The Science of Good Chocolate

Meet the sensory scientist who is decoding the terroir of chocolate—and working to safeguard the cacao plant that gives us the sweet dark treat.

By Simran Sethi, Smithsonian Magazine, October 30, 2018

While walking through a dense thatch of cacao trees in Gran Couva, Trinidad, food technologist Darin Sukha crushes a dried cacao leaf in one palm and a fresh one in the other. He inhales deeply, then lifts the leaves toward my nose and asks, “What do you find here?”

Sukha studies the nuances of smell and taste in the cacao plant, whose pulp-covered seeds, once processed, become cocoa and chocolate. He wants to understand—and relay to chocolate eaters—not only the biological characteristics of the plant, but also the sensorial ones. These references help illuminate a wide variety of flavors inherent in cacao, that, when properly nurtured, will carry over into the final product.

The smell of the dried leaf contains traces of baled hay, while the fresh one offers up bright and vegetal aromas. Both can be found in chocolate. By continuously reaching for more flavor experiences, Sukha says, we can find greater depth in chocolate, a substance that is far more complex than most people realize. “A good piece of chocolate is like a good piece of music. It contains something memorable that stays on your mind for the entire day.”