Chocolate as a Luxury throughout the Ages

Today’s modern chocolate consumer revels in the extravagance of a society determined to have more than it can ever need, buy more than it can ever afford, and eat more than it can ever want, especially when it comes to chocolate. This newfound availability of a good once regarded as luxury, has now transformed chocolate to what many now consider mere candy. Gone are the nutrition, originality, and reverence once associated with the “food of the gods,” and what is left is nothing more than a sweet treat tainted with excessive amounts fat and cheap additives (Parkin, “What Are You Eating: Snickers”). And although many celebrate the “revolutionary” progression of chocolate from a food of the elite to one now accessible by all, the idea that chocolate is ubiquitous cannot be further from the truth. In fact, chocolate is still exclusive to the highest social classes, a luxury good through and through, and even with the worldwide rise in chocolate production, pure, high quality chocolate – that of which is now labeled as “artisan” or “craft” – is almost solely intended for elite consumption.

While the well-to-do savor their “bean-to-bars,” the general population must settle with the everyday “Hershey’s kisses” or “Milky ways,” poor substitutes that were created to satisfy the masses (Parkin, “What Are You Eating: Snickers”). Nevertheless, the degree to which this dichotomy extends is but a reflection of the past. The social arrangements observed today parallel that of previous societies throughout history, from the Aztec’s strict confinement of chocolate consumption within their social elite to the European’s emphasis on reserving the food for the upper class; the continuation of these previously observed patterns, as embodied by the range of products offered by vendors on either end of the social spectrum, indicates that chocolate still remains the luxury food it has always been, a source of indulgence for the rich and a commodity to strive towards for the poor (Coe, Coe 86-87, 159-160).

One does not need to venture very far into the chocolate industry to experience the glaring disparity between the quality of chocolate offered in the everyday convenience store and that of a gourmet, specialty shop. Here in Boston, the two are represented by the local CVS and South End’s very own Formaggio’s Kitchen, the first of which is a popular retailer across the US whereas the latter exists only in one other location – the elite community of New York City’s urban sprawl. Thus, before the chocolate itself is even considered, the sheer accessibility of these respective markets indicates the type of merchandise sold at each. It is no surprise then that the chocolate products offered at CVS differs not only in composition, but also in price and packaging from the luxury bars organized in neat rows at Formaggio’s.

CVS Display
The wide variety of brand name chocolate offered at a CVS Pharmacy

CVS Caremark is one of the largest pharmacy convenience stores in the country and because it caters to all of society, everywhere, the retailer must offer a wide range of commodities to satisfy their broad clientele. In other words, they must stock their shelves with every type of brand name chocolate produced here in the States; from “Snickers” bars produced by Mars to the iconic “Hershey’s” milk chocolate bar produced by Hershey itself, CVS has it all (Hess, “Most Popular Halloween Candy in the USA”). However, although the diversity offered at any one of these convenience stores is impressive, the majority of their chocolate shares a single commonality: they are all composed entirely of milk chocolate, often supplemented with a large proportion of butter, unwarranted amounts of sugar, extra flavoring like vanilla, and other fillings such as nougat for the popular “Milky Way” (“Candy and Chocolate Bars Compared: Hershey’s, Nestle and Mars Nutrition Facts”; Parkin, “What Are You Eating: Snickers”). Many would argue that the added contents are what make these products as well-known as they have become, and even more claim that they crave this type of chocolate specifically for the peanut-caramel insides. Unfortunately for these misguided individuals, the reality is that these very fillings are exactly what prevents the typical “Reese’s” peanut butter cup from serving as a healthy addition to one’s life, and instead makes them the cheap, fattening candy that the average consumer can afford (“Candy and Chocolate Bars Compared: Hershey’s, Nestle and Mars Nutrition Facts”). This practice of mixing inexpensive ingredients into chocolate to help make it more affordable is analogous to the origins of chocolate consumption in Mesoamerica, setting the precedent that impure chocolate is associated with lower quality food (Coe, Coe 86-87; Presilla 20). In fact, the Aztecs, in preparing cacao, recognized that “the inferior product…was mixed with nixtamalli and water” to form a “chocolate-with-maize gruel,” but if the mixture was “cheapened by too much corn or thinned with too much water,” then all of the “effort would be for naught” (Coe, Coe 86-87; Presilla 20). The same concept has returned in modern form, and even though society has moved past the practice of combining corn and chocolate, the artificial ingredients used now are both worse and in larger quantity. As such, the brand name chocolate that dominates the market today are not what they all claim to be – rather than serving as energy-boosting power bars, these candies are the epitome of second-rate scraps, the culmination of the industry’s sly advertising and deceit (Hess, “Most Popular Halloween Candy in the USA”).

Snickers Chocolate nutrition information includes many artificial ingredients
Snickers nutrition information includes many artificial ingredients

The goods offered at CVS can be identified for their lower quality merely by taking a look down the aisle; all of the chocolate is sold in bulk, the wrappings are colorful and meant to entice children, and the price tags that accompany any purchase fail to draw attention as well (Hess, “Most Popular Halloween Candy in the USA”). Indeed, everything chocolate at the convenience store is affordable and cheap, and it is fitting that the majority of these products are regarded as mere candy. This type of marketing in itself is suggestive of the type of goods advertised to the common shopper. Nowhere in the store will one find pure, gourmet chocolate like that from Formaggio’s Kitchen; instead, Halloween candy, sweets to be given out, and maybe a small treat on the go is all that is offered at CVS (Hess, “Most Popular Halloween Candy in the USA”). While there is nothing wrong with merchandise that serves these purposes, the chocolate here will never compare to the “craft” chocolate that should be enjoyed at leisure in the quiet luxury of one’s home.

"Craft" chocolate displayed on shelves at Formaggio's Kitchen in Boston
“Craft” chocolate displayed on shelves at Formaggio’s Kitchen in Boston

Walking into Formaggio’s Kitchen, one is immediately transported to the most charming little shop in rural France, the quaintest street market in Spain, and the most curious ingredient store in Italy. Everything offered here is exotic, from the slabs of cheese on the wall to the rows of extra virgin olive oil on display. It is every culinary enthusiast’s dream. To top it all off, Formaggio’s Kitchen also boasts an impressive shelf of chocolate, each bar made entirely “bean-to-bar” by some of the most skilled confectioners around. Thus, it goes with saying that these products provide the purest experience of how chocolate should be prepared: made from scratch with the most traditional methods using fresh, unroasted cocoa beans of the highest quality (Williams, Eber 168-170). The finished result consists primarily of cacao and a small amount of cane sugar, and as expected, is simply delicious – anyone missing out is really missing the point of chocolate altogether. By foregoing the daunting list of artificial ingredients that are usually included in commercial products, the “craft” chocolate only offered at Formaggio’s represents the other end of the social spectrum and the true meaning of the saying “less is more,” much like the “unadulterated chocolate fit for lords” in Aztec society (Coe, Coe 86-87; Presilla 20; Williams, Eber 168-170). For these reasons, “chocolate” as a general term applies most suitably to these higher quality foods, and since only the elite are able to enjoy them, chocolate is still very much a sign of wealth and opulence.

Patric Chocolate's (a brand of "craft" chocolate) short ingredient list
Patric Chocolate’s (a brand of “craft” chocolate) short ingredient list

With a noticeable increase in quality, there comes a noticeable increase in price as well. In order to pay for the more expensive cocoa beans and the longer, more meticulous method of preparing them for making bars, “craft” chocolate can cost from five times to ten times more than the generic products offered at the local CVS (Williams, Eber 168-170). Moreover, if only the wealthy elite are able to afford these chocolate products, then it must have adequate packaging to advertise to that particular social class; thus, the wrapping for these chocolate bars are ornate and artistically designed – not the cheap plastic bags that are used to attract consumers in the convenience store. Without a doubt, the sophistication of the packaging was far from subtle. From the specific fonts used to spell out each chocolate’s name to the thick paper the words were embossed in, the chocolate products have as much going for them inside as well as outside. This emphasis on serving the rich is a direct extension of the social customs in Europe in the 17th century wherein chocolate was reserved particularly for either royalty or the social elite, albeit the class differences were more publicly enforced back then than the more subtle inequalities today (Coe, Coe 159-160). Nevertheless, the disparity still exists and the steep costs, elaborate packaging, and the upscale district Formaggio’s is located all do their part to reinforce the degree to which this type of chocolate has historically and presently been advertised to the upper class, further distancing these products from their lesser, more generic counterparts.

Patric Chocolate's ornate and relatively sophisticated packaging
Patric Chocolate’s ornate and relatively sophisticated packaging

The drastic market differences within the chocolate industry are manifested in the contrasting qualities, prices, and advertisements of the merchandise offered at that these two distinct locales. Whereas CVS’s modern, “buy-in-bulk” approach appeals to the average consumer in the US, Formaggio’s kitchen’s rustic, almost exotic goods exploit the curiosity – and money – of the rich. However, the sad reality that lies beyond the extensive hierarchy separating the two social classes is the fact that only the wealthy who shop at Formaggio’s kitchen truly experiences chocolate for what the food can offer: its unique taste, clean ingredients, and undiminished health benefits. Everyone else forced to settle with brand name chocolate stuffed with nougat and other fillers are merely duped by the industry itself. And although no change will ever come about from this injustice, due to the immense labor costs intrinsic to cocoa production, it is important for the average consumer to at least recognize what he or she actually walks out with after their everyday trip to the local CVS – or rather, what they’re not walking out with.

 

 

 

Works Cited

“Candy & Chocolate Bars Compared: Hershey’s, Nestle and Mars Nutrition Facts.” A Calorie Counter. A Calorie Counter, 20 Oct. 2013. Web. 6 May 2014. <http://www.acaloriecounter.com/candy-chocolate.php&gt;.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

“Formaggio Kitchen: Cheese 101.” A Little Bit about a Lot of Things. WordPress.com, 24 Dec. 2013. Web. 5 May 2014. <http://dgrubs.com/2013/12/24/formasggio-kitchen-cheese-101/&gt;.

Hess, Alexander E. M. “Most Popular Halloween Candy in the USA.” USA Today 27 Oct. 2013: n. pag. USA Today: A Gannett Company. Web. 7 May 2014. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2013/10/27/most-popular-halloween-candy-in-usa/3274967/&gt;.

Parkin, Johanna. “What Are You Eating: Snickers.” Men’s Health 2013: n. pag. Men’s Health. Web. 6 May 2014. <http://www.menshealth.co.uk/food-nutrition/healthy-eating/ what-are-you-eating-snickers-536760>.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st, Rev ed. New York: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.

Root, Lucas. “Weekend Food Commentary.” Urban Paleo Chef: Making Everyday Food Enjoyable and Satisfying. Urban Paleo Chef, 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 5 May 2014. <http://urbanpaleochef.com/ 2013/01/28/weekend-food-commentary-2/>.

“The Spin on Carbs: Think You Are Eating Healthy?” Total Performance Sports: Gym and Athletic Training Center. Total Performance Sports, 26 Nov. 2013. Web. 6 May 2014. <http://totalperformancesports.com/nutrition-corner-december-2013-think-you-are-eating-healthy/&gt;.

Williams, Pam, and Jim Eber. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver, BC: Wilmor, 2012. Print.

“YUM! Patric Chocolate.” Joy and Sunshine. Joy and Sunshine, 2 Oct. 2013. Web. 6 May 2014. <http://www.joyandsunshine.com/blog/2013/10/02/yum-patric-chocolate/&gt;.

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