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The Genetics of Chocolate

Chocolate production is both an art and a science. Researchers hope to alter chocolate genes to produce sweeter rewards.

a photo of different varieties of cacao beans

Photo: Desert Botanical Garden (Flickr)

Scientists have cracked the genetic code of cacao seeds, the main ingredient in chocolate.

Ever wonder where your favorite chocolate comes from? Well, today you’ve won a golden ticket! Together we’ll uncover the sweet mysteries surrounding chocolate production.

The Building Blocks of Chocolate

Chocolate is made from cacao beans, the fruit of the cacao tree. The tree grows pods, which contain between 30 to 40 seeds, or beans as we like to call them. And it takes 20 to 25 pods to make just two pounds of cocoa.

Because the healthiest, highest producing trees don’t have the nicest flavor pods, your average chocolate bar is made from a bunch of different types of cacao beans.

Bitter Truths

The most common type of cacao tree in Latin America—where most chocolate comes from—is known as CCN 51. But pods from these trees tend to be very acidic and astringent, making for bitter chocolate. So chocolatiers combine these pods with nicer tasting varieties.

Cacao pods can be almost every color of the rainbow, based on how much anthocyanin is in the immature pods.

Scientists want to make a tastier pod that’s green, so it can be easily told apart from the red, bitter CCN 51 pods. And now they’ve figured out which genes code for the color of the cacao pod. It’s just one letter of DNA, so they can easily tell the difference between the cacao trees that have the acidic red pods and the milder green ones before the pods even appear.

Thanks to genetics, there are sweet rewards in store for the future.

Read more about cracking chocolate’s genetic code.

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