Classifying Cacao

In 1753, Carl Linnaeus officially classified the cacao tree as Theobroma cacao, or “the food of the gods” (S. Coe and M. Coe 17). Cacao’s voyage from Mesoamerica to Europe marked the beginning of an expeditious rise in popularity for chocolate beverages and a bevy of other products. European additives and processes would change chocolate consumption from traditional Mesoamerican beverages and recipes, but the source, cacao trees, would remain the same. Originally, cacao trees were classified based on specific qualities which rose to three classifications based mostly on region. Currently, over ten distinct types of cacao have been classified with different varieties inside each distinct type. The classification of cacao has continued to get increasingly more complicated since its initial introduction to Europe and will continue as scientists discover the intricacies of the cacao tree and its genome.

Cacao’s Origins

Cacao originates from the two genera Theobroma and Herrania which have only recently been considered distinct. (McNeil, D. Chase, and A. Chase 31)  Theobroma cacao, the most studied and used species from either of these genera,  originates from South America, but both wild T. cacao and cultivated T. cacao made their way to Mesoamerica and into Mesoamerican traditions for food, medicine, and rituals. The Mayans cultivated cacao and chocolate into a high art by churning it until it created foam, adding spices and flowers like achiote, and using it as a stimulant (Presilla 13). Cacao became a token of elite in Mesoamerican civilizations and, by the time the Spanish had reached Mesoamerica, cacao beans were being used as a currency. The first cacao was brought to Europe in 1502, ten years after Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World; Columbus brought cacao back on his fourth voyage after visiting the island of Guanaja. There Columbus encountered what he thought to be “almonds” which he described the Mayans as holding “at a great price” (S. Coe and M. Coe 108-109). Columbus even brought cacao beans back to Europe, but people were more concerned with the treasures he brought back and not the small, brown, dirty beans. Chocolate would not be prepared as a drink for almost thirty years later in Europe.

A short article on Columbus’ “discovery” of chocolate from the Huffington Post

Three Classifications of Cacao

Mesoamericans had an awareness and their own classifications of strains of cacao, but Spanish colonists began trying to name and classify cacao based on their tastes and appearance. Names like cacao dulce and cacao blanco emerged as descriptors; the only classifier that would remain would be Criollo which meant “born in the New World” (Presilla 33-34). Although scientists have now discovered over ten different, distinct strains of cacao, cultivators and farmers in South America still classify cacao by the three original classifications handed down: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitarios. Criollo and Forastero are largely based on geographic region, Criolo from northern South American and Meso America and Forastero from several parts of South America. Trinitarios are presumed to be a hybrid of Criollos in Trinidad with small strain called Amelonados in the Lower Amazon Basin. Although the old classifications are used often, there have been found nine distinct strains within the “Forasteros” category that have barely any relation to each other. Trinitarios, a hybrid of Criollos and Amelonados, was created in Trinidad after a severe plant epidemic that destroyed cacao groves; cultivators brought pods from the Orinoco basin which mixed with original Criollo trees in their groves creating a new hybrid which they named after the island – Trinitarios (Presilla 36).

What would be considered the three traditional variations of cacao:


Current Classifications of Cacao

In this same manner, cacao strains have become tangled and interwoven, creating hybrids of all varieties. Cacao originally classified as Forasteros makes up 90% of the world’s cacao production and harvesting (Presilla 37). Differentiating and classifying cacao strains has been particularly difficult because of the extreme similarities in genetic makeup of all forty Theobroma-Herrania plants (McNeil, D. Chase, and A. Chase 38). The chemical makeup of cacao is more complex especially when considering how different cacao strains affect the human body through antioxidants, stimulants, and neuroactives. Although scientists have been able to differentiate over ten strains of cacao tree, each species has also been hybridized and has specific varieties within each species. Each variety has a chemical makeup that is equally complex. Scientists still do not fully understand the effects of cacao and its products on the human body; chocolate’s addictive quality is theorized to be in affect because of the numerous neuroactives within cacao, but it has yet to be confirmed (McNeil, D. Chase, and A. Chase 45).

How many types of cacao are there?

Chocolate and cacao are largely undiscovered still. New strains and varieties appear every year and cacao continues to blend with other varieties. Cacao has been constantly changing since its discovery, traveling all the way from its origins in South America across the Atlantic Ocean to Africa. The cacao tree and chocolate have been globalized with the help of Spanish colonists and explorers and will continue to create new classifications and spread as the world demands chocolate. From three strains to ten strains, the genetic variety of cacao is slowly being discovered and shaped in a global market for a single product: chocolate.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

McNeil, Cameron L., Diane Z. Chase, and Arlen F. Chase. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a cultural history of cacao. Gainesville: U Press of Florida, 2009. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print

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