Monday, November 15, 2010

Amazing news, fellow chocoholics!

The public release of the genome of the cacao tree - from which chocolate is made - will save the chocolate industry from collapse, a scientist has said.
Howard Yana-Shapiro, a researcher for Mars, said that without engineering higher-yielding cacao trees, demand would outstrip supply within 50 years.
Dr Yana-Shapiro said such strains will also help biodiversity and farmers' welfare in cacao-growing regions.
The genome's availability will likely lead to healthier, tastier chocolate.
The sequencing of the genome was an international, multidisciplinary effort between firms including Mars and IBM, the US department of agriculture and a number of universities, and was announced in September.
Dr Shapiro, once described as a "biodiversifarian", was speaking at an event at IBM's research labs in Zurich when he called the date the genome was released "the greatest day of my life".
"In late 2007, it became very apparent to me that we would not have a continuous supply of cocoa going into the future if we did not intervene on a massive scale to secure our supply chain."
"Cote d'Ivoire is the largest producer of cocoa in the world," Dr Shapiro continued. "Mars has bought cocoa from there for sixty years - but when we started to understand the environmental and ecological conditions, the productivity, sociocultural and economic conditions, I realised this was a moment of crisis for this region."
What is at issue is both the inherent yield of varying strains of the Theobroma cacao tree, which on average currently produce 400 kilograms per hectare of land. What is needed is to make more cocoa from fewer trees and less land.
"In 10 years, under a 2% increase in consumption we will need (an area corresponding to) another Cote d'Ivoire. There is no more place to grow it, productivity with less land must be our driver."
The genetic codes of major global staple crops such as rice and wheat have been decoded, with a view to improving yields or nutritive properties. However, those crops are grown principally on large, industrial farms.
Cocoa, by comparison, is grown for the most part on small farms by individual farmers and sold on in a less centralised market.
For that reason, Dr Shapiro said, increases to yields or the cocoa butter and fat content - for which cocoa farmers are actually paid - could directly affect the lives of some 6.5 million small farmers around the globe.
Under his direction, the consortium sequenced the Theobroma cacao genome in a remarkably short time, finishing three years ahead of schedule.
The whole of the genome was first published, as Dr Shapiro puts it, "in the public domain and protected from patenting for perpetuity - so everyone would have free and continued access to it".
Now correlations between certain characteristics - such as disease and drought resistance or higher proportions of healthier fats - can be made in the field with the benefit of relatively inexpensive laboratory equipment. In this way, each region ensures it has strains that will produce the most, and the best, cocoa.
There are a number of other characteristics that, in time, may be maximised on a genetic basis - such as the level of chemicals known as flavinols, which have been implicated in laboratory tests of heart health.
"Soon it will be the norm as opposed to the exception: healthy fats, high levels of flavinols, so that chocolate will actually become something quite different. Whether that's 10, 15 20 years away, it's on that track now."
Higher yields will free up land for other under-utilised crops in the region such as yams, sorghum and plantains. Dr Shapiro sees such small changes - that a chocolate consumer never sees - as a tangible human benefit of science-driven agriculture.
"It gives you social stability in the rural sector, it gives you cultural stability that doesn't break up the rural sector, it gives you environmental stabilty because we're reducing the risk to the environment from agricultural chemistry, it gives you ecological stability because we're protecting the remnant forest, it also sequesters carbon," he said.
"This is the really 'Green Revolution' of understanding the entire ecosystem from which you are working."

This is also the greatest day of my life. brb wiping a tear from my eye.

In all seriousness, this is actually pretty cool. Most people don't really think about the impact cocoa has on the economies of countries like Cote d'Ivoire. Making the cocoa genome public will both help cocoa growers around the world economically and create better chocolate! Huzzah!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mini post-Halloween post

In the last two weeks since Halloween, I have received several Halloween-themed chocolates from friends at work, so I thought I might make a mini Halloween post reviewing them. Oddly enough, given the immediate association of Halloween with candy, I have never considered this particular holiday as one for having special chocolate flavors (as might be found with Christmas chocolate or Valentine's Day chocolate). All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the different flavors I've tried in the post-Halloween lull.

First up: Ghirardelli's Sublime White Vanilla Dream. Here I must offer a full disclosure: I really, really do not like white chocolate. However, I rather enjoyed this square; the mix of white chocolate and vanilla beans was absolutely perfect. It was neither too sweet nor too white chocolatey. At the same time, though, it did not offer the "timeless pleasure" that one should receive upon devouring this chocolate, as the Ghirardelli website claims:

The luxuriously smooth and creamy white chocolate in Ghirardelli Sublime White Vanilla Dream is infused with real vanilla delivering unrivaled flavor intensity.

Enjoy the tranquility of Vanilla Dream and experience a moment of timeless pleasure.

Furthermore - as a friend at work noted - how can one experience a moment of pleasure if that moment is timeless?

Alas, the Vanilla Dream doesn't hold the answers to these important questions. But I still recommend this chocolate anyway.

Ghirardelli Sublime White Vanilla Dream rating: 5/5

Couldn't find a decent pic of this anywhere so you'll have to excuse my crappy iPhone capture.

Up next is another Ghirardelli, Pumpkin Spice Caramel. This particular chocolate doesn't try to fool you; it tastes exactly as it sounds. Think pumpkin, caramel, and nutmeg, and you've got this square. It would have been absolutely perfect had it involved dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate, because with the milk it tasted a little too sweet for my palate. As such, I probably wouldn't be able to eat more than two or three of these in one sitting.

Apparently this chocolate is a limited edition Ghirardelli product, so I don't know how readily available it is in stores. But if you can find it, give it a shot. Recommended for people who like pumpkin-flavored chocolate.

Ghirardelli Pumpkin Spice Caramel rating: 4/5

Moving on to a different brand, here we have the Dove Peanut Butter Promises. Admittedly, there's not much special about this chocolate because you can buy it year-round, but the square I had was wrapped in foil with autumn leaves on it, which I guess means it's Halloween-themed. Or something like that. Anyway, you can get this in either the milk chocolate or dark chocolate variety; I had the milk chocolate, though I assume the dark chocolate is better (but, I am biased). As with the Pumpkin Spice Caramel, the milk chocolate made it way too sweet (since peanut butter is already super sweet by itself). But if you like milk chocolate, I would recommend the milk version of these squares.

Dove Peanut Butter Promises (milk chocolate) rating: 3.5/5

Last, but certainly not least, we have one of my favorite non-elite chocolate bars: the Milky Way Midnight (aka: dark chocolate Milky Way). Like the Dove Peanut Butter, you can get these at any time of the year. But that's okay, because they should be eaten year-round. These things are just so, so good. I had my first Midnight around the age of 10 or so, and since then I haven't been able to eat regular Milky Ways. I'm a sucker for caramel and dark chocolate, and the Midnight is no exception. Eating this Halloween-themed chocolate evoked a flood of nostalgia and taste bud explosion that had me craving more for the rest of the day.

Milky Way Midnight rating: 5/5

Happy belated Halloween, everyone!