The cocoa fruit

From-tree-to-bar, part 2

Katharina Kuhlmann

istock pierivb
EcoFinia GmbH

19 Juli 2018

The first part of our blog special „From-tree-to-bar” dealt with the cocoa tree. Now that we know where the tree originates from, what it looks like, what its characteristics are and how it is used agriculturally we want to focus on its yield: the cocoa fruit. What does it look like, how is it build up? What can you make out of it and how is it harvested? We also have to look at issues like child labour in this context. The next two parts of “From-tree-to-bar” will elaborate on how the cocoa fruit is processed until the final product chocolate is ready.

The cocoa fruit – colourful beauty with precious content

As has been seen in the last part of our “From-tree-to-bar” special not all cocoa trees are the same. Due to many subspecies of Theobroma cacao and the possibility to create new varieties by hybridising many different cocoa types are available. These can be summarised by the three main varieties Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. Therefore, it’s obvious that sought-after fruit yields of cocoa trees aren’t always the same. It’s common to all fruits that they grow directly at the stem of the cocoa tree – which is an unusual and exotic sight. Depending on the variety, the cultivation area and other factors the fruits can be around 15 to 25 cm long, in exceptional cases splendid specimens can reach a length of 30 cm. A ripe fruit can reach a weight of up to 500 grams and shimmers in the most beautiful colours, depending on the variety. While unripe cocoa fruits are all green, their colour turns into a colour spectrum ranging from yellow / yellow-red / orange to red /red-brown to purple with ripeness.

The classification of cocoa in the original two varieties Criollo and Forastero (the third variety Trinitario is a hybrid of the two other varieties) is determined by the shape of the fruit and the colour of the cocoa beans. Criollo fruits can be described as having a cucumber shape. They taper at the ends and their rough surface features ten lengthwise furrows. In contrast, Forastero fruits are wider, they don’t have furrows and their surface is relatively smooth. They look a bit like elongated melons. The colour of the cocoa beans also varies widely, Criollo seeds are white, Forastero seeds are purple.

If you cut the cocoa fruit you can find around 25 to 50 seeds which are about 2 cm wide and 1 cm long. They aren’t distributed loosely in the fruit flesh but arranged in 5 rows. The fruit flesh, the so-called fruit pulp or pulpa, surrounds each cocoa bean individually and it is difficult to separate it from the bean manually. In the further processing of the cocoa beans the pulpa is separated from the cocoa bean by fermentation, which we will describe in the next part of our “From-tree-to-bar” special.

The cocoa fruit – delivers more than chocolate

If you think about the final product made out of the cocoa fruit, most people only think about chocolate. What else could you make out of this tropical fruit? The answer: a lot! Nevertheless, chocolate is the undisputed main final product of the cocoa tree, which would probably not be used agriculturally without this goal. We will tell you more about the further processing to chocolate in the next parts of “From-tree-to-bar”.

So, what more can the cocoa fruit promise besides soft-melting chocolate? For a start, fruit flesh and seeds of the cocoa fruit can be enjoyed as a fruit without further processing. The consumption of cocoa fruits is unfamiliar over here because it is very difficult to obtain fresh cocoa fruits. The fruit is cut in half lengthways and can then be spooned out and eaten. The fruit flesh is said to taste fresh and fruity, slightly sweet-sour and comparable to lychees – unfortunately I couldn’t try it myself yet. The seeds are said to be reminiscent of the taste of beech-nuts. If you ever have the chance to buy fresh cocoa fruits in trade they often have to mature at home. In case they are ready to eat they crack open. The consumption of the fresh fruit is known and popular in cocoa farming countries, because they contain many nutrients and vitamins. Especially farm workers enjoy the fruits as a daily treat. The fruit pulp is also popular as a drink, for example in the “Suco de Cacau” in Brazil.

The further handling process to chocolate results in more “waste products” which can be used further, above all the cocoa shells. As soon as the cocoa beans have been roasted their shells are broken, removed and usually disposed of. For several years these shells are being used for tea. Brewed and prepared like a regular tea the result tastes cocoa-like with the advantage of a low-calorie content. Another possible use: mulch and fertiliser made of cocoa shells. The shells look better than, for example, bark mulch, smell nice, should even keep away vermin like snails and improve the soil quality. Furthermore, there are studies regarding cocoa shells and animal feeding. It has been found that the addition of cocoa shells and herbs to the feed of broiler chickens can have an appetising effect on the animals and reduce antibiotic inputs.

The cocoa fruit – dangerous harvest

The cocoa tree bears flowers and fruits throughout the year, but is usually only harvested twice a year in one main and one secondary harvest. The ripe cocoa fruits are carefully cut off from the trees by workers with long harvest knives. They should not hurt the tree at the seed pads where the fruits have grown, otherwise no new fruits will develop there and result in a crop failure. Like fruits bought for immediate eating, the cocoa fruit has to ripen after harvest. Subsequently, the fruits are cut in half with a machete and opened to remove pulp and cocoa beans for further processing. Caution and precision is crucial for this step to make sure the cocoa beans don’t get touched or damaged by the long sharp knives. A lot of experience and routine is essential in this step.

If you imagine the harvest scenario it doesn’t seem too unusual or dangerous. However, if you consider the harvesters handling the huge machetes are usually children and youngsters, the problematic extent of the mass production of cocoa becomes clear. Since the beginning of our century an increasing number of people report of child labour and even child slavery in the cocoa production. Especially the two West African countries Ivory Coast and Ghana, with a global market share of about 70 % the main producing countries of cocoa, are affected by this. There’s always been initiatives and projects by chocolate manufacturers and involved countries to fight the problems ever since the problem is known. Not much has changed since then, on the contrary some media even report a further increase of child labour in West Africa in 2015. The work children have to perform on cocoa plantations are very dangerous. Besides handling the machetes which carries an enormous risk of injury they have to carry too heavy loads like bags with cocoa fruits and water containers. They also get in contact with pesticides in conventional farming, are poorly provided for and are at the mercy of long working days without recreation time. The reasons for child labour are traditional, because cocoa farmers teach children the work the way they perform it themselves and have only little threat awareness. In addition to this there are problems like poverty, lack of education and political upheaval like the civil war in Ivory Coast which has flared up again and again since 2002.

It’s important for consumers to deal with the topic “Child labour and cheap chocolate” critically. Boycotting chocolate doesn’t solve the problem, it’s more important to look at the origin and the production method of the cocoa. Certification systems like Fairtrade and UTZ provide orientation – and of course the eco label. If you want to be completely safe choose manufacturers using cocoa from Latin America. Local cocoa nations like the Dominican Republic – the number one exporting country for ecological cocoa – are not among the risk countries. Consumers should be willing to pay a little more for a good product – by definition, chocolate is among the luxury articles. This is the only way to stop the decline of the cocoa price worldwide driving the vicious circle of child labour on a long-term basis.

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