The Amazon Rainforest is known for being one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Its natural wealth, however, goes far beyond the animals that roam the land and river. When you travel to the jungle, you’ll see that the Amazon is home to rare and powerful plants that have been used by ancient civilizations (and are still being used today) for their powerful medicinal and health properties.
In this article, we’ll be talking specifically about the Cacao Fruit. For those who didn’t know, Cacao is the key ingredient in chocolate, and you’ll be surprised to hear that the words healthy and chocolate can indeed go together. Read on below to learn more about the chocolatey goodness of the Cacao Tree of the Amazon Rainforest.
The cacao tree, or ‘Theobroma cacao’ – Theobroma meaning “food of the gods” in Latin – is a tree that grows in the Amazon Rainforest and other tropical areas of the Americas. It grows very well in humid forest ecosystems – in the Upper Amazon Basin, it can reach an incredible fifty feet in height – which is why scientists believe this tree originated in the Peruvian or Ecuadorian Amazon over 5000 years ago. Cacao trees were first domesticated for their raw fruit because the sweet pulp can be eaten as a snack or fermented into a mildly alcoholic beverage.
It was later discovered that the fruit’s seeds, or cacao beans, are the magic ingredient for everyone’s favorite dessert, chocolate. There are many different and distinctive ‘genetic clusters’ of these trees, that’s why you’ll see that cacao fruit varies in size, shape, texture, and color. If you’re a chocolate connoisseur, you’ll know that chocolate flavors vary depending on the type of cacao fruit and which region it was harvested in. The harvesting process plays a big role in the final taste of the chocolate bar, as well as the additional ingredients added in (such as sugar, dairy, fruits, nuts, etc…).
Raw cacao can be easily incorporated into any diet for an extra boost of antioxidants. In its purest form, it is an antioxidant powerhouse containing 40x the antioxidants of blueberries. By adding raw cacao to your morning smoothie, oatmeal, or cereal, you can benefit from its natural energetic properties, giving you a spike in mental alertness and focus.
What you may not know is that Cacao is also very high in calcium and is the highest plant-based source of iron. It’s full of magnesium for a healthy heart and brain. So don’t feel so bad next time you have a chocolate craving, just be sure to select high-quality chocolate ( 75% cacao and up).
Indigenous tribes have long used the cacao tree to cure common ailments. The leaves of the cacao tree are commonly used as a heart tonic and diuretic. The seeds can be toasted and combined with the tree’s bark to be used in brews to treat asthma. Additionally, the oil from the seeds (more commonly known as cocoa butter), is used as a laxative and turned into lotions to treat mild skin conditions.
The best place to see and try natural cacao is definitely at the source, in the Amazon Rainforest itself. During your Amazon jungle tour, you’ll have the opportunity to trek through the jungle with your expert naturalist guide, where you’ll look for the colorful cacao fruit. When you spot the fruit, observe the differences in color, size, and texture, they really do come in all different types of shapes and sizes. While aboard an Amazon River cruise, your cruise guide will lead you through an Amazonian Fruit and Plant workshop, where you can get a chance to taste the chocolate fruit and beans in their natural form. You’ll be surprised that the fruit is quite sweet and tastes a little bit like a “custard apple.” The beans however are as expected, extremely bitter!
If you happen to be in Lima, we recommended visiting El Cacaotal, a very interesting boutique chocolate shop in Barranco. El Cacaotal is an edible library that gathers the best of Peruvian bean-to-bar chocolate under one roof. Sit, sample, and get in touch with the roots of Peruvian chocolate and cacao. The shop has over 200 bars and over 40 brands, there is a chocolate bar for every taste and preference. El Cacaotal also offers bean-to-bar workshops where you can learn the process of how good quality chocolate is made in this part of the world.
Whether you are a child of an Amazonian tribe sucking on the seeds straight from the Cacao tree itself, or an adult succumbing to some chocolate temptation of an evening on the other side of the planet, the gifts of the Amazon Rainforest’s Cacao Tree are felt the world over.
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