Climate change can alter the taste of chocolate, says a study



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The climatic conditions in which cocoa trees are grown can have a big impact on the taste of chocolate, according to a recent study. More to the point, it seems that "stressed" cocoa trees that have been exposed to inhospitable weather actually produce tastier chocolate, the research shows.

The study, published last month in the American Chemical Society (ACS) Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry explores how different agricultural methods, duplicated by climate change, can influence quality of the cocoa beans.

The results revealed that although the agricultural method used recently to change the taste of cocoa beans, the specific climatic conditions to which cocoa trees are exposed can sometimes improve the quality of the chocolate.

In summary, stressful weather conditions can change the chemical composition of cocoa beans, resulting in ACS in a press release issued on Wednesday (December 6).

According to the press release, Wiebke Niether and Gerhard Gerold of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Frick, Switzerland, wanted to see if there was a way science could improve the taste of chocolate. (Why alter perfection, one might wonder, and yet, it seems to have worked).

Therefore, Niether and Gerold devised an experiment to see if certain external factors can have an effect on the taste of cocoa beans. The two traveled to Bolivia to harvest beans from five cocoa farms that used different cultivation methods for their crops.

Cocoa trees, which normally thrive in hot and humid climates, were grown in agroforestry systems (where they mix with other trees and grow in the shade) or in "monocultural" groves (where they are planted alone and they grow in direct sunlight).

Unlike the agroforestry environment, which provides a low-stress growth environment by keeping fresh air, increasing nutrients in the soil and maintaining groundwater levels, monoculture forests in full sun – to which farmers turn sometimes to increase production – they expose cocoa to stressful climatic conditions.

  Maturation of cocoa pods in a cacao tree in Brazil.
Climate change exposes cocoa trees to stressful climatic conditions, altering the chemical composition of cocoa beans.

Alf Ribeiro

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Shutterstock


Everyone knows that stress can kill you, unless you are a cacao tree. It turns out that antioxidants produced by cocoa trees to counteract the effects of stress can actually improve the quality of their beans.

Niether and Gerold badyzed the samples of cocoa beans, gathered in two different harvest seasons, both at the beginning and at the end of the dry season, which in Bolivia goes from April to September, and found that the biggest difference in its chemical composition was attributed to climate change.

After drying and fermenting the beans, the researchers measured the phenol (taste), fat and antioxidant levels in their content and observed that there was little difference between trees grown in agroforestry environments and those planted in monoculture forests. Beans grown in direct sunlight had only "a little more phenols and other antioxidant compounds" compared to those grown in the shade.

However, aside from the growth conditions, the climate proved to have a greater impact on the chemical composition of the cocoa beans. Higher temperatures and lower soil moisture in the dry season produced beans richer in phenols and antioxidants, and with a lower fat content, the study notes.

These changes in climatic conditions "may contribute to variations in the quality of the cocoa bean" the researchers write in their paper.

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