Why We Shouldn't Expect Accurate Cacao Strain Labelling Any Time Soon

Posted on May 04, 2014 by  Lee Mccoy | 0 Comments


» We rarely know what type of cacao is used in our chocolate
» Cacao is just like any plant, there are strains, cultivars and hybrids. It's no different in that sense to a clematis
» Up until 5 years ago we thought there were just two or three types of cacao. Many respected publications perpetuated this myth. Some still do.
» A study by Motamayor et al in 2008 showed that there were ten different types of cacao
» Understanding the simple concept of botanic nomenclature can help us massively
» This list has not been fully adopted, with many educational resources, such as C-Spot, offering a different list
» We now live in an age when the provenance of our food is important to us
» We know more about other types of food than chocolate
» Makers and growers rarely know the exact genetic characteristics of their cacao
» Big business pays for these intensive studies, but doesn't actively promote their findings
» There are many economic, procedural and marketing reasons why we're unlikely to have the information we require
» Consumers don't demand this information - because they don't know it exists
» Fine flavour cacao is worth fighting for and we can only do that by educating chocolate buyers and the media
» We're making progress, but not fast enough

In our previous post we talked about the many different factors that affect the flavour and quality of a chocolate. In that we discussed environmental factors, how pre-production processes determine the boundaries of achievable flavour and how a chocolate maker determines flavour. Here I wanted to dig a bit further into cacao and how we have mostly misunderstood cacao, how that misinformation has affected chocolate buyers and how the are likely to be kept in the dark for generations.

We've been wrong about cacao for centuries

Many retailers, makers and commentators followed the line that there were three main strains of cacao. Just as with the wine industry where certain types of grape lead to better wine, the same can be said of chocolate. But understanding one simple concept of botanical nomenclature (the naming convention and taxonomy of plants and their inter-relations) gives us a giant leap forward in improving our chocolate buying.

With this in mind, chocolate is made from the seed of the fruit of the Theobroma Cacao tree. That is the species (germplasm), the genus is Theobroma. There are many different strains of Theobroma (genus) Cacao (species). 

Cacao is similar to apples and tomatoes

Just as with many plants you will find in your garden there are different varieties. For instance I have many clematis plants in my garden. I have Clematis Montana, Clematis Alpina, Clematis Armandii and Clematis Viticella, amongst others. With the Viticella I have different cultivars, a 'Polish Spirt' and a 'Madame Julia Correvon'  - each have different characteristics. Not only do they have different colour flowers, but some will grow faster and taller than others. Some are very hardy and others not. Also some should be pruned in a different fashion and others still require different levels of sunlight and soil fertility. The point is, just as with every member of the plantae kingdom, cacao is full of so many different strains and cultivators that when people say they love 'chocolate' they could actually mean chocolate created from one of ten different (at least) varieties and almost forty different cultivars. Is the same with foods, there are, it has been said, 7,500 different cultivars of apple (you'll generally only find Granny Smith, Golden Delicious in the supermarket. There are also hundreds of different cultivars of tomato including the common ones: beef, Roma, Celebrity and Juliet.

On to cacao varieties - moving on from two or three

It wasn't until the work by Juan C. Motamayor et al in 2008 with the paper Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree (Theobroma cacao) that the full nature of the varying genetic profiles of T.cacao there is. Before then highly respected publications such as The Chocolate Tree a Natural History of Cacao reiterated the notion that there 'are three main types or agricultural races of T.cacao' which was previously suggested by Cheesman in 1944 (Notes on the nomenclature, classification and possible relationships of cocoa populations. Trop Agricult, 21) and then further supported by a study of Comparative genetic diversity of T.cacao studies by N'Goran, V Laurent, A M Risteruccia and C Lanaud in 1994. 

So what strains actually are there?

Motamayor's study looked at over 1000 samples from across Latin America (where cacao is unanimously agreed to have originated from) and with DNA sampling and statistical analysis and asserted there are ten major 'types' of cacao: Marañon, Curaray, Criollo, Iquitos, Nanay, Contamana, Amelonado, Purús, Nacional and Guiana. The naming of which are either derived primarily from the geographic location that the particular genetic cluster was found:


So if I wanted to try a wide variety of chocolate I should look out for these names on packaging?

It is doubtful that you will find any, apart from Nacional, Criollo and perhaps Amelonado on the packaging of chocolate. There are many reasons for this:

  • Most chocolate makers would want to give you a reason to buy their chocolate over another maker's. Many chocolate makers rightly understand that chocolate made from Criollo cocoa beans has a greater propensity to provide great quality chocolate so, perhaps, if you were going to label your chocolate as a particular cacao bean then  you would only do it if it made from a great cocoa strain and people knew what that was;
  • People are more 'in tune' with origins. We all know that Nacional Arriba is associated with Ecuador, but Amelonado cacao could be from a wide variety of origins, particularly Brazil, Madagascar, Ghana, Ivory Coast and São Tomé . It's just easier to label an origin as consumers expect to know the origin, or whether it's a blend. Chocolate buyers are less aware of the different strains of cacao than origin. They will probably have only heard of 'Criollo' and 'Nacional' and the hybrid 'Trinitario', but that is all.
  • The vast majority of the cocoa strains listed above where only identified less than five years ago (the paper was published in October 2008) and has yet to be accepted by many of those in the supply chain. 
  • Most cacao growers don't actually know with any degree of certainty what their cacao is when it comes to the new classification. Previously they only had to think of 'Criollo', 'Forastero' and 'Trinitario'. 
  • You can't DNA test all cocoa farms, estates, plantations or wild sources. Society places great financial demands on many cacao producing areas by requesting that they become Fair Trade certified, trying to get them to have DNA testing would be a step too far.
  • Perhaps there is even the problem of labelling laws. If you say a chocolate is made from a particular strain and it’s not, then there may be legal repercussions - especially in the EU.

But what does the chocolate from these origins taste like?
It is impossible to answer this question as not only are we only ever made aware of a handful of strains, but pre and post-production protocols will make this a moot assessment. Another part of the answer is: I just don't know. Given that knowledge of the bean strains leads to missing or inaccurate labelling I have to take it for granted that the information given is accurate. We could use the map below and guess the particular expected flavour profile if we know the origin and estate, but there is still too much guesswork to have any acceptable degree of confidence.

We could take an estate or co-operative and look for other information on the internet to try and determine the strain or cultivar to build up an expected flavour profile, but again, we'll have little hope of establishing information consistent with the Motamayor et al list of strains. The vast majority of chocolate sold is made from a blend of origins so this information may be too difficult to locate and present to consumers. What's more the next tier of chocolate: single origin can also contain strains from a variety of estates in the country. Even then a single estate can also have a variety of strains of cacao trees present (at least different ratios of genetic variances).

Do we actually need to know?

I'd love to be in a position to list every chocolate we sell with meta data which includes not only the harvest, fermentation times, drying process, roasting times and temperature, conche times, but the most critical of all pieces of information: exact cacao strain or cultivar. In an age of growing awareness of provenance and various food scandals it essential we know as much about what we consume as possible. 

It won't happen in my lifetime
The problem is that we have very little hope of achieving this. For a variety of reasons:

  • We don't have an agreed list of strains/cultivars. Motamayor's list, for example, is inconsistent with the C-Spot list and every book on the subject I have read;
  • Most chocolate consumers don't understand that different strains, cultivars, hybrids exist, let alone that some offer 'finer flavour' than others;
  • The vast majority of chocolate consumers don't understand that 'fine chocolate' exists. They feel that 'fine chocolate' is something made by an artisan chocolatier rather than a skilled and ethically-aware chocolate maker;
  • There is no consumer pressure to demand that full and accurate strain information is given (let alone origin);
  • There is no chance that all growers and suppliers will agree to an international set nomenclature;
  • Despite Mars Inc. funding many of the studies on the genetic variety of cacao (and we are immensely grateful for them doing so), large chocolate makers generally have no interest in making consumers aware that they make chocolate from poor/average quality cacao;
  • Most (I'd love to say 'all') large chocolate makers cannot state exactly where the cacao originates from for a given bar of chocolate. It's blended beyond belief and will be from a variety of origins and plantations, let alone a given, exactly determined, strain of cacao - especially supermarket own-label chocolate which may give you an origin.

How can we get people to care?

There is currently a significant push for 'heirloom' cacao (to you and me this means 'the really tasty stuff'). In a bit more detail this will mean cacao that has a significant amount of 'Criollo' DNA. In truth this could also include many of the other the other strains listed above. Almost no-one outside of the growing, making or educational parts of the chocolate community understand that 'Heirloom' cacao exists. Until recently we thought there were only three types of cacao, of course. We can only get people to really understand what their chocolate is made from if we educate consumers to its existence. As an industry we'll never agree on the specifics, we can, at least, get the media to play their part and educate consumers as to the existence of 'fine flavour' cacao. That'll be a start.

Attitudes with food have changed so radically over the past twenty years with greater awareness of organic produce, Fair Trade (it’s a start at least), vegan, gluten free, and the purity of what they eat. It has happened with fruit and veg and most of the items you will find in the supermarkets. But chocolate seems to the last remaining food that people don't look too closely at, other than Fair Trade and organic. How about we start to get people to talk about: what type of cacao is it made from, where was it grown and did the people that grow it earn a 'living wage'. If we achieve that, then I'll be happy.

All images sourced from my own photography or Wikipedia apart from the last which is from Direct Cacao.

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