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by Larry

August, 2012

A Chocoholic's Nightmare

Imagine a world without chocolate: no chocolate kisses at Halloween, no chocolate bunnies for Easter, no chocolate-covered cherries during Christmas, no chocolate in our espresso or on our sundaes, no evening cups of cocoa, no chocolate cake or chocolate chip cookies, no chocolate milk, no chocolate topping on our low fat yogurt, no heart-shaped boxes of assorted chocolates for Valentine's Day, no chocolate ice cream! Long regarded as a suitor's best gift to the adored, it is said that chocolate is even a substitute for that special feeling of being in love. It is also claimed for cocoa butter that it can suppress appetite and reduce stress. Dark chocolate is even said to lower unsafe blood levels of bad cholesterol.

Yet our favorite desserts are now under their most serious threat since Mayan Indians cultivated cocoa trees about one and a half millennia ago. Disease, climate change, farmer carelessness, limited supplies of fertilizer in third world countries, and even bioterrorism are arrayed against a continued abundance of chocolate in our diets.

A Hidden Cost of Cheap Chocolate, Child Trafficking in Ghana (Wikipedia)

For those with chocolate cravings, perhaps the worst of these concerns are blights such as witch's broom and frosty pod. Once infected with these deadly diseases, cocoa tree pods develop fungal spores which are carried on the wind to neighboring groves. Already many of the cocoa orchards in their native Central America have been decimated. Should the diseases get a foothold in Africa, where about 70% of cocoa production has recently been occurring, our chocolate habits may have to be kicked! All it would take would be a few infected pods to destroy a third or more of current cocoa bean farming.

Meanwhile, the other adverse factors mentioned make it harder for farmers to bring trees safely to maturity and successful cocoa production. Attempting to put the odds back in chocolate lovers' favor are scientists who are sequencing the cocoa tree genome and others looking to use the genome information to identify more disease resistant trees by their superior DNA sections and to use this data, in turn, to select the most hearty trees available, breed more of them, and so on. While this slow process is underway, strict quarantines are needed to protect African farmers' cocoa bean trees.

If such efforts prove insufficient, dwindling chocolate supplies may become more pricey than saffron. Can the combined flavor, effects, and culinary utility of chocolate be synthetically duplicated? In a word, no. Not yet, in any case. There are some synthetic chocolate substitutes on the market, but so far none that come close to the benefits of real cocoa butter and powder.

There is another side to the chocolate story, however, one that may cause us to question the true cost of a chocolate fix. Many reports indicate our sweet tooth's pleasure with economical chocolate is at the expense of a blind eye to human trafficking and to child labor under horrific conditions. Maybe an actual nightmare would be the accurate tale of just how those cheap chocolate products came to be in our cupboards, freezers, mugs, and cookie or candy jars.

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