Cacao Pulp

Chances are that, even if you’re not a hardcore chocolate nerd, you’ve probably seen the cacao fruit before.

Pictures of open cacao pods are now triumphantly shown on the packaging of many chocolate bars. More articles online are dedicated to where chocolate comes from and how it’s made, showing the entire process from seed to the finished chocolate slab. Let’s just say that there has never been more educational material about chocolate than in the last two years.

However, not much attention is given to that mysterious white pulp that surrounds the cacao beans inside the fruit. Briefly mentioned regarding the fermentation process, the white pulp has much more to say (and to offer) to chocoholics than just its temporary use in chocolate making.

What is cacao pulp?

The cacao pulp, also called “baba” or “mucilage”, is a white, sticky and fleshy substance that surrounds the cacao beans inside the pod. Not only it is totally edible for both animals and humans, but it is also gifted with a unique and enchanting taste. (My traveling friends felt it had a more citrus taste to it.)  Most people find the pulp to be a mixture of Fruity, sweet, tangy and slightly acidic, the cacao pulp offers the perfect mix of tropical fruits like mango, pineapple, passion fruit, and lychee. Exactly like it happens with the cacao beans, also the pulp has different tasting profiles depending on the cacao variety.

For example, or so I have been led to believe, some pulps taste a lot like sweet mangoes, while others are more pungent like a pineapple, or citrusy like a lime. Together with a refreshing taste, the cacao pulp also comes with a long array of nutritional properties: Vitamin E, D, B, and magnesium to name a few.   It’s known that jungle animals, especially monkeys, don’t even consider the cacao beans, (they are far too bitter) but aim at the sweet pulp.

They open the pods, discard the beans, and enjoy the tasty substance. In the production of chocolate, the opposite happens: 75% of the cacao pulp is discarded, and the remaining 25% is used during fermentation.

Pulp Processing

The cacao pulp in the fermentation process

Truth bomb: it is technically not the cacao beans that are fermented, but the cacao pulp (although the cacao beans still undergo major changes, so experts are still divided on this topic). Bacteria, yeasts and enzymes ferment this fleshy white pulp, breaking it down, raising the temperature and kickstarting the entire process. The cocoa beans are simply there enduring the heat and all the side-effects. If it wasn’t for the white pulp, fermentation wouldn’t start.

The cacao pulp outside the fermentation process

In countries like Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru the cacao pulp is traditionally used in the making of homemade drinks and foods: juices, liquors, cocktails, but also ice-creams, jams, confections and baked goods. Cocoa farmers and their immediate communities knew how to value the precious pulp before anybody else did, making it part of their cuisine like a regular fruit. Looking up and taking example from this long-time Latin tradition, even chocolate-consuming countries have found ways to utilize the cacao pulp outside the fermentation process.

Latest trends

Trying to take advantage of that 75% of cacao pulp that is usually discarded during the production of chocolate, in the past couple of years many companies have launched cacao juices on the market. Made with single-origin cacao pulp with a natural fruity taste and no need for added sugars, these juices have been a delight for many passionate chocoholics.

The cacao pulp for these juices is always pasteurized since the cacao pulp perishes quickly because of its high-water content.  The cacao pulp is now added as a natural sweetener to chocolate bars and couvertures. It is also turned into nutritious powders and extracts, and often sold as freeze-dried packs in its most natural form.

As raw cacao does not grow in South Africa at all.  I don’t think there will be much chance of any of us ever drinking  the pulp in its natural form.


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