The Different Varieties of Cacao

Wild cacao trees have spread from the Amazonian region from which they originated and have been heavily domesticated for human trade and consumption. Cacao trees can be categorised based on the region they were grown in, how they were processed, and other qualities, including shape and size of the bean, oil content, aroma, and more1. They are also categorised based on their biological varieties1, each with different strengths, weaknesses, and unique properties. The three major varieties are Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario1,2.

Criollo cacao trees, loosely known as “native” in Spanish, are the closest related to the original cacao trees from South America3, and are also considered the finest of cacaos1. This variety of cacao is often used to improve the quality of chocolate and other cacao-based products, and many chocolate connoisseurs take note of the Criollo percentage in cacao-based products1. While all cacao trees require particular shade and climate in order to grow, Criollo cacao trees are especially difficult to cultivate1. They are more fragile than the other varieties of cacao, easily vulnerable to pests and disease, resulting in poorer yields1. The growth of Criollo cacao trees is limited to Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, and the Caribbean Islands and make up about 3% of cacao bean production in the world1,4.

Forastero translates to “outsider” or “stranger” in Spanish4 and Forastero cacao trees are thought to have evolved after Criollo. They may have spread from Brazil to be domesticated and cultivated in Ecuador and Venezuela during the Spanish colonial period1. This variety was carried by the Portuguese to São Tomé, a city on the island country of São Tomé and Príncipeoff the coast of Central Africa, and other islands off the coast of West Africa1. The Forastero cacao variety spread inland from here and is now one of the major crops in countries in Africa and South East Asia1. Forastero cacao trees are hardier than Criollo cacao trees and are plentiful in their yields of cacao beans making them more suited to mass production1. They now make up about 85% of all cacao bean production in the world4.

Trinitario cacao is the other major variety of cacao and is a crossbreed between the Criollo and Forastero cacao varieties1. They were initially grown widely across Trinidad, giving rise to their name, and they are now grown in many regions across the world, such as South East Asia1. Like the Forastero variety, Trinitario cacao are also hardier than the more fragile Criollo cacao and better suited to mass production, making up about 12% of the world’s cacao production1,4–6.

Many other varieties of cacao, which are less common or more recently evolved, exist, such as the very rare Nacional cacao variety. The Nacional variety are thought to have evolved around Peru thousands of years ago, alongside the Forastero cacao7. These beans are sensitive to disease and highly coveted as many of the beans are white in colour, instead of the typical purple7. The Chuncho cacao variety is native to Cusco, Peru, and is a hybrid variety desired for its fruity and sweet aroma and low bitterness8.

Chemical composition of different cacao varieties varies, often due to the conditions of the soil which the cacao grew in9. Differences in chemical composition can also be due to the different biology of the varieties themselves. For example, compared to the other major varieties of cacao, Criollo cacao, has higher amounts of the antioxidant, caffeic acid aspartate, which has been found to reduce inflammation in the body9.

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(1) MacLeod, M. Cacao. In The Cambridge World History of Food; Kiple, K. F., Ornelas, K. C., Eds.; Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000; pp 635–641.

(2) Pohlan, H. A. J.; Pérez, V. D. GROWTH AND PRODUCTION OF CACAO. 10.

(3) Cruz, M. de la; Whitkus, R.; Gómez-Pompa, A.; Mota-Bravo, L. Origins of Cacao Cultivation. Nature1995, 375 (6532), 542–543.

(4) The Different Varieties of Cocoa Beans: Criollo, Trinitario & Forastero (accessed Mar 30, 2021).

(5) Motamayor, J. C.; Risterucci, A. M.; Lopez, P. A.; Ortiz, C. F.; Moreno, A.; Lanaud, C. Cacao Domestication I: The Origin of the Cacao Cultivated by the Mayas. Heredity2002, 89 (5), 380–386.

(6) Motamayor, J. C.; Risterucci, A. M.; Heath, M.; Lanaud, C. Cacao Domestication II: Progenitor Germplasm of the Trinitario Cacao Cultivar. Heredity2003, 91 (3), 322–330.

(7) Fabricant, F. Rare Cacao Beans Discovered in Peru. The New York Times. January 11, 2011.

(8) Pozo, W. H. C.-D.; Blas-Sevillano, R.; Zhang, D. LA CONVENCIÓN, CUSCO-PERÚ. 8.

(9) Elwers, S.; Zambrano, A.; Rohsius, C.; Lieberei, R. Differences between the Content of Phenolic Compounds in Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario Cocoa Seed (Theobroma Cacao L.). Eur Food Res Technol2009, 229, 937–948.