The Cocobiota

Posted On: May 25, 2021


Bacterial Fermentation Creates the Flavor of Chocolate

By Ross Pelton, RPh, PhD, CCN
Scientific Director, Essential Formulas

Bacterial fermentation in the GI tract is a natural biological process in humans, and it is also the foundation for the production of Dr. Ohhira’s Probiotics. As Scientific Director at Essential Formulas, I have developed an endless fascination with bacteria, postbiotic metabolites, and fermentation processes. This article explains how bacterial fermentation and the resulting postbiotic metabolites are an essential part of producing chocolate.

Much like fine wine, various brands of high-quality dark chocolate exhibit unique flavors and pleasing scents and aromas. Most people don’t realize that a period of bacterial fermentation is an essential step in the process that transforms cacao beans into the wonderfully “addictive” product that we know and love, called chocolate.

Chocolate is made by processing seeds from the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) (also called the cocoa tree), which typically grow from 13 to 26 feet tall. These trees grow best in the tropical regions near the equator. About 70% of the world’s cacao comes from four West African countries: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon.

Each cacao tree produces from 20 to 30 pods, roughly the size, and shape of a football. Each cacao pod contains from 20 to 40 beans, which are encased in a while mucilaginous pulp. While the end product is sweet, most people don’t realize that this delectable treat starts as a bean that is so bitter, it is essentially inedible.

When the cacao pods are ripe, workers use a machete to harvest the pods and break open the thick outer rind. Once the pod has been opened, bacteria enter and begin the fermentation process, which is a critical component of producing chocolate.

The Fermentation Process

After the cacao pods are opened, bacteria gain access to the pulp that surrounds the cacao seeds. The bacteria then begin the process of fermenting the sugars in the pulp. The fermentation process, which lasts from 3 to 6 days, is essential for reducing the natural bitterness of the cacao seeds and creating postbiotic metabolites that provide unique flavors and scents in the final product.

The fermentation phase that transforms cacao seeds & pulp into chocolate is a two-step process. The first phase is anaerobic fermentation, which is followed by an aerobic period of fermentation. Studies have found over 70 different postbiotic metabolites in chocolate responsible for the unique scent, flavor, and taste of various brands of chocolate.

Some compounds produced during the fermentation of cacao seeds, such as short-chain fatty acids, organic acids, and amino acids, are postbiotic metabolites that we at Essential Formulas are familiar with because they are also created during the production of Dr. Ohhira’s Probiotics. However, many of the other postbiotic metabolites seem to be unique to the fermentation process for the creation of chocolate.

After the fermentation process is complete, the cacao seeds, which are now called beans, are dried, usually spread out, and exposed to natural sunlight. After drying, the farmers ship the beans to chocolate factories, roasted and processed into chocolate.

Bacteria are a part of all life on Earth. At Essential Formulas, we appreciate bacteria for the essential role in creating Dr. Ohhira’s Probiotics. Now you understand that bacteria are also necessary for the production of chocolate, which is one of the favorite sweet treats in the world.