars, all of which purchase cocoa beans via various sources.In June 2009, Mars Botanicals, a division of Mars, launched Cirku, a cocoa extract product that provides cocoa flavanols made with a patented process that contains a high level of phytonutrients.

Part of Plant Used




Whole fresh or dried or powdered


Cacao - Mexico

​​Theobroma cacao