Is Chocolate a Vegetable?

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One of the most chocolate celebrated days is here. For as long as I can remember, Valentine’s Day has signified giving someone special a box of chocolates, and maybe flowers too. We all know how important it is to eat your vegetables, and chocolate is derived from cocoa beans, so is chocolate a justified indulgence? Let’s look at the origin of chocolate to see if we can determine its legitimacy.

Chocolate comes compliments of the cocoa plant. Theobroma cacao, the cocoa plant is believed to have originated in the tropics of South America. The Latin name Theobroma can be appropriately translated “food of the gods.”  The cocoa beans were so valuable the Incas used the beans for money.

The cocoa plant is actually an evergreen tree that can reach 15-40 feet tall. It thrives in hot, humid, tropical climates. Most of the cocoa plants can be found within 10 degrees north or south of the equator. The current majority of cocoa is grown in eastern Brazil and the West African Coast. Each cocoa plant can produce 50-70 pods that can mature        6 months after blooming. The fruits are called pods; they appear as an elongated acorn squash stemming directly from the trunk, being 10-14 inches long. Each pod contains 20-60 white “beans” that will be fermented 2-3 days for them to develop a brown color and the chocolate flavor. After fermenting, the beans will be dried and roasted for sterilizing. Then the outer shell of the seed is removed through a winnowing process. The remaining part of the seed is called the “nib” – this is the most valuable part of the seed. The nibs are ground and made into a liquor. This is the basis of what becomes chocolate, through several more processing steps, depending on what final product is desired – cocoa powder or actual chocolate.

Aztecs and Mayans first created xocoatl, a hot chocolate drink often mixed with vanilla or chili peppers. This concoction was bitter and spicy. It was the introduction of cocoa to Europe by the Spaniards where milk and sugar morphed cocoa into the ancestor of our hot chocolate we enjoy today. Chocolate is still a hot drink and very popular in Mexico and many Latin countries. Solid chocolate didn’t come along until the late 19th century. I am sure you are aware of Milton Hershey; he sold his successful candy making company for one million dollars in 1900 so he could focus exclusively on making chocolate. Hershey’s became the first nationally marketed product of milk chocolate.

Now that we know some of chocolate’s history, can we answer the title question yet? The truth is, cocoa is derived from the seed of the plant. Even reliable sources do not agree if chocolate is a fruit, vegetable, or nut. Some claim since chocolate comes from the seed of the Cocoa tree’s fruit, the chocolate should be a fruit. So, I simply say – it’s the fruit of a bean of a seed that comes from a nut!

For more information, contact Mack Johnson, Extension Horticultural Agent, at 910-671-3276, by Email at, or visit our website at