What do genetics have to do with it?

There are a lot of factors working together to create fine flavor chocolate. We have learned that the very DNA of the cocoa beans is one of those factors. In an attempt to educate myself on the chocolate industry, I’m reading the amazingly interesting, important, and thorough book, Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate, by Pam Williams and Jim Eber. The book covers four essential parts of the chocolate production process: the genetics, the farmers, customer education, and finally the art of the Chocolatier.

I certainly do not purport to know as much as the experienced authors on this matter, but I am eager to bring the concept of genetics to the lay people in this picture, particularly the consumers of chocolate.

Let’s do a quick refresher on the definition of genetics in the first place. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, genetics is a branch of biology that deals with the heredity and variation of organisms. In other words, genes are the root of the wide diversity of life on our planet. And they are passed down through generations.

In the case of Theobroma cacao, the tree that means “food of the gods ” in Latin, and produces cocoa pods that house the cocoa beans that give way to chocolate as we know it, there is a wide variation within the species. However, a few factors are contributing to a homogenization of the genetics. First of all, the tree’s tendency to be promiscuous (pollinate with any other Theobroma cacao in the vicinity regardless of genetic similarity) dilutes the gene pool by melding the DNA of various phenotypes (physical expressions of genetic combinations) into one plant, and even one cocoa pod. Because of this trait, cocoa beans can have drastically different genetics even within the same cocoa pod!

Secondly, certain variations of the tree are particularly prone to disease, especially the traditional classification, Criollo. I’ll go into that more in another post.

Finally, decades of increasing demand has spurred farmers and chocolate manufacturers to experiment with genetically modified versions of Theobroma cacao that are more resistant to disease and produce larger and heartier cocoa pods. In other words, these variations are now able to survive many of the threats facing Theobroma cacao, which is good news, but they are also not bred for their flavor.

Still, Theobroma cacao has traditionally been separated into two classifications: Criollo, known for its fine flavor and Latin American roots, and Forestero, considered of lower flavor value and traditionally found in Africa. A third type, Trinitario, named for where it was genetically crossbred between Criollo and Forestero in Trinidad & Tobago, is often included in the list of traditional classifications.

However, there is much debate as to the true division of classifications of cocoa. The International Cacao Germplasm Database genotyped 1,241 samples and proposed a “new classification of cacao germplasm into 10 major clusters, or groups: Marañón, Curaray, Crillo, Iquitos, Nanay, Contamana, Amelonado, Purús, Nacional, and Guiana.” Meanwhile, C-Spot, an incredible resource on chocolate, identifies 9 primary strains of cacao, in addition to a myriad of cultivar strains. C-Spot also describes the flavor implications of each of the 9 primary strains, ranging from the earthen flavor of Amazon to acidic “strawberries and cream” of Criollo.

“Why do we care?” you may ask. Yes, the genetics of the tree contributes to the flavor of the eventual chocolate. And yes, there is something to be said for preserving biodiversity, as the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative intends to do. But the bottom line of why I care is because the origin of my food matters to me. Similar to the local food movement and the organic food movement, tracking the unadulterated genetics of cacao is an exercise is purity, sustainability, and an effort to return to a simpler time.

Why do you care about the genetics of your food? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.


8 thoughts on “What do genetics have to do with it?

  1. The reason genetics and genotypes are important to the industry, is mainly due to the fact that chocolate is extremely complex. For instance, consumers know that hundreds of different types of mangos exist, and each variety has a very distinct aroma, texture and flavor. If you want a really good mango juice, you wouldn’t take 10-15 different mangos and make the juice (perhaps it might be an interesting juice), you would want to take one single variety and make a really good juice and enjoy that experience. As you want to explore further, you may want to add another variety to the mix and experience a new flavor…. That’s an example of a commodity that is well known. Now, in regards to cacao, we are now more than ever dealing with “genotypes” a mixture of various genetics from tree to tree. This is what makes chocolate extremely complex. When chocolate is made from cacao beans derived from different countries, it is extremely complex. When chocolate is made from cacao beans from a single country it is complex. When chocolate is made from a single estate, it is less complex. When a chocolate is made from a single caco tree, it is EXTREMELY Unique. When a chocolate is made from a single cacao tree in which you know and understand the genetic makeup, it is an extremely valuable tree, especially if it produces an exquisite aroma and flavor. In the end, it is expensive time consuming and very complex to control these findings and capitalize on them if you don’t control the farm. Understanding genetics and genotypes is one thing, understanding the aroma and flavor in which a genotype has the potential to produce is much harder to understand and can be extremely expensive for a farmer to invest in. However, I truly believe that the future in “premium” cacao to the creation of the finest chocolates in the world will require connecting genotypes to flavor, allowing fine chocolate makers to know exactly what they are working with, while delivering a unique and exquisite product to consumers. Literally disrupting the current industry and bringing forth a product you truly cannot even call “chocolate.”

  2. Eric, thank you for your comments – very well said. I really appreciate your point of view and agree that the farm is key in the whole process. Our goal is to build a strong relationship with a farm so we can also connect directly to the source. Looking forward to seeing the growth of http://spagnvola.com/ and I hope we’ll stay in touch!

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