Cracking the molecular code - to create a true atlas of cocoa
COMETA – a source of inspiration to create new kinds of chocolates
Thanks to technological breakthroughs in the last decade, we should finally be able to map how all the molecules in the cocoa bean interact throughout the chocolate-making process to give cocoa powder and chocolate its taste, color and intensity.
If the interdisciplinary team of scientists from Jacobs University, Bremen (Germany) and from Barry Callebaut achieves its ambitious goals, we will crack the molecular code of cacao by 2020. For the first time since we started cultivating cacao, almost three thousand years ago, we will truly understand cacao.
To find out more where the project currently stands, we talked to both Gino Vrancken (Project Lead at Barry Callebaut) and Prof. Matthias Ullrich (Project coordinator at Jacobs University) about COMETA (for COcoa METAbolomics).
Cometa is one of Barry Callebaut’s largest and most ambitious research projects today, which was started in 2014 and is scheduled to run until 2020.
Gino Vrancken notes, “A few years ago we decided that, as Barry Callebaut, we wanted to understand cocoa better. And we embarked on what we thought would be a small-scale project: to understand color in cocoa. We thought it would be a straightforward project. After all, color and pigment in food are quite well understood. It should have been a routine project. Unfortunately, our research didn't provide answers, only more questions. After two years, we grew incredibly frustrated, and we reviewed the entire project.”
“What we learned was that the problem was not our research or our methodology. It was the object being researched. Cocoa is hugely complex. It is the most complex biological substance on earth - more complex than tea, even. We knew that cocoa was special, of course. We just hadn't expected it to be this special.”
The company reached out to Professor Matthias Ullrich of Jacobs University Bremen for help. After some preliminary research Ullrich, a genial scientist who looks a bit like Russell Crowe, became convinced that the color project was doomed to fail from the start.
Prof. Ullrich adds, “You have to understand that cocoa is in a category all by itself. You can't approach it the way you do other foods. I told Barry Callebaut: you tried to solve a riddle. But cocoa is not a riddle. Cocoa is a mystery.”
And Gino Vrancken remembers: “So here we were, thinking that we could tackle cocoa project by project - like conquering one hill at a time to explore a continent. What we found instead was that we had ventured into a huge challenge; not a hill, but the Himalayas, if you want. And we realized that we had two choices: abandon the project entirely. Or we could go big: we could try to be the first company to understand absolutely everything about cocoa. It didn't take us long to decide that because, hey, we are Barry Callebaut. If anybody will do this, it has to be us.”
Borrowing technology from the petrochemical industry
The problem is that conventional food science would not be much help in the case of cocoa. It would not begin to address the complexity of the product. Luckily, there have been breakthroughs in completely unrelated fields in the last decade. So there is good confidence.
“In order to analyze cocoa at the high resolution that we needed,” points out Prof. Ullrich, "we had to borrow the latest technology that is used in the petrochemical industry and in life sciences, like cancer research. We were able to tune mass spectrometers so that they would allow us to analyze a large number of cocoa molecules at the same time.”
Prof. Ullrich continues, “Now, once we analyzed all these samples, the next challenge was to integrate all the information. It's another thing that has never been done. Some people have studied the fats in cocoa, or the polyphenols - but no one has tried to bring it all together in a comprehensive study. Our goal is to create a true atlas of cocoa. That means that we need to be able to relate all these different pieces of the puzzle to one another.”
First insights already implemented in Barry Callebaut's cocoa processing
The COMETA project is a six-year project, now in its second year. Already, the research is yielding valuable insights to the team.
“A first discovery, about one year in the project,” notes Prof. Ullrich, “was that we saw which proteins and lipids get degraded in the fermentation process and which do not - and how the fermentation technique affects this. With this knowledge, we were immediately able to spin off an implementation project for cocoa butter. We are now in a position to redesign new manufacturing processes that saves the cocoa butter from dark chocolate, which so far had gone to waste.”
Will the COMETA research end up creating new kinds of chocolate?
“That could be,” replies Gino Vrancken. “All of the insights derived from COMETA will help Barry Callebaut innovate and fine-tune its chocolate production processes in the years to come. We’ve already had one spin-off with the dark chocolate cocoa butter. But I’d dare to say this is only the beginning. We will be able to tailor the choice of cocoa beans for each product for each customer, and our research will no doubt help farmers increase the quality of their yields. This will motivate them to stay in the cocoa business.”
“So, yes, it might result in new products. But we don't know yet what we will find. The main goal of this project is not to create a specific new product. The goal is to create an entirely new source of inspiration for the entire company. Normally, inspiration comes from our customers, or competition, or technology. With COMETA, we are creating a way to tap into an entirely new source of very powerful inspiration, one that touches every person and every process in our company: cacao itself. So stay tuned. There is more to come from us.”
Image gallery COMETA
COMETA - Joint R&D Project Barry Callebaut / Jacobs Universityhttps://www.barry-callebaut.com/sites/default/files/styles/paragraph_image_gallery_full/public/2019-01/20150821-finn_cometa_bc_christian_colmer_dsc0051-1-2_1.jpg?itok=13bZtP6_
COMETA - Joint R&D Project Barry Callebaut / Jacobs Universityhttps://www.barry-callebaut.com/sites/default/files/styles/paragraph_image_gallery_full/public/2019-01/20150821-finn_cometa_bc_christian_colmer_dsc0066-1_1_0.jpg?itok=SJLVJrbj
COMETA - Joint R&D Project Barry Callebaut / Jacobs Universityhttps://www.barry-callebaut.com/sites/default/files/styles/paragraph_image_gallery_full/public/2019-01/20150821-finn_cometa_bc_christian_colmer_dsc0110-1_1.jpg?itok=L5i3WxtS
COMETA - Joint R&D Project Barry Callebaut / Jacobs Universityhttps://www.barry-callebaut.com/sites/default/files/styles/paragraph_image_gallery_full/public/2019-01/20150821-finn_cometa_bc_christian_colmer_dsc0142-1-2_1.jpg?itok=XH2p5qsH
COMETA - Joint R&D Project Barry Callebaut / Jacobs Universityhttps://www.barry-callebaut.com/sites/default/files/styles/paragraph_image_gallery_full/public/2019-01/20150821-finn_cometa_bc_christian_colmer_dsc0157-1-2_1.jpg?itok=Na4kBECi
COMETA - Joint R&D Project Barry Callebaut / Jacobs Universityhttps://www.barry-callebaut.com/sites/default/files/styles/paragraph_image_gallery_full/public/2019-01/20150821-finn_cometa_bc_christian_colmer_dsc0178-1_1.jpg?itok=YIAy0V2y