Cocoa is the fundamental ingredient in all things chocolate: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and cocoa powder, among other things. It is the seeda of the cacao tree (theobroma cacao, literally food of the Gods), a tropical understory tree that grows only in wet environments near the equator. The seed pods grow directly from the trunk and branches. It originates from South America, but today it is mostly grown in Africa. Cocoa has a rich and storied history. It has been the exclusive delicacy of royalty, it has served as currency, and it has become what it is today—an everyday treat for people worldwide and an important cash crop for many developing countries.
The cacao tree is native to the equatorial region of the Western Hemisphere. Its documentary record dates back to the classic period of the Maya civilization of Mesoamerica (600–900 A.D.), though as a wild food source, it was almost certainly in use before then. With the rise of Aztec society chocolate became a drink reserved for the royalty. One of the names used by the Aztecs was chocolatl, which eventually became the word chocolate. The first westerner to see chocolate was Christopher Columbus, who encountered it as a form of currency used in the new world. Soon after that came Hernando Cortès and the Spanish conquest, and chocolate finally made its way to Europe in 1544. In the early 1800s Coenraad Van Houten developed an alkalizing process that made chocolate less acidic. This eventually led to ...