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|Theobroma cacao L.|
The Cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is a small (4.5-7.5 m), evergreen tree in the Family Sterculiaceae, native to South America and Central America. Its seeds are used to make cocoa and chocolate.
The tree grows naturally at elevations of around 1,000 ft (300 m), requiring a humid climate with regular rainfall and good soil. The seeds, usually called "beans", come in a large fruit called a cacao pod that grows directly from the stem of the tree, is ovoid, 15-30 cm long, and 8-10 cm wide. The pod contains 20 to 60 seeds in a white pulp. Some 300 seeds produce around 1 kg of cocoa paste. Each seed contains a significant amount of fat (40-50% as cacao butter). Their most important active constituent is Theobromine, a compound somewhat similar to Caffeine.
There are three types of cacao beans used in chocolates. The most prized, rare, and expensive is the Criollo, the bean of the Maya. Only 10% of chocolate is made from the Criollo, which is less bitter and more aromatic than any other bean. The cacao bean in 80% of chocolate is the Forastero. Forastero trees are significantly hardier than Criollo trees, resulting in cheaper cacao beans. Trinatario, a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, is used in about 10% of chocolate.
Cacao beans were commonly used as currency in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In some areas, such as Yucatán, they were still used in place of small coins as late as the 1840s.
The English word cacao probably comes from the Yucatec Maya word cacau. The scientific name Theobroma means "divine food" in Greek.