Frequently Asked Questions features a list of questions and answers that will facilitate understanding of the cocoa world.
The various topics are organised alphabetically in various categories and have been answered by cocoa experts.
If, after navigating these topics, you have not found the answer to your questions, please click here to complete and send the contact form, which will be directed to our information service; we will respond as soon as possible.
Q: Where does Cocoa originate from?
Cocoa is made by processing the dried seeds which can be found within the pods hanging from the cocoa tree. The cocoa tree has long been linked to the Mayan and other ancient civilisations in Mesoamerica. However, a recent genetic research led by Omar Cornejo, a Washington State University population geneticist, revealed in October 2018 that the Criollo variety (the world’s most coveted variety of cocoa) actually originated and was first domesticated in Northern Ecuador, but was later on fully domesticated in Central America about 3,600 years ago.
In a nutshell, Criollo was found to have first been domesticated in South America (present-day Ecuador), and not in Central America as previously thought.
Q: How did West Africa end up as the leading producer region, given cocoa originated from South America?
Following its discovery, the expansion of cocoa production beyond America to now encompassing the globe along the tropical belt, started with the Spanish conquest of the region in the sixteenth century. Chocolate subsequently became accepted in the Spanish court and later spread throughout Europe.
Increasing demand for cocoa in Spain led to the introduction of this plant species into a number of Spanish colonial territories during the early part of the seventeenth century. Cultivation was established in the areas now known as the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, and Ecuador in South America, and on the island of Fernando Po (now Equatorial Guinea) off the western African coast. Later in the century, merchants from other European nations, in particular France, England, Portugal and the Netherlands, responded to the growing demand by introducing cocoa trees to other islands of the Caribbean, Asia and South America, including Brazil.
The next stage in the expansion of cocoa cultivation to other parts of the world began in earnest in the nineteenth century. The most significant development was the introduction of the crop to many parts of Western Africa.
In the early twentieth century, cocoa was still predominantly produced in the Americas: Ecuador, Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago being the largest producers.
This soon changed, however, with the rise of what ultimately became the dominant region for cocoa production for the remainder of the twentieth century, West Africa. African production started to overtake the Americas as early as 1920.
Q: What are the optimal growing conditions for cocoa?
The Cocoa tree, which belongs to the genus Theobroma, a group of about 20 species of small trees found in the wild in the Amazon basin and other tropical areas of Central and South America, grows best in tropical regions, on a belt between approximately 20° north and 20° south of the Equator. Most cocoa is grown at an altitude of less than 400 metres (1,200 feet) above sea level. Ideal temperatures are between 18°C and 32°C (65°F to 90°F). Rainfall should be at least 1,000 mm but not more than 3,000 mm (400 to 1,100 inches) per year. For optimal production, the tree requires protection from direct sunlight and excessive winds.
Q: How many varieties of cocoa do we distinguish?
The cocoa market distinguishes three main varieties of cocoa beans: the great majority being of the Forastero type, or so-called bulk cocoa comprising 93.5% of world cocoa production; the minority being the so-called fine or flavour cocoa – the speciality beans, often originating from Criollo planting materials, and the third variety known as the Trinitario, widely renowned as the world´s finest cocoa hybrid. It is a unique hybrid collection of types that arose in Trinidad (from crossings between mixed Criollo and mixed Forastero types).
Other than by reputation, there is no universally-accepted criterion for distinguishing between fine or flavour and bulk or ordinary cocoa, though as sensory evaluation techniques advance, this may become possible.Planting material is also important, though it alone cannot be used to distinguish between fine or flavour cocoas and bulk types.
As contained through the web link below, Annex “C” of the International Cocoa Agreement, 2010 provides the list of producing countries that are recognised as exporting either exclusively or partially fine or flavour cocoa.
Q: How long does it take for a cocoa tree to start bearing fruits?
Cocoa trees take 3-5 years to yield a crop, with hybrid varieties providing crops earlier. Notwithstanding, cocoa trees have a lifespan of about 25 years, but they can last longer with reduced production.
Q: To date, how much do we know about cocoa propagation techniques?
Traditionally, cocoa is propagated by means of seeds and to a lesser degree, grafting, in order to maintain a genetically stable population. Seeds propagation is cost effective and relatively portable.
Although more expensive, a new approach involves the introduction of genetic elite plants in a fast and reliable manner. Cocoa is propagated by somatic embryogenesis (also called “cloning”) and by micro propagation techniques. Somatic embryos are mainly produced in vitro.
Somatic embryogenesis is a process by which somatic cells undergo bipolar development to give rise to genetically identical whole plants by means of the development of adventitious embryos that occur without the fusion of gametes. The development of somatic embryogenesis systems of cocoa trees has opened a new avenue for vegetative propagation.
Q: Where is cocoa mostly produced?
For the 2019/20 cocoa year, the ICCO Secretariat forecast indicates that 9 countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Ecuador, Cameroon, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, Peru and the Dominican Republic) produce altogether over 93% of the world’s cocoa output.
Q: What are the main challenges facing cocoa growers?
Typically, cocoa is produced by smallholders or through family subsistence farming. In West Africa, for example, where about 70% of the world production comes from, many farms have less than a hectare dedicated to cocoa. The same is generally true for South-East Asia, and Indonesia in particular. There are however exceptions. Some large cocoa farms can be found in Brazil and Ecuador.
And these growers typically face a large number and a wide variety of challenges; some are location specific, but many are common to nearly all cocoa growing regions.
Average yields for cocoa production are low due to extensive systems of cultivation, ageing tree populations, high incidence and poor control systems of pests and diseases, ageing farmer populations, shortage of affordable labour, lack of easily available inputs, poor extension services and above all, the use of poor/average quality planting material.
This is the most important input in any cropping system; in the case of cocoa, trees need to give a good yield of dry beans under a range of growing conditions, having a number of desirable agricultural, commercial and local characters. Sadly, a high proportion of the cocoa planting material currently in use does not meet many of these desirable criteria.
Age of cocoa trees
A high percentage of the world cocoa tree stock is of advanced age.
Availability of suitable land
Cocoa has generally been planted following timber logging from primary forests.
Lack of credit availability for smallholders
Banking systems are unable to provide suitable seasonal or replanting credits for smallholder cocoa growers in any of the major growing areas. In many cases, this is because growers do not have any, or adequate, collateral as they often do not possess any formal title proving ownership of the land they have been using for decades. This is a major constraint to efficient cocoa cultivation.
Q: Do all cocoa producing countries share the same harvest season?
No. Cocoa production is highly seasonal. Almost every producing country goes through two crop harvesting periods: the main crop and the intermediary crop (also called the mid-crop). The percentage of crop harvested in the main crop season and the mid-crop season will vary from country to country. The biggest differential between main and mid-crop harvests is in Africa where the mid-crop accounts for about 15%-20% of the total harvest; in other countries the differential is not so obvious.
The following table gives an idea of the main and mid-crop seasons in selected countries.
|Country||Main Crop||Mid – Crop|
|Brazil||October – March||June – September|
|Cameroon||September – March||May – August|
|Côte d’Ivoire||October – March||May – August|
|Ecuador||March – June||October – February|
|Ghana||September – March||May – August|
|Indonesia||September – December||March – July|
|Malaysia||September – February||March – May|
|Nigeria||September – March||May – August|
Q: How is cocoa harvested?
As is the case with many other tropical crops, the cocoa harvest is spread over several months, usually with a major peak and a minor peak of pod ripeness/harvesting . A maturing crop tends to suppress further flowering, and some varieties have sharper peaks than others, though the new hybrids tend to have a flatter harvest pattern. These factors, together with weather variations between seasons, make accurate predictions of crop timing and size difficult.
Ripe pods can be harvested over a 2-week time frame (before, as, or after they start to change colour) usually with no yield loss and can be left on the tree for a further 2-3 weeks without a reduction in flavour quality.
Rodents are attracted by the sweet mucilage in the ripe pod; any rodent damage breaks the pod wall, exposes the rip beans to oxygen and levels of germinated beans can become significant. These are classified as a defect and are to be avoided – the germ is often broken off and moulds can enter through the resulting hole.
The pods are opened to remove the beans within a week to 10 days after harvesting. In general, the harvested pods are grouped together and split either on or at the edge of the plantation. Sometimes the pods are transported to a fermenter before splitting. If the pods are opened in the planting areas, the discarded husks can be distributed throughout the fields to return nutrients to the soil. The best way of opening the pods is to use a wooden club which, if it strikes the central area of the pod, causes it to split into two halves; it is then easy to remove by hand the beans. A cutting tool, such as a machete, is often used to split the pod though this can damage the beans. Some machinery has been developed for pod opening but smallholders in general carry out the process manually.
After extraction from the pod, the beans undergo a fermentation and drying process before being bagged for delivery.
Q: What role does cocoa fermentation play in the development of cocoa flavour?
Cocoa flavour is developed in two parts: the first is on the farm through correct fermentation of the wet beans by the grower, and the second by the processor in the factory at the roasting step. Good cocoa flavour cannot be produced by going through only one of these stages. In the initial stages of fermentation, much of the pulp drains away and sometime between 36 and 72 hours the beans are fermented.
Unfermented or insufficiently fermented beans have poor cocoa flavour and so are destined for cocoa butter extraction rather than for chocolate manufacture.
Fermentation methods vary considerably from country to country and even from grower to grower, but there are basically two approaches: fermentation in a wooden box – often adopted by larger growers – and fermentation in a heap on the ground covered with banana leaves – more frequently used by smaller growers.
After fermentation, the cocoa beans are dried.
Q: Is it true that the best quality cocoa is always produced when the beans have been fully dried?
Yes. After fermentation, the moisture content of the beans needs to be reduced from 55% to 7.5% – an appropriate moisture content for secure storage of cocoa for a couple of months in the tropics. Smallholders lay the wet beans on raised bamboo mats or, less satisfactorily (for hygiene considerations), on concrete platforms on the ground in the villages.
The duration of drying depends on the weather, but it is unusual for sun-drying in many countries to be completed in less than a week. The best quality cocoa is always produced when the beans have been fully dried (to about 7.5% moisture) in the sun.
Q: Given the prevailing climatic conditions, for how long can cocoa be stored in origin countries?
Even when fully dried (maximum 7.5% moisture) and kept under good conditions, there is a risk of mould developing and pests spreading in cocoa stored in tropical areas for over 2-3 months. It is thus not recommended to store cocoa beans for long periods.
Storage at these tropical temperatures and/or in damp humid conditions will lead to a rise in the free fatty acid levels after only a few weeks.
Q: What are the steps involved in the chocolate making process?
The basic protocol followed in the processing of cocoa beans is quite consistent around the world. It is the variation in the equipment used, raw material sources, cocoa bean blends and operating conditions which provide the noted product differences. The same situation exists in the production of chocolate.
As with many other tropical crops, the cocoa harvest is spread over several months, usually with a major peak and a minor peak of pod ripeness/harvesting.
Careful removal of the pods from the trees with a knife is required to avoid damage to the flower cushions.
After inspecting and conducting the necessary tests to ensure compliance with international standards and regulatory requirements, the cocoa beans cleaning process takes place.
The inside of an undamaged cocoa bean is clean in all respects (removal of foreign material ranging from machete blades to shotgun shells), and will remain so as long as it is stored properly and is not mixed with contaminated materials not completely removed during cleaning or subsequent steps downstream.
Chocolate flavour is developed in two parts: the first is on the farm through correct fermentation of the wet beans by the grower, and the second by the processor in the factory at the roasting step. Good chocolate flavour cannot be produced by adhering to only one of these stages.
In the initial stages of fermentation, much of the pulp drains away and sometime between 36 and 72 hours the beans are fermented. The processes of flavour development are complex, and still quite poorly understood, though good progress has been made recently through the use of expert analytical and sensory evaluation (flavour profiling) techniques.
After fermentation, the moisture content of the beans needs to be reduced from 55% to 7.5% – an appropriate moisture content for secure storage of cocoa for a couple of months in the tropics. Smallholders lay the wet beans on raised bamboo mats or, less satisfactorily (for hygiene considerations), on concrete platforms on the ground in the villages.
The duration of the drying step depends on the weather, but it is unusual for sun-drying in West Africa, for example to be completed in less than a week.
Roasting cocoa beans can be described as an individual process. While all manufacturers have a similar goal of making products efficiently, the flavour objectives for cocoa liquors usually differ from company to company and from country to country.
Therefore, the flavour target is a key factor in determining the type and blend of cocoa beans to be processed, whether to roast whole beans or nibs, the type of roasting equipment and the roasting parameters employed.
In a nutshell, there is not a right or wrong roast level nor is there a correct or incorrect way to obtain the target roast level. The correct way to roast and the proper roast level is the process which provides nibs in an efficient and cost-effective manner with the chosen flavour system and yields products meeting consumer needs in a specified market.
Winnowing, cracking, fanning and hulling are some of the terms and phrases which describe the separation of the shell (hull) and meat of the bean (nib). It is a process where obtaining a clean separation of the two components is driven by economics, product integrity and, in many countries, government regulation.
Nibs grinding has seen many advances in the last half of the 20th century. Before liquor mills, one method of grinding nibs was mixing nibs with granulated sugar and placing the mixture in a mélangeur. This process yielded a material with consistency ranging from a paste to a fluid.
The alkalizing process is optionally applied to modify the flavour and colour of chocolate liquors and cocoa powders. It is also known as Dutch processing. The process consists in mixing the selected cocoa material (cocoa cake, nibs or cocoa liquor) with an aqueous solution of a specific alkaline compound and mixing at elevated temperatures and possibly increased pressures.
Common alkaline compounds are potassium carbonate, calcium carbonate and sodium hydroxide. The resulting product colour ranges from light red to charcoal black.
Typically, the separation or pressing process begins by pumping hot cocoa liquor (200 degrees Celsius) into a horizontal hydraulic press with operating pressures of up to 550 bars.
The cocoa cake formed from this pressing operation is then broken and milled to specified particle sizes as determined by end use.
Before grinding of the pressed cocoa cake can begin, it must go through a series of cooling steps. The hammer mill and disc mill are the common mill being used by the industry and a classifier is usually included as part of the system to improve grinding efficiency.
In reality, the term grinding is misleading. The particle size of the finished powder is dependent upon the particle size of the cocoa liquor pressed. Commonly used mills do not reduce the particle size of the cake; instead they tend to break up agglomerates.
It must also be mentioned that cocoa powder must be tempered. This is a sort of controlled cooling operation during which the powder is held at specified temperatures for predetermined times to allow for the cocoa butter to form into a stable crystal configuration. The powder should then be stored properly if it is to maintain its colour and remain soft and in a flowable state.
The other product obtained from pressing cocoa liquor is cocoa butter. This is the most expensive of the major ingredients in a chocolate recipe.
Cocoa butter colour can be an excellent indicator of potential problems. For example, shipments that are dark brown rather than golden in colour warrant further testing. It can indicate improper handling during processing and storage.
Cocoa liquor, cocoa butter and sugar are the three major ingredients required to produce the various types of chocolate found throughout the world.
Overall, the manufacturing of chocolate is divided into four areas:
- Batching, which is the combining of cocoa liquor, sugar or sweeteners, milk powder (if a milk chocolate), cocoa butter and non-volatile flavouring materials as specified by a recipe or formula.
- The particle reduction of chocolate ingredients is required to produce the smooth product most consumers expect.
- Conching is a complex process that has been, and continues to be studied in great detail in an effort to fully understand changes (particularly in the flavour of chocolate) that occur in chocolate during this process.
- Standardization which is the step where the viscosity of the chocolate is adjusted with the addition of fats, usually cocoa butter, and emulsifiers. Volatile flavouring materials may also added at this point.
Q: What is the definition of sustainable cocoa?
Given the complexity of the business cocoa represents, defining sustainable cocoa in simplistic terms would be of a tall order. However, under the auspices of the International Standard Organisation, stakeholders from all sectors of the cocoa industry, developed the ISO 34101 on sustainable cocoa.
The standard aims to encourage the professionalization of cocoa farming, thus contributing to farmer livelihoods and better working conditions. It covers the organizational, economic, social and environmental aspects of cocoa farming as well as featuring strict requirements for traceability, offering greater clarity about the sustainability of the cocoa that is used.
Q: Can cocoa, as a soft commodity be traded in just about any market?
In modern commodity trading, there is a clear distinction between the physical and the futures market; and cocoa can be traded in both.
The physical market deals in specific grades and origins of cocoa beans or products, at quantities, qualities, delivery times, packaging, and price and payment conditions to be negotiated by private treaty between individual buyers and sellers, whereas the futures market, on the other hand, is a restricted market, where an individual must use the services of an intermediary to buy or sell commodities.
Q: Which are the world’s biggest cocoa consumers?
Even though some producing countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Indonesia have managed to increase their share in grindings over the last decade, cocoa is a classic example of an agricultural commodity that, whilst being produced almost totally by developing countries in the tropics, is largely consumed in the (cooler) industrialized economies.
Grindings data are generally used as a proxy for the demand in cocoa; and for the 2019/20 cocoa year, the ICCO Secretariat forecasts that the Netherlands, Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, Germany and the United States of America will be the world top grinders
Q: Why is the fight against deforestation and child labour so important for the cocoa industry?
Forests are extremely important for the wellbeing of humans and the planet. They are the second most important carbon sink after the oceans. Furthermore, they are crucial for the biodiversity and the prevention of hydro-geological distresses as well as for the livelihood of forest-dependent communities.
However, in recent years, smallholding cocoa farming has attracted the spotlight for being the driver in some deforestation hotspots, particularly the Upper Guinean tropical rainforest, the South-East Asian rainforest and the Amazon rainforest; and in addition to its impact on rainforests, cocoa production is also contributing in driving children into child labour.
This explains why more than ever, the cocoa and chocolate industry is facing mounting pressure; they are held accountable to their shareholders, customers and the general public through the media and civil society, to show that their supplied raw material, and especially cocoa, used in the chocolate making process meet some ethics rules and comply with defined sustainability requirements.
Q: Chocolate is the most widespread cocoa derived product which can be found nearly everywhere in the world nowadays; do we have other known cocoa derived products?
Yes indeed. Many different sorts of products can be derived from cocoa.
Once the beans have been fermented and dried, they can be processed to produce a variety of products. These products include:
Cocoa butter – Cocoa butter is used in the manufacture of chocolate. It is also widely used in cosmetic products such as moisturising creams and soaps.
Cocoa powder – Cocoa powder can be used as an ingredient in almost any foodstuff. For example, it is used in chocolate flavoured drinks, chocolate flavoured desserts such as ice cream and mousse, chocolate spreads and sauces, and cakes and biscuits.
Cocoa liquor – Cocoa liquor is used, with other ingredients, to produce chocolate. Chocolate is used as a product on its own or combined with other ingredients to form confectionery products.
The cocoa pod husks and the pulp, or sweatings, surrounding the beans and the cocoa bean shells can be used. Some examples of these uses are:
Animal feed from cocoa husk – As pelletised dry 100% cocoa pod husk, it can be used as an animal feed. The animal feed is produced by first slicing the fresh cocoa husks into small flakes and then partially drying the flakes, followed by mincing and pelleting, and drying of the pellets.
Production of soft drinks and alcohol – In the preparation of soft drinks, fresh cocoa pulp juice (sweatings) is collected, sterilised and bottled. For the production of alcoholic drinks, such as brandy, the fresh juice is boiled, cooled and fermented with yeast. After 4 days of fermentation, the alcohol is distilled.
Potash from cocoa pod husk – Cocoa pod husk ash is used mainly for soft soap manufacture. It may also be used as fertiliser for cocoa, vegetables, and food crops. To prepare the ash, fresh husks are spread out in the open to dry for one to two weeks. The dried husks are then incinerated in an ashing kiln.
Jam and marmalade – Pectin for jam and marmalade is extracted from the sweatings by precipitation with alcohol, followed by distillation and recycling of the alcohol in further extractions.
Mulch – Cocoa bean shells can be used as organic mulch and soil conditioner for the garden, or to produce renewable energy (using biomass).
Q: What is the role played by the London and New York cocoa futures markets in cocoa price setting?
Both markets fulfil a fundamental role in the price discovery process, with the price development in the cocoa futures market reflecting the developments in the underlying physical market.
And the London cocoa futures contract has long been used as the global benchmark for the pricing of physical cocoa. It is actively traded by producers, exporters, trade houses, processors and chocolate manufacturers as well as by managed funds and both institutional and short term investors.
Q: How is the ICCO indicator price computed?
As displayed in the web link below, for every open trading day, the ICCO indicator price is published on this website.
Under the terms of the International Cocoa Agreement, 2010 the ICCO monitors the evolution of the cocoa market and publishes a daily indicator price. The ICCO indicator price is defined as the daily average price, denominated in US dollar, of the 3 nearest future contracts on the InterContinental Exchange (ICE) Futures Europe (London) and ICE Futures U.S. (New York) at the time of the London close (Article 33, ICA, 2010). Since the daily futures prices listed on ICE Futures Europe are quoted in Pound Sterling, the 6-month forward rate of exchange of the Pound Sterling to the US dollar is employed to convert the London price in US dollar. Subsequently, the spot exchange rates for the US dollar vis-à-vis the Pound Sterling, and the Euro are used to denominate the ICCO daily price indicator in said currencies.
Q: Can the ICCO influence cocoa prices?
Absolutely not. The ICCO is not engaged in commercial transactions within the world cocoa market.
As per the terms of the International Cocoa Agreement, 2010, the mission of the ICCO is to improve the functioning of the world cocoa economy through agreed activities and coordinated actions among Member countries, in close co-operation with the private sector and other relevant stakeholders; and its explicit mandate is to work towards achieving a sustainable world cocoa economy encompassing social, economic and environmental dimensions in production, processing and consumption of cocoa.
Q: What role does the ICCO play within the world cocoa economy?
The ICCO provides the platform that brings together all stakeholders in the global cocoa sector to discuss matters of relevance to the international cocoa trade.
It is an authoritative source of cocoa statistics in the world, holding data that go back almost 70 years. It provides a solid expertise in cocoa market analysis and forecasts, project development and implementation and capacity building programmes for its Member countries.
The International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) is an inter-governmental organization established in 1973 under the auspices of the United Nations and operating within the framework of successive International Cocoa Agreements.
International Cocoa Organization
ICCO Building – II Plateaux – Vallon
ENA – Avenue Boga Doudou
06 BP 1166 Abidjan 06
Tel: +225 27 22 51 49 50/51
Fax: +225 27 22 51 49 79
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