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History of Cacao: Origin of Cocoa Powder

The is a fascinating journey that spans centuries and continents, culminating in the creation of one of the world's most versatile culinary delights: powder. From its ancient beginnings as a sacred drink among Mesoamerican civilizations to its transformation into a multipurpose ingredient that graces our food industry today, the evolution of cacao and the birth of tell a tale of cultural significance, culinary innovation, and global trade. In 2022, the cocoa powder market is valued at USD 2.6 billion, and the market size is estimated at USD 116 billion. Delve into the captivating narrative of how cacao's rich heritage ultimately led to the , shaping the way we experience and enjoy chocolate in modern times.

History of Cacao: Origin of Cocoa Powder

Who First Discovered Cocoa?

The discovery of cocoa can be traced back to pre-Colombian cultures. History of cacao started more than 5000 years ago. So, back in the day, it was the ancient folks living in places like Mexico and Central America who stumbled upon cocoa. You know, the Maya, Aztecs, and even the Olmecs before them. These guys were the real pioneers when it came to cocoa discovery.

History of Cacao: Origin of Cocoa Powder

They had this thing for cocoa, or cacao as they called it. They weren't chomping on , though. They used the cocoa beans to whip up this bitter drink that was a big deal during their special ceremonies and fancy events. Think of it as their version of a super cool beverage.

The Aztecs even had this cool name for it: “chocolātl.” It was their Nahuatl way of saying “cocoa water.” They'd grind up the cocoa beans, mix them with water, spices, and maybe throw in some extra flavors to make this frothy, magical drink. Why magical? Because cocoa is not only for ceremonial drinks, but also for medicinal purposes.

Then, fast forward a few centuries. When European explorers showed up on the scene in the 16th century, they stumbled upon this cocoa wonder. They decided to bring it back with them to Europe. Hernán Cortés is often credited with introducing cocoa to Europe. And as time went on, people started experimenting with cocoa in all sorts of ways, leading to the chocolatey treats we adore today.

Why is Cocoa Important in History?

Cocoa has a rich historical importance because of its deep cultural, medicinal, and economic significance over time. The Maya and Aztec civilizations, for instance, saw cocoa beans not just as something to eat, but also as valuable currency used in cooking and special ceremonies. They held cocoa in such high esteem that they called it “a gift from the gods,” as written in ancient Mayan texts.

History of Cacao: Origin of Cocoa Powder

From a medicinal perspective, cocoa has been historically used for a wide range of health purposes. It was believed to have nourishing, fortifying, and aphrodisiac properties by the Aztecs, who associated it with fertility, wisdom, and power. Cocoa was used to treat mental fatigue, strengthen gums, and had various other applications.

The introduction of cocoa to Europe by Hernán Cortés in the late fifteenth century marked a significant turning point in its history. The popularity of cocoa quickly spread throughout Europe, leading to the establishment of the global chocolate industry. In addition to its cultural and culinary significance, cocoa also played a role in European medicine. Doctors in Europe began recommending to patients in the 1700s, and American physicians followed suit in the early 1800s.

How was cocoa first used in Europe?

When cacao and cocoa was first introduced in Europe, it was primarily enjoyed in the form of a beverage. at that time was different from cocoa drink of today.

History of Cacao: Origin of Cocoa Powder

The cocoa beverage was prepared by grinding roasted cocoa beans into a paste and then mixing it with water. The resulting mixture was often flavoured with spices such as vanilla, cinnamon, or chili. Sugar or honey was added to sweeten the beverage. The drink was typically consumed hot and was known for its stimulating and invigorating effects.

Where was Cocoa Powder Discovered?

The Netherlands.

How was Cocoa Powder Discovered?

The origin of cocoa powder begun in the Netherlands. Cocoa powder was developed in response to the growing demand for improved cocoa products. Some of the driving factors are:

  • To improve taste and texture: Traditional chocolate beverages made from cacao beans often had a gritty texture and a strong, bitter taste. Consumers were seeking a smoother, more refined texture and a milder flavour profile.
  • Convenience: Traditional chocolate beverages required labour-intensive preparation, involving grinding cacao beans, and mixing them with other ingredients. There was a desire for a more convenient and user-friendly method of preparing chocolate drinks.
  • Market expansion: As chocolate gained popularity, there was a growing demand for products that could be easily transported and stored. There is also a drive to use cocoa in various other recipes, not just beverages.
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These challenges started the origin of cocoa powder. To answer these demands, a Dutch inventor named Coenraad Van Houten developed a hydraulic press in 1828 that could efficiently separate the cacao solids from the fats () in cacao paste. This process, known as “cocoa pressing,” allowed for the extraction of cocoa butter and the creation of a drier, finer cocoa powder. Van Houten's press significantly improved the texture and consistency of chocolate beverages. It marks the origin cocoa powder, a pivotal period in cocoa processing.

Why is Cocoa Powder Alkalized?

Get ready for part two, the Origin of Cocoa Powder: Alkalized version. After the cocoa powder invention by Coenraad Van Houten, his son, Casparus Van Houten, introduced the alkalinization process. The Van Houten family sure play a big part in the history of cacao. Due to its inventor's nationality, the process is often called ‘Dutching.' This innovation was prompted by a combination of factors:

  • Flavor Improvement: Natural cocoa powder is still very bitter. Van Houten recognized that by treating cocoa with an alkaline solution, he could neutralize some of the bitter compounds present in cocoa, resulting in a smoother and more palatable flavor.
  • Color Enhancement: The Dutch process also darkened the color of the cocoa, giving it a richer and more appealing appearance. This darker color was aesthetically pleasing and contributed to the visual appeal of chocolate products.
  • Solubility Enhancement: The alkalinization process increased the solubility of cocoa in liquids, making it easier to dissolve and incorporate into recipes. This improved solubility opened up new possibilities for using cocoa in various culinary applications, such as baking and cooking.
  • Texture and Consistency: The Dutch process cocoa had a finer and more consistent texture, which made it easier to work with in recipes. This enhanced texture allowed for smoother mixing and better distribution of cocoa in various dishes.
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In summary, Coenraad Van Houten's discovery of the alkalinization process was driven by a commitment to improving the overall quality of cocoa and chocolate products. By addressing flavour, colour, solubility, and texture, he responded to consumer demands for a more refined and enjoyable cocoa experience, forever changing the history of cacao and contributing to the continued evolution of the chocolate industry.

Read More: Alkalized vs Non Alkalized Cocoa Powder

How did Cacao Spread to Asia?

Over time, the Europeans developed strong affinity for cacao. However, they are unable to grow cacao locally due to unsuitable climate conditions and soil characteristics. Cacao needs tropical climate with high humidity, abundant rainfall, consistent temperature, and soil with slightly acidic pH. Hence, to maintain steady supply of cocoa, Europeans decided to introduce cacao to Asia.

Cacao was introduced to Asia during the colonial era, primarily through the efforts of European powers engaged in exploration, trade, and colonization.


Cacao was introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish colonizers during the 16th century. It marks the start of history of cacao in Asia. The Philippines served as a major trading hub between the Spanish colonies in the Americas and Asia. Spanish galleons carried various goods, including cacao, between Manila (Philippines) and Acapulco (Mexico). This facilitated the exchange of commodities and cultural elements between the two continents.


In the 17th century, the Portuguese, who had established colonies in Goa and other parts of India, contributed to the introduction of cacao to the Indian subcontinent. Portuguese traders and explorers likely brought cacao beans with them from their American colonies and introduced them to India.

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Spaniards first introduced cacao into Indonesia on Sulawesi Island in the mid-17th century. Later, Dutch colonial powers played a significant role in the spread of cacao to Indonesia during the 18th century. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) had established a strong presence in Indonesia, and they likely brought cacao seeds or saplings to cultivate in their colonies, particularly Java.

Sri Lanka

British colonial influence during the 19th century likely contributed to the introduction of cacao to Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). British planters experimented with cultivating cacao alongside other crops in their colonies.

The exact years of introduction may vary, and historical records from that time are not always precise. However, it's clear that cacao made its way to different parts of Asia during the colonial period, as European powers established trade networks and colonial outposts in the region. Once introduced, cacao was adapted to local climates and cultural practices, leading to the development of distinct cacao-related products and traditions in various Asian countries.

History of cacao into Asia showcases the complex interactions between colonial powers, trade routes, and agricultural transfers during a pivotal time.

Is Cocoa Grown in Indonesia?

Yes. The origin of cocoa powder may started in the Netherlands, but today Indonesia is recognized as the third-largest cocoa-producing country in the world. It contributes significantly to the global cocoa production, accounting for about 14.7% of the world cocoa production. Cocoa farming in Indonesia plays a crucial role in the country's economy, providing a source of foreign exchange and employment opportunities.

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One of the most significant challenges in planting cocoa in Indonesia is pest infestation. The Cacao Pod Borer (Conopomorpha cramerella) is an endemic species of the Southeast Asia and western Pacific archipelagos (Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia). The pest play an important role in the history of cacao. It is theorised the Cacao Pod Borer was initially a pest that preferred local plants such as rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum L.) and langsat (Lansium parasiticum). However, Cacao Pod Borer later switched host to cocoa.

At present, this pest causes an estimated loss of 40 to 60% in cocoa production, reaching up to 80 to 90% in unmanaged farms. This results in an annual economic impact of approximately USD $500 million solely for the Indonesian cocoa sector. Furthermore, the pest's impact played a crucial role in the substantial decline of the cocoa industry in Malaysia.

Where is Cocoa Produced in Indonesia?

The main Indonesian cacao producing region is the island of Sulawesi, which accounts for around 75% of Indonesia's total cocoa production. Other regions where cocoa is produced in Indonesia include North Sumatra, West Java, Papua, and East Kalimantan. The sector in Indonesia is mainly driven by smallholder farmers, covering an estimated of 1.462 – 1.653 million hectares areas.

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As we have known, cacao beans are later processed into cocoa powder. If you are looking for cocoa powder for your business, send your inquiry to [email protected]. We will be happy to help you!

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