Cacao Pulp: All You Need to Know About That Mysterious Substance Inside the Cacao Pod
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 finished chocolate. Let’s just say that there has never been more educational material about chocolate than in 2021!
However, not much attention is given to that mysterious white pulp that surrounds the cacao beans inside the fruit. Briefly mentioned in regard to 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.
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, 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, 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.
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 the juicy 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.
There are some rare cacao varieties that don’t need fermentation, but are simply washed (cacao lavado), but they are the exception, not the rule. However, seeing such a precious, tasty and nutritious juice go to waste is a real pity!
Thankfully, cacao producing countries in Central and South America taught us all how to take advantage of this precious juice, turning a waste product into a true specialty.
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.
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. But juices are just one of the latest popular applications for the cacao pulp. 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.
Extra revenue for cocoa farmers
The fact that the cacao pulp is becoming a commercially valuable product means that cocoa farmers are able to rely on an extra source of income.
Theoretically, no cacao pulp should be taken away from the fermentation process, but only what is discarded would be used. Some agronomists are actually claiming that using less cacao pulp during fermentation fastens the process without any repercussion on the flavor development inside the beans.
It’s also interesting to notice that some cacao verities produce more cacao pulp than others (the “juiciest” cacao pods seem to be growing in Brazil, Ecuador and the Philippines). Therefore, a bigger demand for the cacao pulp means that cocoa farmers can differentiate and increase their income by selling both the pulp and the cocoa beans.
There are high chances that we are going to see more cacao pulp on the market in different shapes and for different purposes, sometimes associated to chocolate, but often standing on its own as a fruity, sweet and nutritious ingredient. Many more companies might take advantage of its incredible versatility.
However, some challenges still remain: the long distance between the countries where the cacao pulp is produced and the countries where the finished products are marketed; the agreement of a fair price to be paid to farmers for a product that suddenly changed its reputation from “waste” to “delicacy”; the preservation of the freshness and the nutritional values of the cacao pulp along the way.
In any case, get your palate ready for a fresh new taste!
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