Can science save your favorite candy bar?
In this Tiny Expedition, we ask a scary question that keeps popping up in the news every few years: will we see a chocolate shortage in our lifetime? The short answer: not if science can help it.
Chocolate is an indulgence, a treat, and the main ingredient in some of our favorite comfort foods. It comes in many varieties ranging from white chocolate to milk chocolate to dark chocolate. It even pairs well with many other flavors, one of the most popular being peanuts.
The chocolate that we all know and love is made from the fruits of the cacao tree, which only grow in a slim band of tropical rainforests 18 degrees north and south of the equator. Rising temperatures from climate change threaten to destroy the only environment in which these trees thrive. Cacao trees also have many foes that can interfere with a successful harvest like pests, fungal infections, and other diseases.
Chocolate’s most common partner in crime, the peanut, is also under siege by weather events like drought, heavy periods or rain or late freezes, and both pests and disease. One peanut foe called aflatoxins are especially dangerous to humans.
Listen to Tiny Expeditions Season 2, Episode 2: “Can science save your favorite candy bar?” to journey into the world of chocolate and peanuts and learn how scientists are trying to save our favorite candy bars by protecting the plants that produce the tasty ingredients that make up these sweet treats.
Behind the Scenes
Josh Clevenger, PhD (left), is HudsonAlpha’s resident peanut expert. Dr. Clevenger is interested in crop improvement for sustainable agriculture. He and his lab work to improve computational technologies and breeding methods to benefit not only their peanut genomics work, but also crop genomics as a whole.
Our walk to the peanut field was almost like journeying to Narnia. One second we were walking down the Double Helix on HudsonAlpha’s campus and the next second we stepped through some bushes into an open field with rows and rows of peanuts. The photo on the bottom left shows the peanut field. Dr. Clevenger told us that there were over 1,000 peanut plants in the field, each one planted by hand by his team. 1,000 peanut plants means 1,000 holes had to be dug in the red Alabama clay with a post hole digger. This sounds like a whole lot of laborious work, but for Dr. Clevenger it is a labor of love.
The peanuts that we were looking at are very special to Dr. Clevenger and his team. They are a population of peanuts to test molecular markers the group developed to select for aflatoxin mitigation. They crossed Carolina Black peanuts with ICG1471, a senegalese line that is drought tolerant and has aflatoxin resistance. The Carolina Black peanuts have a deep purple skin that is full of polyphenols that are important for health purposes but might also confer aflatoxin resistance.
According to Dr. Clevenger, the peanuts are doing well and will be harvested soon. The photo on the bottom right shows pegs growing from the peanut plant to the soil. The peg forms after fertilization and is how the fertilized egg (a future peanut) makes it way from the above-ground parent into the soil to mature.
Pizzelle’s Confections is located in an old railroad room at the Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment. Described on their website as “an eclectic mix of edible art and culinary exploration”, Pizzelle’s more than delivered. The shop itself is a funky, artistic mix of leftover graffiti from its time as a railroad room, movie posters, local art, and many nods to the chocolate man himself, Willie Wonka. Oh, and did we mention there is a velociraptor head?
Pizzelles’ co-owners and sisters Michelle Novosel and Caitlin Lyon (pictured top left) are self-proclaimed chocolate witches. Each sister has her own role at the shop. Michelle is the Executive Chocolatier & Pastry Chef while Caitlin serves as the General Manager. When the store opened in 2013, the sisters still believed it would be a fun little hobby. But that hobby pretty quickly turned into the lucrative business it is today.
As you probably heard from the interview clips, we had an amazing time chatting with Caitlin and Michelle. Their love for chocolate and their appreciation for their staff was so refreshing.
The chocolates, mini cakes, and macarons are each individual works of art. There was no way that we were going to tour a chocolate shop without indulging in some ourselves. The photos to the right show some of the chocolates that we tried. These pieces of chocolate art are just as delicious as they are beautiful.