Course:FNH200/Projects/2023/Sustainable Chocolate: Cacao Farming and Eco-friendly Processing

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Cocoa beans and pods

Chocolate can take on many forms such as a solid bar, flavouring powder, syrup, and many more; however, it originates from cacao beans grown from cacao evergreen trees[1]. It is primarily composed of cacao paste but may also include ingredients such as milk and sugar[2]. Its smoothness, flavour, and smell have been enjoyed over centuries in varieties of sweet desserts, candies, and other dishes.

The discovery of the cacao trees was made by the Mayans in South America, which resulted in the creation of a chocolate drink prepared with hot water, cinnamon, and pepper presented to Emperor Moctezuma II by the Aztecs[3]. The bitter flavours of the chocolate and its alluring aroma deemed it the “food of the gods” according to the Mayans. Eventually, chocolate made its way throughout Europe around 1582.

The perseverance of chocolate in human history has demonstrated its impact in the culinary world, economical climate, as well as the environment. As of 2021, the primary producers of cocoa across the world are Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Indonesia. Through the advancement of technology, the chocolate that we consume today undergoes extensive chemical treatment as well as complex extraction, pressing, and pulverizing procedures. With the increasing effects of global warming, packaging waste, and man-made goods, it is imperative that the ecological and global effects of this long loved confection be explored.

Types of Chocolate

There are countless different preparations of chocolate and chocolate-flavoured food products, but these four are the building blocks of the vast array of blends and flavours that people know and love.

Dark Chocolate Bar

Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate is the flavour that most resembles real cocoa beans in terms of composition and flavour. The term “dark” refers to its rich, deep, and bitter profile as well as its extremely dark brown colour. Its composition includes cocoa bean solids making up approximately 80% of its total weight along with cocoa butter[3]. Furthermore, the quality of dark chocolate is dependent on the concentration / percentage of cocoa (i.e. the higher the percentage means the higher the quality of dark chocolate). [3]

White Chocolate Bar

White Chocolate

White chocolate has been famously deemed the chocolate variety that is not actually chocolate because it does not contain any cocoa solids and the cocoa butter that is used to make white chocolate originally comes from pressed cocoa liquor that was previously processed from cocoa beans.[3] These factors result in a fairly low concentration of cocoa in white chocolate. This variety has an off-white colour and has a notably sweet taste that can also be described as creamy.

Milk Chocolate Bar
Gianduja Chocolate

Milk Chocolate

Milk chocolate is one of the most popular varieties in the world. It appears as a bright brown colour and has a very distinct sweet aroma. This flavour of chocolate tastes sweeter than its darker counterparts and has a “melt-in-mouth” texture. It is composed of cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder, lecithin, and cocoa in amounts of no less than 20-25%.[3] Milk chocolate is commonly used in baking, candies, desserts, as well as many more treats.

Gianduja Chocolate

Gianduja chocolate is created from a blend of hazelnuts, cocoa, and sugar. Its appearance, flavour profile, and aroma are similar to that of milk chocolate, but it differs by a distinct nutty taste.[3] This variety of chocolate is famously used in chocolate hazelnut spreads like Nutella and the most common way to enjoy Gianduja chocolate is by an edible spread on items such as toast, crepes, pancakes, and many more food products.

Chocolate Production


Chocolate comes from cocoa beans, which come from the cocoa tree. The cocoa tree belongs to the genus Theobroma cacao. There are three different subspecies within this genus, and these subspecies can be further differentiated within four main cultivars[4]:

  • Criollo, common in south-central America;
  • Forastero, from the Amazon region;
  • Trinitario, a hybrid cultivar created with Criollo and Amelonado Forastero (subgroup of Forastero);
  • Nacional, which is found in Ecuador.

The majority of the world's cocoa is produced in West African countries, with Ivory Coast producing 37% of the worldwide production and Ghana producing 20%[4]. Cocoa trees grow in hot, humid environments with plenty of rainfall[5]. 95% of all cocoa farmed worldwide is Forastero cultivar, however, there can be significant differences in attributes. Especially in West Africa, cocoa plantations are small, with an average size of 3 or 4 hectares. These farmers' activities are not standardized, therefore the quality of the beans may differ significantly between them[4].

Pod Storage

After being harvested by hand, cocoa pods, which are difficult to ferment or which are destined for high-acid chocolates, are stored[4]. Pod storage reduces sucrose, glucose, fructose, ethanol and acetic acid content, and improve the pH in fermented cocoa beans[4]. This improves the flavour of the final product, but comes at a cost of higher production waste through mouldy beans[4].


The cocoa beans are then extracted from the pods and fermented. Depending on the farmer, area, and country, different fermentation methods may be used[4]. These methods include:

  • Heaps, where the farmer lays banana leaves on the ground, puts a heap of pods on top, and covers it all with more banana leaves.[6]
  • Boxes, where a large box containing one ton of beans is stored on top of one another in a stair-like format. There are holes in the bottom of the box to allow for aeration and drainage. Once 48 hours has passed (then every 24 hours after that), the pods are emptied into another box and sealed[6].

In all cases, the aim is to destroy the seed coat and kill the germ inside, releasing enzymes that add to the complexity and depth of taste of chocolate[6].


The drying process aims to reduce the moisture content of the beans to less than 7.5% water weight[4]. Drying is still a continuation of oxidative fermentation, and reduces astringency, bitterness and acidity[4]. The signature brown colour is developed in this stage due to the enzymatic oxidation of polyphenols[4].

There are two main ways of drying:

  • Sun drying, where beans are placed on boards one metre above ground.[6] This is for dry areas, outside of forested areas;
  • Artificial drying, where a concrete slab is heated with fire and the beans placed on top[6]. This method is better for forested areas and/or areas with high humidity.

After drying, the beans are sorted and then placed into large sacs. These sacs are sold to a processor[6].


In winnowing, the shells are taken off the beans, leaving the "nib", the most desirable part of the bean[7]. A winnowing machine will crack the shell of the bean, exposing the nib and the shells[8]. Then, through intense vibration, the nibs and shells fall through a set of screens and in the process, fans (or vacuums) are used to extract the shells[8]. What's left at the bottom in the collection chute is clean, processable nibs.[8]

Grinding and Conching

The nibs are then placed in a rapidly spinning vessel with rotating granite stones[9]. When ground for several days, the nibs release the cocoa butter within them, turning into liquid chocolate[9].

After grinding, the nibs are then conched, which is a form of advanced grinding. The chocolate is ground and mixed at a certain temperature, and sugars, flavourings, and additional cocoa butter are added to give the chocolate a distinct taste and texture[9].


The last step in chocolate production is tempering. In tempering, the chocolate is slowly heated and cooled, allowing for stabilization and solidification[7].

Common Ingredients and Additive

Cocoa beans that will be made into cocoa paste
Raw sugar

Common Ingredients

Cocoa Paste

The major ingredient of all chocolates - made from cocoa nibs of Theobroma Cacao tree fruit [10].

With regards to sustainability, cocoa production has great consequences on biodiversity, soil quality, water supplies, and human costs such as poverty and child labor[11]. Environmental risks in particular are higher if the cocoa crops are monoculture because they are more reliant on pesticide usage[11].


Raw salt
Milk in a glass

Added to provide sweetness to the chocolate; often used in all chocolate types[12].

In regards to sustainability, sugarcane crops require an abundance of water and land due to its degree of use and demand, leading to loss in biodiversity[3]. Moreover, the liquid waste that results from sugarcane processing can negatively affect water quality alongside other industrial waste from sugar mills like emissions and solid waste (eg. plant matter)[3].


Added to enhance the existing flavors of chocolate; commonly used in milk and dark chocolate[12].

Milk / Milk Powder

Used in milk and white chocolate for sweetness and creaminess.

As for sustainability, milk powder has been found to be the largest contributor of wastewater for dairy due to condensation and water evaporation, and the wastewater from dairy can cause sewage fungus which can harm ecosystems and human health[13].

Cocoa Butter[12]

Cocoa butter

Comprised of cocoa fat obtained from cocoa bean processing, milk, sugar, and other ingredients[14]. Generally used in the making of white chocolates to make it creamy and sweet. It can also aid in lowering the viscosity of chocolate which makes tempering and molding easier[15].

As mentioned prior in discussion of cocoa paste, cocoa production is unsustainable in numerous ways: in its resulting environmental consequences, the farming practices elected, and its human impact[11].

Vanillin crystals


An organic compound that provides a vanilla flavor and fragrance[16]. Typically commonly used in milk, white, and dark chocolates[12]. Presently, synthetically made vanillin makes up most of the vanillin demand compared to natural vanillin or Vanilla panifolia extracts[16].

With regards to sustainability, the process of making the synthetic vanillin requires five plants, costing more financially as well as environmentally compared to turning ferulic acid to vanillin and vanillic acid through photocatalytic conversion according to one study[16].

Common Additive

Lecithin (specifically Soy Lecithin)[12]

A soybean-derived phospholipid. In chocolate, it lowers the viscosity to ensure that the chocolate is at an adequate consistency for tempering and molding[15].

In regards to sustainability, it is important to acknowledge that soy is an extremely in-demand resource, with its production having increased by more than double in the last two decades alone[17]. This means that there is an ever-increasing burden on our planet, with loss of various habitats such as savannahs, grasslands, and forests, and dire consequences on human lives, particularly Indigenous peoples[17].

Environmental Impacts of Chocolate

The environmental impact of chocolate farming is a complex issue involving numerous stakeholders, further complicated by corruption and poor governance prevalent in many cocoa-producing regions[18]. Cocoa farming practices take a heavy toll on the environment. The excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides by cocoa farms leads to soil and water acidification, eutrophication, and toxicity in the surrounding land. Moreover, these practices contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

The monoculture nature of cocoa farming exacerbates the issue by clearing land for planting, resulting in loss of biodiversity. To counteract depleted and nutrient-poor soil, fertilizers are introduced, and pesticides are required due to the lack of a resilient forest ecosystem[19]. Cocoa trees have conventionally been cultivated beneath a rich and dense canopy of shade trees, fostering a habitat for a wide array of organisms. The shift towards decreased or no shade cover is a concern for the potential decline in biodiversity[20]. Beyond the cultivation process, packaging compounds the environmental impact, often involving non-recyclable plastic composites [21].

To drive change in the cocoa industry towards sustainability, consumers must generate demand for sustainable products. There are numerous foundations and initiatives that are dedicated to achieving zero-deforestation, improving crop sustainability and advocating for shade grown cocoa. Notably, key players in promoting sustainable cocoa include Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and UTZ certification programs [22]. These certifications will be advertised on chocolate packaging so consumers know they are supporting more sustainably grown cocoa.

Future Trends for Chocolate

Since global popularization in the late 1800s[23], chocolate has maintained its reputation as a global food staple despite ever-evolving consumer food preferences. The outlook for chocolate can be broadly categorized into two themes:


Consumers are becoming more aware of the economic and environmental concerns surrounding cocoa production, and this may be the driver for continued growth in organic and fair trade chocolate products[24]. Chocolate makers claiming to have production practices that are eco-friendly have gained strong appeal and recognition - over 47% of North American consumers actively seek out sustainably-produced chocolate[25].

As a result of the social influence from campaigns regarding obesity, consumers are actively seeking ways to manage their sugar intake. In response to this demand, chocolate makers have introduced new offerings to reduce sugar content, as well as an increasing catalogue of plant-based, vegan and dairy-free alternatives. While dark chocolate is naturally dairy-free, there has been a new development of milk-like chocolates, including the range of oat-based chocolates recently launched by both Hershey and Lindt[25].

Health Consciousness

While chocolate is naturally rich in nutrients (i.e. flavanols), 65% of the global market would love to see chocolates with further health boosts in macro- and micronutrients[25]. In the US, there appears to be a new generation of healthy chocolates entering the market - from chocolates infused with immunity-boosting vitamins, products with compounds that can benefit the brain and body, to treats that can benefit gut health.

Exam Question

What is the primary role of sugar when making chocolate?

A. Preservation

B. Flavouring/sweetness - this is the correct answer

C. To add creaminess

D. To serve as reactant for caramelization reactions

We believe that this question should be on the final exam as it ties together what was learned in Module 2 regarding the functional properties of sugars in foods. While sugars can be used in foods for a variety of reasons, its main role in chocolate is to provide sweetness. This may be somewhat tricky to answer for an exam taker as sugar can also be used for preservation (in the way that it binds to free water required for growth of microorganisms), or to produce a desired "mouthfeel".


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