MOST PEOPLE HAVE NO idea where their chocolate comes from. Sure, it’s a 79-cent Hershey’s bar that you grab as an impulse buy in the grocery store, but it’s also much more complicated than that. An exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Garden, “The New Age of Chocolate,” aims to teach chocolate lovers where exactly their sweet treat hails from.

“When I’m talking to people, they don’t think of chocolate as something that’s a plant product or a crop,” said exhibit curator Beth Burrous, Ph. D. “A lot of people probably don’t even know that it comes from so near the equator.”
Chocolate’s journey is an international one that starts in the far reaches of Africa and South America. In fact, almost 80 percent of the world’s chocolaty goodness exists thanks to African harvesting of the crop.

From the vibrant oranges and purples of the cacao tree’s pods comes the rich chocolate so many people crave. The process to create a bar of chocolate isn’t as simple as crush it up and melt it down. From harvesting the cocoa pods to meticulously sun-drying them, every intricate step dictates the difference between whether the sweet is actually pleasant.

“One of the unusual things about chocolate is that it’s a reluctant crop,” said Burrous. “It’s not made to be a mass-market commodity.”

Since most of the world’s chocolate is imported, the concept of politically correct chocolate is explored in the exhibit. From the various seals of approval, like fair trade or organic chocolate, to the harvesting practices in other countries, the exhibit explains the difference between a cheap bar of chocolate and an organic, fair trade bar that costs twice as much. Most organic or otherwise certified bars of chocolate usually cost two times as much as a Hershey’s bar and can be found at stores like Whole Food and Harris Teeter, but you usually get more for your buck.

Burrous and the Botanical Garden sponsor free classes to the public on the chemical process of chocolate and its health benefits, complete with taste testing.

The impressive greenhouse that houses the exhibit even boasts own cocoa tree even though it is incapable of producing the colorful pods of trees abroad. Burrous says all of that will change in a few years. Since the Botanical Garden’s tree isn’t able to self-pollinate it can’t produce pods, so the staff have begun growing additional trees to promote cross-pollination and, hopefully tasty Washington, D.C.-born chocolate in the process.

» United States Botanic Garden, 100 Maryland Ave. SW, through Aug. 16; 202-225-8333. (Capitol South)

Written by Express contributor Adaora Otiji
Photos courtesy World Cocoa Foundation