Science Explains Why Chocolate Should be Savored, Not Scarfed

And other molecular secrets to digest while you’re digesting

Mmm, science. (TheCrimsonMonkey / iStock)
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In October of 1671, French aristocrat Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné, penned a note to her daughter: “I have reconciled myself to chocolate,” she wrote. “I took it the day before yesterday to digest my dinner … and I took it yesterday to nourish me so that I could fast until evening: it gave me all the effects I wanted. That’s what I like about it: it acts according to my intention.”

Most of us can relate with Madame de Sévigné’s assessment that chocolate sates many hungers. Cocoa and chocolate come from a fruit categorized by Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who founded taxonomy, as Theobroma cacao: food of the gods. Colorful and typically oblong, this precursor to chocolate starts off as a bitter seed surrounded by juicy pulp within the pod. That pulp, known as baba, or “slime,” in Spanish, dissipates during fermentation. The seeds are dried and become what we refer to as cocoa beans. From there, they are roasted, cracked and shelled. The smaller pieces of beans, or nibs, are then processed into cocoa and chocolate.  

But long before cacao seeds were transformed into chocolate bars, they were consumed in liquid form and used as currency and in indigenous rituals. In Mayan culture, cacao was a sign of power and considered critical sustenance for the journey to the afterworld. In the pre-Colombian period, explains anthropologist Cameron McNeil in her book Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao,  “cacao was associated with blood and sacrifice.” Chocolate could even serve as ersatz blood: Achiote, a natural red colorant from the tree Bixa orellana, was added to some cacao beverages, giving them a blood-like appearance.

Cacao, revered around the globe, has played an important role in spiritual traditions, global trade, medicine, culinary traditions and many a broken heart. Before you indulge in Halloween treats, join us as we explore how this bitter seed—and the chocolate it becomes—came to captivate our hearts. 

Cocoa beans are more diverse than once thought

Before the development of advanced genetic testing, early botanists grouped cacao into three categories: Criollo (“native”), Forastero (“stranger”) and Trinitario (“native of Trinidad”)—vague designations based on a combination of geography and plant morphology that didn’t reflect a comprehensive genetic assessment of the plant.

Expanded classifications were published in a 2008 study by Juan Carlos Motamayor and a team of researchers who extracted DNA from cacao leaves and clustered the crop into 10 genetic groupings. These new groupings were organized by geographical location or the traditional variety most represented in the particular cluster. As chocolate reviewer Mark Christian summed up when I interviewed him for my book on diversity in bread, wine, coffee, chocolate, and beer: “I am glad the reclassification happened. It was a f-cking insult to nature to think there were only three [groupings] of cacao.”

By recognizing this diversity, we can preserve it. Motamayor and others have already identified additional cacao groupings. This expansion helps plant geneticists know what material they have to work with so they can utilize diverse traits when breeding new varieties for disease resistance, drought tolerance, and more. Plus, some of the diverse varieties offer an incredible range of tastes—similar to the range found in coffee.

The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP), an initiative co-founded with the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, is trying to increase the profile of traditional varieties of cacao in hopes that farmers will see higher profitability from these diverse offerings. “The HCP mission is driven by flavor,” explains HCP Board President Dan Pearson. “We work with the U.S Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service to identify heirloom cacao and link flavor to genetics.”

On its website, HCP asserts it is “the first initiative to connect flavor and genetics with an end goal of rewarding growers by helping them achieve the same or even greater income than they would by selling ordinary or bulk cacao.”

About Simran Sethi

Simran is a journalist and educator focused on food and sustainability. She is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, a book about changes in food and agriculture told through bread, wine, chocolate, coffee and beer.

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