All You Ever Wanted to Know about Chocolate, Volume One

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I recently had the opportunity to speak with Howard-Yana Shapiro, the global director of plant sciences and external research for Mars, Incorporated, the world's largest chocolate company (and largest pet food company, but try not to mix the two).

Shapiro co-edited a new book called "Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage," the result of a decade of Mars-funded chocolate history research based at the University of California, Davis. At nearly 1,000 pages and $100 a copy, I'm guessing this tome isn't going to be a bestseller—it sat untouched on my desk for close to a month, intimidating me with its bulk—but it is an excellent reference work.

Curious about chocolate's role in 18th-century British crimes? Chocolate in Cuban literature and games? The silver chocolate pots of colonial Boston? There's a chapter about each of those things, and 53 more.

I flipped open to the chapter on chocolate and religion, and learned that Christ once hid from his enemies beneath a cacao tree, causing it to blossom and bear blessed fruit (according to the Quiche Mayans of northern Guatemala). Another random flip revealed a list of adulterants that have been added to chocolate through the years, including, perhaps, dinosaur bones! ("During the pre-Columbia era, 'bones of giants' (possibly vertebrate fossils) sometimes were ground and mixed with chocolate.")

Then there's the appendix, with an incredibly thorough "chocolate timeline" that could be a small book on its own. And as if all this wasn't enough, there's a second volume in the works for next year!

"Mars got curious," Shapiro explained. "We wanted to understand the development and evolution of chocolate-based technology, of chocolate's culinary, cultural, economic, dietary, medical, military, and social uses...the second volume will be about biology, chemistry, and the biomedical uses of chocolate."

In other words, it seems, the world's largest chocolate company wants to amass the world's largest collection of chocolate research. The company is also involved in a project to sequence the cacao genome for public use, something Shapiro said should be complete within the next two years.

It makes me wonder: What's in it for them? I mean, I'm all for the increase and diffusion of knowledge, of course. But how will Mars profit from knowing more about the history of chocolate, or unraveling its genetic code?

The answer's pretty obvious, actually: This will hopefully lead to better cacao trees. Trees that could yield more high-quality cacao fruit while requiring less water, fertilizer and pesticides. And since the world's appetite for chocolate products is ever-growing while the planet's resources are ever-shrinking, that seems like a pretty good goal to me.

Mars isn't the only company involved in chocolate research, although they certainly seem to be the largest. Hershey's founded a nutrition research center in 2006, and Cadbury has invested in a Cocoa Partnership to promote fair trade and development (and yes, higher crop yields) in Ghana. The World Cocoa Foundation, which includes most of the major confectionery companies, also funds cocoa research in many countries.

I'm not quite sure who funded this, but it's a bright idea: A Lindt chocolate plant and an electric utility in New Hampshire have been working together to make fuel from cacao-bean shells.

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