Chocolate for the masses: Are consumers compromising quality?

By walking through the candy aisle of any average supermarket in America today, most shoppers will notice the overwhelming variety of chocolates layered on the shelves. The accessibility to different types of chocolate is a convenience that we often take for granted. In fact, it was only until after the Industrial Revolution that chocolate became a product available for all classes. Not only did technological innovations in the Industrial Revolution make the process of producing chocolate more efficient, but it also influenced chocolate consumption. The lack of transparency in the new chocolate making process after the Industrial Revolution shifted consumer preferences towards choosing chocolate based on advertising and not solely on the taste of quality.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, chocolate was prized as a luxury because people valued the quality and the origins of how chocolate was being made. During the 18th century in Europe, chocolate was strictly for the upper and middle class. In Spain, chocolate was consumed alongside every day meals but was perceived as a luxury because drinking chocolate at social gatherings became a popular custom. The upper class would often attend social gatherings called tertulias or refrescos where guests would gather for conversations and be served cups of chocolate (Coe 209).

A drawing by Manuel Tramulles of the 1760s in Spain. Guests are drinking chocolate in this popular Spanish custom. http://www.oronoz.com/album/show-midres.php?referencia=129594.jpg

In this drawing from the 1760s, the server and the three sitting guests are each seen holding a mancerina cup filled with chocolate. We can assume that these people are in the upper class because of their extravagant wigs and formal attire. The chocolate that is being served was most likely produced by skilled millers of the chocolate trade. In 1772, there were only 150 chocolate grinders in Madrid. These skilled chocolate grinders would have to go through six years of apprenticeship training. Once they’re qualified, they would travel from house to house to serve customers at their homes. Since making chocolate is a time-intensive and detailed craft, drinking chocolate out of a mancerina cup is not very accessible. This drawing further highlights how consumers at this time would choose to drink chocolate because they could afford this luxury. By having chocolate grinders personally come to your own home, this would make the experience more unique. Therefore a larger emphasis would be placed on the source and quality of the cacao beans. Coe and Coe writes that the best chocolate in Spain originated from the “Mojos or Moxos region in the Amazonian drainage of Bolivia, valued for its fragrance and lack of bitterness” (207). By having the chocolate grinders process the chocolate in homes, there is a greater transparency to the chocolate making process, influencing consumers to choose chocolate based on quality and its origins.

The Industrial Revolution brought forth new technology that allowed mass production of chocolate but thereby affected consumers’ preferences for chocolate. In 1828, a Dutch chemist named Johannes Van Houten discovered a very efficient hydraulic process that could produce cocoa, which allowed large-scaled production of cheap chocolate for the masses (234). In 1879, Rudolphe Lindt invented the “conching process” using a machine that could smooth chocolate liquor from its originally gritty texture (247). Inventions such as these during the Industrial Revolution replaced the process of making chocolate by a skilled chocolate grinder to machines that could mass produce chocolate more efficiently. More innovations in the late 1800s into the 1900s eventually led to the development of a mechanized process of manufacturing large amounts of chocolate in a true assembly line operation. Thus, a new trend of mass producing chocolate led to the development of large corporations such as Hershey and the Mars Company that made chocolate affordable and accessible to all classes and not just the elite.

However, mechanizing the process of chocolate in a large factory made the process of producing chocolate more unfamiliar and unknown, compared to eating chocolate that was ground right in your own home. This lack of transparency therefore made consumers more reliant on believing advertisements in order to make a choice on whether to buy chocolate. Hershey’s for example became the best-selling chocolate in America when it was first founded, not because of its quality but for the way they marketed the product.

Hershey’s Advertisement http://explorepahistory.com/kora/files/1/2/1-2-12AD-25-ExplorePAHistory-a0k9g2-a_349.jpg

In this early Hershey’s advertisement, the brand is making claims about this chocolate being “first in favor and flavor” to exaggerate its popularity for its flavor. The ad also makes claim to say “made with RICH FRESH MILK” to make consumers believe in a sense of local origins. Lastly, to write that the Hershey’s bar is “Full of Energy” suggests that there are health benefits to eating chocolate. Although all of these claims could be completely false, Hershey’s is making billions of dollars every year when higher quality chocolate brands with richer cocoa content are not even close to dominating the chocolate industry. Our tastes are being socially influenced by these claims instead of choosing chocolate for its quality. In fact, mass-market chocolate manufacturers like Hershey’s try to minimize the most expensive content of the raw material of chocolate in order to save expenses and gain massive profits (Cidell 2006).

In this recent popular commercial by Hershey, the brand takes advantage of this lack of transparency in the chocolate making process to influence consumers’ preference for Hershey’s. In the beginning of the commercial, viewers are guided through the process of a Hershey’s Kiss being made inside the factory. We see the conveyor belts and the assembly lines, a process that most viewers had already imagined, but towards the end, the commercial glamorizes this mechanized process through the red carpet show, cheering on each Hershey’s Kiss made. Through this commercial, the Hershey’s brand is trying to comfort our uncertainty of where and how this chocolate is made. Regardless of how the Kiss actually tastes, the brand is trying to characterize each piece of chocolate as unique, original and “One-of-a-Kind” even though it is being made in a highly mechanized process.

Although the Industrial Revolution brought about new inventions that made chocolate more accessible to everyone, the lack of knowledge as to how our chocolate or food is made would further suggest that a significant portion of our preferences is socially constructed. Maybe the next time we buy some chocolate, once in a while, we should pretend to be 18th century elite Europeans, who indulged in high quality chocolate and treated the experience as a luxury.

Bibliography:

Cidell, Julie L., and Heike C. Alberts. “Constructing quality: the multinational histories of chocolate.” Geoforum 37.6 (2006): 999-1007.

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

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