By Mark Sommer
(IPS) As a commodity of almost irresistible attraction, chocolate has always played contradictory roles in human life. For those consuming it, chocolate has been an exquisite experience. For those growing the cacao from which it’s made, it’s more often been excruciating. For those of us savoring its flavor, it’s the ultimate indulgence. For those struggling to survive on the pittance paid for cacao beans, it has been the ultimate indignity. Many of those who grow cacao have never even tasted chocolate.
As currently processed, chocolate is candy, not food. But chocolate has been cultivated for four thousand years, and for all but the last hundred and fifty it was a food and a medicine, not a confection. Some hint of its nutritional value has been revealed by recent research indicating that dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, flavinoids, epicatechin and other ingredients that shield against heart attacks and stroke, cancer and diabetes. But most chocolate consumed today is essentially a highly fattening mix of sugar and milk with an overlay of chocolate flavoring made from inferior beans.
Yet chocolate need not be bad for us or a bad deal for the cacao grower. In fact, if properly grown, processed, and marketed, it could become a transformational source of food and nutrition, revived culture and agriculture, biodiversity, and personal and social health.
But to become truly transformational, chocolate itself needs to change. We must change the way we grow and process cacao. Seventy percent of the beans grown today comes from West Africa, where it is cultivated as a monoculture from few strains in minimal shade. But cacao is a native of the splendidly diverse original rainforests of Central and South America. There it grows in the wild among hundreds of species of trees and plants, many of which possess largely unexplored nutritional or medicinal values of their own.
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