Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is a small evergreen tree in the Malvaceae family native to the deeper tropical regions of Mesoamerica. Its seeds, known as cocoa beans, are used in the production of chocolate and cocoa butter. Unlike commercially produced chocolate, however, unprocessed cacao has a bitter, nutty taste and is loaded with powerful antioxidants.

While varieties of cacao abound, there are three primary types–Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario. The first, Forastero, is the most widely used, making up 80 to 90 percent of the production of cocoa and chocolate. Terminology surrounding the plant and its products can get tricky, but this is the general breakdown: the term cacao typically refers to the plant or its beans before processing, while chocolate refers to anything made from the beans. The word cocoa, while sometimes used interchangeably with cacao, technically refers to the fine powder of roasted cacao beans after a portion of their fat has been removed. Cocoa butter, meanwhile, refers to that fat extracted from the cocoa bean.

Native to Mesmoamerica, for centuries cacao was considered valuable enough to use as currency. Prized for its powerful antioxidants and nutrients, cacao was believed by the Maya and Aztec peoples to possess magical properties suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage, and death. In fact, Aztec sacrifice victims who felt too melancholy to join in ritual dancing before their death were often given a gourd of chocolate tinged with the blood of previous victims to cheer them up. 

According to Mayan mythology, the plumed serpent gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created from maize by the divine grandmother goddess Xmucane. The Maya celebrated an annual festival to honor their cacao god, Ek Chuah, an event that included the sacrifice of a dog with cacao-colored markings, additional animal sacrifices, offerings of cacao, feathers, and incense, and an exchange of gifts.

The earliest linguistic evidence of chocolate consumption stretches back three or even four millennia, to pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica such as the Olmec. Anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania announced the discovery of cacao residue on pottery excavated in Honduras that could date back as far as 1400 B.C.E. Cacao is believed to have been fermented into an alcoholic beverage at the time, which was used as a ritual by men only, as it was believed to be intoxicating and therefore unsuitable for women and children. 

Today, cacao nibs or powder are used in desserts, smoothies, granola, and more. Compared to chocolate, cacao is much more bitter and richer in flavor.

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