Sunday, November 29, 2015

Heirloom cocoa! What is that?

Chocolate industry is one of the high profile industries that supply cocoa bean based confectionery products liked all over the world. However a close look at the industry reveals that cocoa bean is a pretext to sell more sugar and fat to a consumer community which does not seem to have any clue regarding the real quality of chocolate that reflects the magnificent delicate flavor of good cocoa beans. The industry in its frenetic rush for making more and more money also ignored the flavor aspect. In stead it was making products with attractive labels like bitter chocolates, hand crafted chocolates etc. Its R & D activities in agronomy were concentrated more on yield and the beneficial health attributes as per some published scientific reports because of the presence of flavonols in the original unprocessed beans. This trend seems to be changing after efforts by some major players to analyze the flavor profiles of different cocoa beans grown and evolve or discover new varieties that can yield raw materials with better flavor make up. Here is a take on this new development that can be expected to enrich the chocolate market with high end products with comparatively higher prices.  

"That's why leaders in the industry have created the Heirloom Cacao Preservation (HCP) initiative. It's a joint effort between the Fine Chocolate Industry Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Research Service, and an outgrowth of the booming artisanal chocolate business. The program is utilizing the industry's most discerning palates, along with genetic analysis, to identify—and hopefully preserve—the fine-flavored cacaos of the world. HCP's purpose is to increase the availability of quality cacao and encourage farmers to grow it in a market that's currently overwhelmed by flat-taste, high-yield varieties."The chocolate industry has lost sight of its fundamentals, which include flavor," says Mark Christian, founder of the C-spot, a go-to website for chocolatiers and passionate connoisseurs, who is involved in the initiative. "Most chocolate people don't know good chocolate."Founded in 2011, HCP has so far designated seven "heirloom" cacaos in the world, with provenances in Belize, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Bolivia and Ecuador. The panel of tasting judges is made up of  prominent figures in the chocolate industry, including executives from Guittard Chocolate, Scharffen Berger and Valrhona. They review the historical, cultural, botanical and geographical makeup of each cacao. But most importantly, they are adding one last innovative metric: genetic profiling. "We're going to enter the next wave of chocolate," says Christian. "Chocolate has yet to be data-driven." Actually, corporate chocolate giants such as Lindt, Hershey's and Mars have long had an interest in genetics—but mostly as a tool for preserving and propagating cacao beans that consistently provide the highest yield and can withstand drought and diseases. And the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, the Cocoa Research Center in Trinidad and the International Cocoa Collection of the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in Turrialba, Costa Rica, all have ongoing programs to analyze and catalogue general data on cacao genetics. But the HCP endeavor is a completely different type of project, one that prizes quality over quantity. It's the first systematic effort by the chocolate industry to look at genetics in terms of flavor. Historically, when the industry identified a tree with a high bean yield, cacao farmers would propagate that variety by taking cuttings of a mother tree and grafting them onto a less desirable type of cacao tree, a process known as cloning. For example, a high-yield bean might be grafted onto the rootstock of a more disease-resistant tree, creating a variety that could more effectively keep up with the industry's demands. Two of the most popular high-volume, fast-producing varieties are CC-N51 in Ecuador and Cacao Mercedes in West Africa, which can both conceivably produce fruit in as little 18 months after being grafted. But cacao of this pedigree is generally low quality when it comes to taste and better suited for bulk production of cocoa butter and cocoa mass critical for making Snickers but a detriment when it comes to crafting a quality bar with few ingredients. Until recently, agronomists claimed there were only three varieties of the Theobroma cacao tree: Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. But in 2008, Juan Carlos Motamayor, a tropical agronomist for the USDA's National Clonal Germplasm Repository and lead scientist of cocoa genetics at Mars Incorporated (makers of M&Ms, Twix, Milky Way and many other candies),published a study in the journal PLOS One that upended industry beliefs. His team conducted genetic analysis on samples from the three known species. After comparing DNA snippet patterns, they discovered 10 distinct cacao genotypes. A few years later, most believe the number is probably much higher, says Lyndel Meinhardt, a research leader at the Agricultural Research Service's sustainable perennial crops lab. The Mars research, he says, accounted for samples from only a handful of germplasm banks and collections in the world, and didn't represent cacao genotypes still out in the wild that have yet to be discovered. Meinhardt is helping to build a genetics database of cacaos known to have the finest flavors and has already genotyped HCP's first heirloom samples. The current count is 14 types of cacao, but that number is expected to grow—the USDA continues to make efforts to locate more diverse botanicals in unexplored areas of the Amazon."

The above approach by the industry to collectively take up common industry interests for research and development is indeed welcome. The individualistic research then can be devoted to creating unique products with exciting features in competition with each other. For example if a new cocoa variety is discovered with high health attributes by the collective research, individual companies can use the same to create their own branded products which can be promoted with their own resources. Other industries also can use this strategy to create a pool of basic knowledge as a foundation upon which individual branded products can be built. In India the idea of industry cooperation research institutions resulted in setting up several of them but its success was not some thing that is worth mentioning. Probably these were not well conceived and industry also must bear some responsibility for the failure of such attempts as there was very little confidence on the ability of scientists to work wholeheartedly for the industry. The example of the cocoa industry is a model that should serve to guide such future collaborative scientific efforts, nationally as well internationally. 


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