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Is it time for an updated classification of cacao varities? Today the most commonly accepted classification of cacao 'varities' is as follows:

1. Criollo
2. Forastero
2a. Nacional
3. Trinitario

Even when E.E. Cheesman wrote "Notes on Nomenclature... " in 1944 he felt the system above was inadequate. Today, and back then, the terms Criollo and Forastero were not used as defined and were also too broad to apply to the distinct differences in cacao. Today, many pure varities are almost wiped out and replaced with hybrids. I thought that in 2008, genetics must have surely identified markers to clear up the controversy surrounding nomenclature and in turn new nomenclature created to distinguish all the varities that exist. It has been very difficult to find an answer to this and I still have not found one. Along the way, I have come across numerous alternatives to the above. And in 2008, as Cheesman wrote in 1944, it seems that "changing nomenclature at this point would cause even more confusion and out of convenience the terms have been kept, if in some cases they are indicated with qualifiers indicating origin."

It seems clear to me that genetics does identify that Nacional was incorrectly identified as Forastero, but where it belongs is still not agreed upon by everyone. Some research identifies it as a subtype of Criollo while another as a separate variety of it's own.

Does anyone think cacao should be reclassified? If so, does anyone want to take a stab at suggesting an alternative classification model?

Tags: cacao, cheesman, classification, cuatrecasas, genetics

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I think that's a good point about potentially causing more confusion. A little digging certainly indicates that the actual strains of tree in cultivation represent a variety of strains. Anyone who is in a position to choose which trees to plant, or is involved in bean sourcing, surely understands this reality. Attempting to identify and catalog distinct strains would be interesting, particularly in terms of genetic preservation and tracking the evolution of the species. It would be acolossal taxanomic effort, though, and would involve a lot of international grassroots info-gathering. Even once you had the data together, people love to fight over what constitutes a distinct group and what doesn't. It's probably more than the average chocophile cares to know, and would it be relevant to chocolate makers? If you're sourcing beans, there are a lot of practical concerns that will determine which crops you potentially have access to; and a bean by any other name...

The view that Forastero/Criollo/Trinitario/Nacional is a thumbnail sketch seems to be gaining prevalence in chocolate literature (though not, admittedly, on chocolate wrappers). That's a step in the right direction.
While the reclassification of cacao is a laudable goal, I'd first like to lobby the FDA to create a standard of identity for dark chocolate.

Right now, any "chocolate liquor" can, by law, contain dairy fats - e.g., butter oil - so any chocolate in the "sweet" category (which also includes semi-sweet and bittersweet) can automatically have dairy ingredients because they're grandfathered in by the mandated inclusion of chocolate liquor as an ingredient.

I'd like the FDA to make an explicit "dark chocolate" category that says to consumers that there are no dairy ingredients in a chocolate. This is not the same thing as Kosher Pareve, which is a religious certification and not a technical one.

Just FYI, there has been some reclassification in the taxonomy of t. cacao. For many years it was in the Sterculiaceae family and in the past five years has been reassigned to the Malvaceae family although this is at least one step above the level of classification being talked about.

The classic work in this field - the one that is cited by everyone working in this area - is Cuatrecasas (1964). This is a longish paper originally published in volume 35 of Contributions From the United States National Herbarium. I spent a long time looking for this and the only copy I was able to locate is in the Library of Congress. However, I was able to find it online, thanks to a very helpful person at the Smithsonian.

If you are interested in taking a look at this seminal paper, this link takes you to the title page (after page 377) of this research paper, which is part of a collection of papers. If you like, the entire document is downloadable in PDF format. The FDA Standards of Identity for chocolate are here.

Some long-time members of TheChocolateLife may realize that Samantha Madell recently left the community and chose to delete all of her contributions when she left.


Among those contributions was the link to a research paper by Juan Carlos Motamayor, et al, (Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazon Chocolate Tree) referring to a new classification scheme of 10 distinct varieties. Published in 2008, this list has already been updated to include at least three more genetically distinct varieties of cacao, up from the more conventionally understood 3+1 (criollo, forastero, trinitario, and nacional).

I think we may see another classification scheme in an upcoming paper by a Penn State research group.  My understanding is that it will be published by the end of the year.  Clay, do you know what to expect from this?

Brady: I read of the research, which focuses on Central American "criollos." If you take a look at Motamayor's map, the geographic distribution of what that research labels criollo is vast. 

We may see some distinction within the criollo group but I don't know that the new Penn State research is broad enough to add new varieties or if it can only add varieties within the criollo group.


I guess we'll have to wait to find out. Whatever is technically correct, the larger issue is how to communicate this to consumers. It's clear that the trinity+1 view is wrong but the industry (me included) has done such a good job in the last 20 years promoting criollo, forastero, trinitario (+ nacional) that it's hard to see what use and/or outcomes might be. I personally have abandoned the trinity+1 naming in all my new work and writing, just as I advocate for the use of "origin" over "single-origin."


Here's one summary of the research you mention, published, today. Here's the official release from Penn State.

From the Penn State article:

"The Theobroma cacao genome sequences are deposited in the EMB:/Genbank/DDBJ databases under accession numbers CACC01000001-CACC01025912. A genome browser and further information on the project are available from and"

Clay,  Thanks for posting the links to this.  You were right, everything I've read on these releases today focus's on the criollo.  I have to admit, I was hoping for (and expecting) another classification system.  Also, we didn't get the actual research paper today so maybe that will come too.  Brady

And there is this other release on "pure nacional" being found in Peru. Apparently, they are genetically more or less identical to the Nacional found in Ecuador and have the same aroma, but have a higher proportion of white beans than the Nacional found in Ecuador.

The Peruvian Nacional is also different in that it grows between 3500-4100 ft, the highest recorded for any cacao.

If you take a look at Motamayor's map you'll see that the range for Criollo is quite large - which makes sense for cultivated varieties. However, there is some distance (not only as the crow flies but also in elevation) between the Cacao Nacional in Ecuador and the Cacao Nacional in Peru - which leads to the questions of how the distribution occurred, which is the "original home" (if either was, there may be a different common ancestor), and rethinking the range of habitats suitable for growing cacao.

I got ahold of some of these Peruvian Nacional in '09 and posted some of my pictures of them on my chocolatelife page.  If you check them out they are currently the first 4 pictures.  You'll see both purple and white beans.  I'm looking forward to trying the chocolate made from them.  I just wonder what the profile will taste like. As you mention below, genetics isn't everything.  Will the storied floral flavor of the Ecuadorian Nacional be present??  Geography also plays a part.


The old one (3+1) is clearly broken and Motomayor et al is not complete, and the recent announcement of pure Nacional found in Peru is confusing.

Any new classification scheme is probably going to be based on new genetic research but anything new is going to have to go up against all of the marketing that has been done around 3+1 even though it's woefully inadequate.

Any ideas on what you'd like to see that might be useful without being too complicated?

Personally, I think any new system should start with a geographic overlay - named denominations that are protected as in the AOC in France and the DOP in the EU.

:: Clay

Couldn't agree more that tackling geography (at least in the short-medium term) is both more meaningful and more achievable than marketing based on genetics. As a tool for market discipline and clarity, I think the AOC/DOP/AVA model will bring more value for growers, makers, marketers and consumers.


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