Bathed in fluorescent light, row upon row of mass-produced chocolate candies compete for attention in drug stores across the western world.
With the Easter holiday upon us, children line up for baskets filled with sugary sweets. To these sugar-hooked youngsters, quantity, not quality, is king. To meet this need, producers have altered products until they no longer have the rich taste of true chocolate.
Not only does this cheat the taste-buds, it also poses a threat to the survival of the truly tasty products we actually enjoy.
Chocolate made with real cocoa butter isn't cheap. Cacao is expensive to produce, difficult to grow and, with the consumer demanding low prices for their favourite celebratory snack, profit margins are slim.
“Fine flavor cacao not an easy plant to grow to begin with,” said Pam Williams of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP). “All cacao trees grow only 20 degrees north or south of the equator and involve multiple post-harvest processes, such as fermentation and drying, before they can be taken to market.”
To combat this reality, producers turn to selectively breeding for disease resistant and productive strains instead of flavorful strains of cacao.
“A cacao variety introduced in Ecuador called CCN-51 which is high yield, disease resistant, and nearly flavorless, creates more income for many farmers,” said Dan Pearson from HCP. “In Ecuador and Peru CCN-51 is now about 50% of all cocoa grown.”
CCN-51 is also covering the cocoa plantations in West Africa that source big companies like Nestle and Hershey's.
Unfortunately, this has resulted in the endangerment of high maintenance heirloom plants.
Dan Pearson and Pam Williams of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP) are unwilling to accept the extinction of heirloom varieties of cacao.
The HCP’s mission is to “identify and preserve fine flavor ('heirloom') cacao varieties for the conservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of farming communities.” They identify trees that produce the most high quality, flavorful chocolate, and enable the farmers who grow them to become heirloom farmers.
In other words, HCP argues that instead of producing highly productive yet tasteless cacao, farmers should instead focus on breeding flavourful heirloom varieties.
In their battle to protect the endangered strains of cacao beans, HCP must first confront the expense of growing the trees and the temptation to switch to GE cocoa strains or lower maintenance plants, such as banana, palm, coffee, and rubber.
To combat this challenge, producers, HCP, and marketers must convince the consumer that there is a difference between mass-produced chocolate and finely-crafted products. They must appeal to the taste bud, not the wallet, thereby offering producers a decent return on their cacao investment.
“A $10.00 chocolate bar MUST taste fabulously better than a $2.00 grocery store bar in order for people to buy it more than once,” said Williams. “It's the same situation in both the wine and coffee industry; over many more years than chocolate, those industries have evolved both 'mass market' low-quality brands and well-supported high-quality independent/artisan brands.”
So, can the chocolate industry evolve? Can it offer ‘mass market’ low-quality brands while sustaining high quality, independent brands?
HCP intends to divide the chocolate market with an heirloom designation - an intiative picks tasty beans, preserves and propagates these beans for future generations, and also rewards the growers who cultivate them.
“A chocolate maker or broker who has found great tasting beans will entice their farmers to apply for an HCP Heirloom Designation,” Pam explains. “We have an application process that is digital and only costs one dollar to submit beans.”
On this page from the HCP site, there are—so far—designations from 10 countries around the globe. The site also provides an in-depth explanation of how the heirloom status designation works.
Thus far, the HCP team believes they are succeeding, and they are hopeful about the future. So far the HCP team has identified 15 of the finest flavor cacaos, linking their flavor to genetics for natural reproduction.
The next step for existing designees—who will hopefully be joined soon by others—is preserving and propagating them for current and future generations as part of the Heirloom Cacao Nursery Project. This way both experts and local farmers can gain the best, most up-to-date knowledge about propagating and protecting these fine flavor varieties.
Chocolate plays a central role in our culture, in addition to being a bio-diverse crop that should be protected. Williams, Pearson, and other HCP team members hope modern consumers can get back to that more classic understanding of this confection with the help of the heirloom designation.
“I think there is a movement in North America toward fresh flavorful food in general,” remarks Williams. “People now care where their food comes from and how it is produced. Reading the label even on a chocolate bar is important. Fine chocolate has the transparent, clean label consumers want to see.”
* An edit was made to the above article after publication. The original stipulated that GE cacao beans were produced to minimize cacao costs and increase yield. Since sources stipulated that GE cacao beans do not exist. The disease resistant, high yield beans were instead developed using traditional methods of selective breeding.*