The Tree
[systematics], [nutrition], [ethnobotany], [chemical content], [relatives], [myths].

Systematics: Scientific Classification

Theobroma cacao L.
KINGDOM Plantae (202422)
SUBKINGDOM Tracheobionta (564824)
DIVISION Magnoliophyta (18061)
CLASS Magnoliopsida (18063)
SUBCLASS Dilleniidae (21341)
ORDER Byttneriaceae/Malvaceae (21500)
FAMILY Sterculiaceae (21543)
GENUS Theobroma (21556)
SPECIES cacao (505487)
SUBSPECIES cacao (524847)

Subspecies under Theobroma cacao (505487)
  • cacao ssp. cacao (524847)
  • cacao ssp. sphaerocarpum (524848)

Primary cultivated varieties of subspecies
    Theobroma cacao cacao (505487)
  • Forastero
  • Criollo
  • Trinitero
Species in genus Theobroma (21556)
  • angustifolium (506109)
  • bicolor (21557)
  • cacao (505487)
  • cocao (21558)
  • grandiflorum (506108)
  • mammosum (506106)
  • pentogona (21559)
  • simiarum (506107)
ITIS Classification Report http://www.itis.usda.gov

Nutritional Information

I have not found reliable information on the Nutritional content of Cacao. We all know that the web is very undependable and, of course, i found quite a bit of variability in references. However several things are certain:

Cacao does not raise blood cholesterol, it contains a fair amount of protein, and all three types of energy: fat, carbohydrates and sugar.

Since Cacao contains fat, sugars, carbohydrates and protein, it has historically been used as energy food -- it's energy content is high, 18500 kj/kg (2000 kcal/lb). It also contains high levels of catechin, fiber, carbohydrates, B vitamins and anti-oxidant-like substances. Calcium, Phosphates, Vitamins A, C and D occur in smaller quantities.

Cacao contains the same anti-oxidants (phenols) as red wine, which have been shown to possibly protect against heart disease. Pure dark Chocolate bars contain greater quantities than wine!

Like olive oil and avocado, Cocoa butter, the form of saturated fat found in Chocolate, does not raise blood cholesterol levels -- only saturated fats derived from animals do, nor is it stored in the ways that saturated fats cause weight gain.

Cacao seeds are 54% Cocoa Butter. Cocoa Butter molecules can arrange themselves in 6 or more different arrangements.

Two references on the nutritional content of pure Cacao Beans.
Stollwerck Chocolate Museum, Köln
54.1% Fat (Cocoa Butter)
11.5% Proteins
9.0% Cellulose
7.5% Starch
6.0% Tannins
5.0% Water
2.6% Acids
1.2% Theobromide
1.0% Sugar
Which only adds up to 97.9%. Go figure.
Protein 20%
Fat 25%
Carbohydrates 35%
Sugar (minimal).

Ethnobotany: Medicinal Uses

Known Chemicals

The Principal Alkaloid of the Cacao Bean is Theobromine (or Theobromide). It is a close structural relative of caffeine, which it is often confused with. The seeds are about 2 per cent Theobromide. The shells are about 1 per cent Theobromine. Some references suggest Cacao contains 0.2% Caffeine -- but this is inaccurate, see the
Caffeine section.

Adam Drewnowski at the University of Michigan found that eating Chocolate causes the brain to produce natural opiates, which dull pain and increase a feeling of well-being. Researchers at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, found three substances in Chocolate that "could act as cannabinoid mimics either directly (by activating cannabinoid receptors) or indirectly (by increasing anandamide levels)."

Pharmacologically Active Ingredients
    Compound percent
by weight
Serotonin 0.62 - 5.82
Histamine 0.04 - 0.13
Theobromine < 1.3
Caffeine not detected
Salsolinol High
Methyltetrahydroisoquinoline < 0.01
    Compound percent
by weight
Phenylethylamine 0.02 - 2.20
Tele-methylhistamine 0.01 - 1.54
Spermidine 0.05 - 1.15
p-tyramine 0.02 - 0.35
3-methyloxytyramine 0.02 - 0.33
Tryptamine 0.03 - 0.18
Spermine 0.00 - 0.13
Source: Biochemist, Apr/May 1993, p 15. copyright of Royal Society of Chemistry website 2000

Dr. Chudler says that Cacao contains approximately 380 known chemicals (but there are some glaring errors on that website). I am sorry i don't have the full list.

Raintree Nutrition lists 170 phytochemicals in Cacao. Caffeine is among them, a mistake, which could be caused by the common error of misidentifying Theobromide or it may simply be included through hearsay. (There are occasionally fairly dependable references which list it solely because of the urban legend.) Of course, since Nicotine and Acetate are also listed, it is possible Caffeine is one of dozens of chemicals that are listed here with microscope, inactive quantities.

Relatives of Theobroma cacao

Carob is not Chocolate, nor is it closely related. It is is ground from the long, dried pods of the Evergreen Carob tree, native to the Orient. It contains no Theobromide and little fat. It contains calcium, phosphorous and iron and lots of sugar. Carob powder, also known as St. John's Bread, is also used to produce cough syrup bases because it's pulp ferments well into alcohol due to it's high natural sugar content (about 50%).

I have been asked several times, but Cacao is not closely related to cocaine at all. It is also not closely related to Coffee or to Maté. (See Below.) Surprisingly, Cacao is rather closely related to cola -- they are in the same family.

Biological Systematic Classification of Some Common Stimulants
Kingdom Plantae
Subkingdom Tracheobionta
Division Magnoliophyta angiosperms, flowering plants
Class Magnoliopsida dicotyledons
Subclass Dilleniidae Asteridae Rosidae
Order Malvales (Byttneriaceae) Theales Rubiales Celastrales Linales
Family Sterculiaceae
Genus Theobroma Cola Camellia Coffea Ilex Erythroxylum


pachycarpa sinensis

arabica (Arabian)
benghalensis (bengal)
canephora (robusta)
congensis (congo)
liberica (Liberian)
stenophylla (coffea)
paraguariensis coca
native to S America S America? Asia Africa S America S America
product chocolate cola black tea coffee yerba maté cocaine

There is an unverified theory i have heard that Cacao and coffee diverged 100 million years ago when Pangeia broke up. The theory suggests that they were the same plant up to that time and the line that was in Africa became coffee and the line that was in America became Cacao. However, while the two plants do grow in similar situations and the seeds look very much alike; there are more than enough differences to create a some serious questions. They are in different biological families, one is a 15 meter high tree and the other a low bush, one grows best in direct sunshine and the other requires heavy shade, one grows at high elevations and the other only at low elevations and their ranges were not near each other in Pangeia (Ethiopia and Venezuela, although then on connected land masses, were 7000 km apart!).


Myths about Chocolate which have been conclusively proven wrong by science:

  • "Chocolate is addictive." Cacao is not in any way physically addictive.
  • "Chocolate has caffeine." Cacao does not naturally contain any caffeine. See the Caffeine section.
  • "I am allergic to Chocolate." A true Chocolate or Cocoa allergy is rare even though many people claim to be allergic to it. A study shows that only one out of every 500 people who thought they were allergic to Chocolate actually tested positive.
  • "Chocolate causes acne." Cacao does not promote acne. Most researches today believe acne to be more connected with lifestyle (stress) and hormones than any food at all; Cacao has been proven to have no effect on acne, positive or negative -- in many cases when people make this claim they are talking about the SUGAR in candy, not the Cacao, although a link between sugar and acne has never been proven.
  • "Chocolate makes you fat." Cacao does not promote obesity in any way. (Although the sugar in candy bars does!) Cocoa Butter is an unsaturated fat like olive oil or avocado and has shown no ill health effects whatsoever.
  • "Chocolate rots your teeth." Cacao does not promote tooth decay (although the sugar in candy bars does!) In fact, Pure Chocolate actually helps prevent tooth decay and some societies have used Cocoa Butter to coat the teeth to protect them!
Myths about Chocolate which may have some truth to them:
  • Headaches -- Theobromide is a powerful stimulant, it is not uncommon for people to have reactions such as headaches when ingesting a stimulant.
    I have been attempting to test it to cure migraines (opposite of a headache), with some possibly promising results!
  • Cacao has never been proven to be an aphrodisiac, however
    1. Theobromide is proven to cause both physical and mental relaxation, a sense of well-being and alertness which could certainly promote sexual interest.
    2. Chocolate is a "treat"; something most people enjoy and cherish. This feeling has proven aphrodisiac effects.
    3. For many centuries, Chocolate has been identified with love, and yes, with sex -- we can react to social identifications, whether there is a basis in science or not.

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