An Amazon native fruit, cupuaçu is known for its acidic, concentrated flavor, which gives rise to typical delicacies of the region such as juice, ice cream and sweets, consumed both on a daily basis and on special occasions – for example, the traditional cupuaçu creams, commonly enjoyed at Christmas, New Year and birthday parties. But, in addition to the custom of the local population, there are several potentials yet to be explored - one of them is the cupulate, a product similar to traditional chocolate.
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Likewise the products made from cocoa, the cupulate can be produced both in the form of a bar or drink, and one aspect that make this possible is that cupuaçu (scientific name Theobroma grandiflorum) belongs to the same genus as cocoa (Theobroma cacao). The outside surface and shape of both fruits are different – cocoa is more elongated, has a rougher shell, and cupuaçu is more rounded and has a smooth shell. But their inside almonds (usable part of the seed) are very similar, even in appearance, and it is from this part that chocolate and cupulate are made.
The two products have a similar texture, flavor and aroma, but the cupulate is creamier, dissolving easily when eating. “Another advantage of cupulate compared to cocoa chocolate is that the cupuaçu derivative has an almost non-existent caffeine content. This is very interesting for market niches for the elderly or people who have anxiety, insomnia, being able to eat the sweet at night without problems”, explains Rafael Moyses Alves, researcher at Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation Oriental Amazon (Embrapa), which deals with cupuaçu trees for over 20 years.
Based on the ancestral knowledge from communities of the region that already produced handmade cupulate, Embrapa researchers developed a technological process for producing the cupulate, grounded on scientific research, and also created the name "cupulate", which, since 2015, has been a registered trademark from the company. The purpose of the registration was to guarantee that the Amazon, where the plant is native, would maintain the intellectual property of the mark, not running the risk of having other countries claim this right, as happened in the 2000s, when the multinationals Asahi Foods and Cupuaçu International registered the name "cupuaçu" as an exclusive Japanese trademark – a matter that led to a legal battle and, finally, resulting in the annulment of the registration by foreign companies.
The cupulate product itself and its technological manufacturing process, developed in the 1980s by the retired researcher Raimunda Fátima Ribeiro de Nazaré, from Embrapa Amazônia Oriental, once had a patent registered by the agency, which has now expired. Today, this technique is in the public domain.
"A lot of cupuaçu is already produced in the region, but it is still very focused on the use of the pulp and many times the seeds are simply discarded. With the production of the cupulate, there is one more possibility of using the fruit, contributing to add value to the cupuaçu cultivation, generating income and also ensuring more sustainability", explains the researcher from Embrapa. Cupuaçu seeds represent a large part of the fruit (about 20%) and, according to Alves, seeds are the portion with the best nutritional value, rich in lipids and protein. After extracting the almonds, they are fermented, dried, roasted and ground to obtain the cupulate.
Challenge - For those who already produce chocolate from cocoa and have the equipment and expertise in this segment, adding the cupulate to the catalog is advantageous because cupuaçu seeds last longer and are cheaper than those of cocoa (precisely because they are currently underexploited). However, there is still a hindrance for the industry: the removal of the film that covers the cupuaçu almond is more difficult than that of cocoa and there is still no equipment that performs this process automatically, so, until now, it is done by hand, which ends up being more time consuming and laborious. "We need to continue researching and investing to simplify this step and make this production more attractive to the market", explains Alves.
Origin leads back to traditional communities
In Brazil, there are still few companies that manufacture the cupulate, such as De Mendes, based in Santa Bárbara, in the interior of Pará. The owner, Cesar de Mendes, was born in Macapá, capital of Amapá, and grew up in the neighboring capital, Belém (PA), carrying with him the traditions of the Amazon. He used to watch his grandmother and mother making chocolate and cocoa juice with the fresh fruit harvested from the tree. I never imagined that one day I would become a chocolatier, as chocolate specialists are known.
De Mendes started producing cocoa chocolate and only from 2019 on, he incorporated the cupulate. Today, two tablet options of this type are marketed: Kukuni (70% cupuaçu) and Amabela (53% cupuaçu). The first is made from fruits coming from Colônia Chicano, in Santa Bárbara, Pará, which plants cupuaçu in an agroforestry system – those that recover the degraded area of agricultural production, in a model that associates trees with agricultural crops and sometimes also with animals.
The second type is produced with fruits supplied by the Association of Rural Women Workers of the Municipality of Belterra (southwest of Pará), the Amabela - after which, the final product is named. These women were the ones who, in fact, introduced the entrepreneur to their traditional technique for treating cupuaçu seeds, passed on through generations. "I had already tried cupulate a few times before, but I didn't like the taste, it was only Amabela's technique that really encouraged me to work with this line", says De Mendes. According to him, the Association's technique maintains the cupuaçu flavor and freshness.
It was based on this knowledge from Belterra that the businessman began to carry out tests at the factory and passed on the learning to Colônia Chicano, with whom he had been working in the manufacture of chocolates for some time. "The flavors of the two tablets are very similar, the only difference is the percentage of cupuaçu. The taste is somewhat reminiscent of cupuaçu pulp. The perfume and acidity of the fruit give it a different touch. Now, both are bestsellers at De Mendes", he highlights.
The success has been such that even abroad, when the owner takes the products to international exhibitions, the stock runs out quickly. Sales in Brazil are made in physical stores and online, with São Paulo being the largest market, surpassing even the clientele in Belém.
Fruit harvesting is still concentrated in family farming
Cupuaçu is a fruit that, in the native forest, grows from a very tall tree (it can reach 15 meters high) and its pulp is rich in vitamin C, B complex vitamins and mineral salts. Due to the intervention of science, several advances in genetic improvement were made to increase the competitiveness of cupuaçu production, such as cultivating shorter cupuaçu trees (facilitating harvesting and reducing fruit losses), besides trees being more resistant to diseases.
According to Rafael Moyses Alves, from Embrapa, the cupuaçu production system is still concentrated in small producers and family farming. Some of the struggles faced are the lack of social organization of these groups and the unavailability of official data. "We don't know, precisely, how much is produced in the region. It depends on each state to monitor it. Cupuaçu producers do not have an organization to bond them as a group in order to share experiences and seek resources, improvements, together", he evaluates.
Some states calculate their production, such as the Institute for Sustainable Agricultural and Forestry Development of Amazonas (IDAM), which registered 9 million cupuaçu fruit produced in the state in 2021 (units figures). Liberal Amazon requested data from the other states of the Legal Amazon, but until the closing of this edition, only Maranhão and Acre, in addition to Amazonas, had replied, informing that they do not have data on cupuaçu production.
Butter extracted from the cupuaçu seed has several uses
After the discovery of the cupuaçu seed potential, a range of possibilities for using it has been opened up. In addition to the cupulate, its oil-rich seed is being used to produce a butter that is now applied in the cosmetics industry and also for the production of chocolates that mix cocoa and cupuaçu butter.
One of the manufacturers of this type of chocolate is Cacau Way, a company formed by Transamazon Agroindustrial Cooperative (Coopatrans), headquartered in Medicilândia, in the Southwest of Pará.
"We noticed that people used the cupuaçu pulp and the seed was discarded, but also that it had plenty of butter, just like cocoa butter, and it could add value to the cooperative members", says Hélia de Moura, one of the partners of Cacau Way .
Now, Cacau Way sells three products of this type: the 52%-cupuaçu-butter tablet, launched more than five years ago; 50%-cupuaçu-butter white chocolate, launched in 2021; and Choconuts, a cocoa paste that contains cupuaçu butter in its composition, launched in September 2022.
According to Moura, the flavor touch of cupuaçu is slight. "It's like eating normal chocolate, it doesn't change much comparing to cocoa butter. The difference is in sustainability, using more products from the forest", he points out.
So far, the company has no plans to incorporate the cupulate itself into its product line, because of the difficulty in removing the film that covers the cupuaçu almond. "But we do want to expand this production using cupuaçu almonds, including selling them raw. This butter is at its peak. It is healing, natural sunscreen, good for the hair, there are several advantages", she adds.
Coopatrans currently has 40 partners, 37 of them are farmers and three people work in the administrative department. The items are sold in the internet, in physical shops and resellers and are already available, in addition to Pará, in Maranhão, Goiás, Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo.
Project invests on the industrial potential of cupuaçu
Focusing on the still not fully explored potential of forest products, a group of producers and researchers created the Instituto Amazônia 4.0. Since 2017, the project has been led by climatologist Carlos Nobre and intends to carry out the first prototypes of factory-laboratories for the Amazon to work in the processing of castanha-do-Pará (Brazil nuts), cupuaçu and cocoa.
One of the members in the group is Cesar De Mendes, who was invited due to his expertise on cocoa. The idea is to promote conditions so that the Amazon is no longer just a source of raw material, but also a place for industrialization and processing of these fruits, thus increasing the added value of the products developed in the region, bringing more income and better quality of life to the communities that make a living from the Amazon biodiversity.
The initial target was to set up Creative Laboratories of the Amazon (LCAs) since last year, but, so far, none have been inaugurated due to logistical challenges that the Institute has faced along the way, such as hiring suppliers to produce didactic material.
The laboratories are mobile and designed in a type of architectural structure usually in the shape of a dome or arched roof, known as geodesic domes, powered by photovoltaic solar energy, and with connectivity available, to circulate through the different communities of the Amazon.
The construction of the first structure, however, has already started and the expectation now is that, by the end of January 2023, the first LCA will be installed, focusing on cocoa and cupuaçu, in the state of Pará. Initially, the structure will travel through the communities for training, for two months in each site, starting with the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve, in Santarém, southwest Pará.
The LCAs aim to encourage the development of entrepreneurial capacity focused on non-wood products from the Amazon biodiversity. In addition to building up factories, Amazônia 4.0 will bring professional training to communities, so that they can learn the mechanisms and become industrial producers in the region.