Geography in the News: Hot Chocolate

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM and


A new type of chocolate came on the market around 2010. Chocolate makers boasted that acticoa, which is packed with antioxidants, slows the aging process and prevents wrinkles. If true, this is even one more reason to eat this decadent confection.

Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao (cah-COW) tree. Botanists believe the tropical broadleaf evergreen tree is native to South America’s Amazon and Orinoco river basins. Long before the Europeans arrived in Central America, the Aztecs used the seeds as both a food and money.

After Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire in 1528, he sent cacao back to Spain. The seed’s popularity slowly spread throughout Europe, becoming popular as a beverage in England by the early 1700s. Perhaps in a simple misspelling, the English translation of “cacao” became “cocoa,” a widely accepted term for a chocolate drink.

The cacao tree’s natural habitat is the tropical rain forest, where it grows in the shade beneath the forest canopy. The tree does not thrive in the open sunlight.

Europeans quickly realized cacao’s profitable nature and introduced it to the rain forests of their African colonies in the 1800s. West African production flourished, as local farmers planted cacao trees on small acreages, not on large plantations.

The cacao seeds grow in pods about the size of a small, elongated melon. Inside the pods are about 30 almond-shaped seeds or beans. After harvest, most cacao beans are exported to companies around the world for processing. Sometimes, the beans are cleaned, fermented and dried locally before export. More often, countries importing the raw cacao beans treat them and then press them into intermediate products such as cocoa paste/liquor, cocoa butter, cocoa cakes and cocoa powder. Chocolate manufacturers such as Hershey add ingredients like sugar, milk and nuts to intermediate cocoa to produce finished edible chocolates.

Today, cacao is grown principally in West Africa (71 percent of total production), Central and South America (13 percent) and Asia (16 percent). The eight largest cocoa-producing countries in order of annual production size are Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, Ecuador and Malaysia. These countries represent 90 percent of the world production, while countries like Mexico, Dominican Republic, Colombia and Papua New Guinea make up the other 10 percent.


While cacao is produced primarily in relatively poor tropical countries, most of the world’s chocolate is made and consumed in the developed countries. In 2008, 8.1 million tons (7.3 million metric tons) of chocolate were consumed globally with an estimated retail value of approximately $93 billion.

Now, the chocolate markets are changing. Many in the developed world are choosing higher priced products and premium brands of chocolate. These socially and environmentally conscious chocolate lovers are demanding more than great-tasting chocolate. They are choosing brands and companies that demonstrate strong eco-friendly practices and direct farmer support. They want organic, fair-trade chocolate — even though the price tag for a bar may range from $3 to $10.

And just how does acticoa help defy aging? The chocolate company Barry Callebaut developed a way to preserve antioxidants called flavonols contained in cacao beans. While normally destroyed in the chocolate-making process, these flavonols supposedly “mop up” free radicals, or by-products from smoking, pollutions, caffeine and lack of sleep that harm cells and are linked to chronic diseases. Studies are showing that eating acticoa can help hydrate the skin and improve its elasticity, thereby contributing to a youthful appearance.

Chocolate lovers worldwide have even more reasons to enjoy chocolate.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM.

Sources: GITN #443, “Chocolate Lovers,” May 14, 1998;  GITN #1046 Loving Chocolate, June 18, 2010;; and

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

This is a version of an article, GITN #1046 Loving Chocolate (June 18, 2010), rewritten for David Braun’s NewsWatch blog. Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles (with Spanish translations) are available in the K-12 online education resource, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.



Human Journey

Meet the Author
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..