The weather conditions in which cocoa trees are grown can have a large impact on the taste of chocolate, finds a recent study. More to the point, it seems that “stressed out” cocoa trees that have been exposed to an unwelcoming climate actually produce tastier chocolate, the research shows.
The study, published last month in the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, explores the manner in which different agricultural methods, doubled by climate change, can influence the quality of cocoa beans.
The results revealed that, while the agricultural method employed does little to change the flavor of cocoa beans, the specific weather conditions to which cocoa trees are exposed can sometimes enhance the tastiness of chocolate.
In short, stressful climate conditions can change the chemical composition of cocoa beans, resulting in more flavorful chocolate, explains the ACS in a press release issued on Wednesday (December 6).
According to the news release, Wiebke Niether and Gerhard Gerold, from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Frick, Switzerland, wanted to see if there was a way in which science could improve the taste of chocolate. Why tamper with 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 tastiness of cocoa beans. The two traveled to Bolivia to harvest beans from five cocoa tree farms that used different growing methods for their crops.
The cocoa trees, which normally thrive in hot and humid climates, were grown either in agroforestry systems (in which they are mixed with other trees and grow in shade) or in “monocultural” groves (in which they are planted alone and grow in direct sunlight).
Unlike the agroforest setting, which provides a low-stress growing environment by keeping the air cool, increasing the nutrients in the soil, and maintaining ground water levels, full-sun monocultural groves — to which farmers sometimes resort in order to increase production — expose cocoa trees to stressful climate conditions.
Everyone knows that stress can kill you unless you are a cocoa tree. It turns out that the antioxidants produced by cocoa trees to counteract the effects of stress can actually improve the quality of their beans.
Niether and Gerold analyzed the cocoa bean samples, gathered in two different harvesting seasons — both at the beginning and at the end of the dry season, which in Bolivia runs from April to September — and found out that the biggest difference in their chemical composition was attributed to climate change.
After drying and fermenting the beans, the researchers measured the phenol (flavor), fat, and antioxidant levels in their content and observed there was little difference between the trees grown in agroforest settings and those planted in monocultural groves. The beans grown in direct sunlight had only “slightly more phenols and other antioxidant compounds” compared to those grown in shade.
However, growing conditions aside, weather proved to have a stronger impact on the chemical composition of cocoa beans. The higher temperatures and lower soil moisture of the dry season yielded beans richer in phenols and antioxidants, and with a lower fat content, the study points out.
These changes in climate conditions “can contribute to variations in cocoa bean quality,” the researchers write in their paper.