Theobroma, the genus to which cacao, or "cocoa" as we know it, belongs, translates from the Latin as "food of the gods". Ask any serious chocoholic and they would agree that this is an apt name to be used in relation to the sweet treat that many worldwide enjoy.
Much to the dismay of said chocolate lovers, there has been a decline in the availability of cocoa recently, putting the global chocolate supply at risk. The trees on which cocoa pods grow have suffered due to a combination of factors, including crop failure, disease and ageing plantations, which has led to price fluctuations and a shortfall in supply. Global demand for the ingredient has been growing meanwhile, leading industry experts to warn there could be a chocolate deficit of 1m tonnes by 2020.
What to do? Use of a substitute ingredient would work, but they are very rarely accepted happily by consumers. The industry is still seeking an alternative, however, as experts confirm that chocolate as it is known and loved now could turn into a much sweeter confectionery. But rather than bulking bars up with sweet nougat or raisins in place of cocoa butter - the key component currently used - there is another way.
Cocoa butter is the pure butter extracted from cocoa beans and is one of the unique natural fats highly demanded by the food industry, as well as for use in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. It is currently the only commercially available natural fat which is rich in saturated and mono-unsaturated fatty acids. There are some alternatives available based on lauric and myristic acid - but these have both been shown to increase blood cholesterol.
The price of cocoa butter is one of the highest among all tropical fats and oils and, according to International Cocoa Organisation, its cost more than doubled between 2005 and 2015. Finding an alternative that will satisfy the world's sweet tooth is not an easy task, but we may just have found the answer: wild mango.
The unknown mango
Wild mango is something of a "Cinderella" species, the potential of which is as yet unrealised. The fruit is a mainstay in the lives of rural Bangladeshis in the hill forest areas of the country, where it is extensively used in pickles and chutneys, for food and for medicines. However, it is not farmed in any formal sense and remains a wild species, sporadically collected throughout the year.
Our research has found that this fruit could provide an alternative to the much coveted cocoa butter, plucking it from the branches of obscurity into mainstream production. The analyses we conducted showed that wild mango butter, made from the fruit's stone, has a very similar chemical, physical and thermal profile to cocoa butter - as well as several superior properties. It has a higher solid triglyceride content, for example, which means it can be used to improve soft cocoa butters, and make a temperature resistant hard chocolate. It has the added advantage of being a fruit with a large kernel - typically 40-50% of its body mass - meaning it has a proportionately high fat content: 9-14%.
Additionally, the colour of the mango butter is same as cocoa butter - and the melting point is also very close, which is of great importance for maintaining chocolate production processes and reducing some of the cost.
Though, unfortunately, our funding did not allow us to make a bar of scrumptious chocolate with the mango alternative, the science is all there - and cultivating the wild mango may have extra benefits for society and the environment too. Wild mango can be found growing in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Myanmar, China, Thailand and Cambodia. However, the species is declining at an alarming rate due to logging, shifting cultivation and very few conservation efforts. There is an enormous potential for the development of a wild mango enterprise, which the food and cosmetic industries could make use of together.