Kristy Leissle in her article “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate” argues that the negative image Americans retain of West Africa deters chocolate companies from single-sourcing their chocolate from that region. However, I argue that not only does this negative imagery give the appearance of poor quality cacao beans, it tastes like it is of poor quality to the consumer.
Food and culture are very closely intertwined. When visiting a foreign country, one of the main outlets through which you can get in touch with the culture is through its food. Each culture enjoys a specific diet and even then, it can vary from city to city. Many social scientists have studied this idea and found that food is very closely tied to memories. Chocolate companies attempt to replicate those good memories using their product as a sort of reminder (Stuckey 2012).
If that is true, how then is it possible that most people do not understand the history of chocolate and its origins? Indeed, most do not even think to ask where chocolate comes from or where it is made. In fact, very few understand anything about chocolate when in reality, it has a very rich history. Beginning in the Mesoamericas with the Olmecs, the cacao bean has undergone many transformations to arrive at its current form of the popular chocolate bar (Coe and Coe, 2013). Through technological advancements though, its complex flavors have been dulled in favor of the mass production of consistently flavored chocolates.
This brings us to the recent development of single origin chocolate on the production side of the story. In the past, cacao beans were valued based on origin. This information told the buyer whether the cacao was fine or bulk cacao. Fine cacao has more complex flavors and is considered to be better quality. Bulk cacao, on the other hand, is more resistant to disease and heartier than fine cacao. This method of judging chocolate has reappeared, a comeback made apparent by the explosion in the number of artisans producing single origin chocolates. The market has gone from a single chocolate maker in 1997 to 37 today and still growing (Leissle 2013).
However, the world’s largest chocolate-producing region is noticeably absent. West Africa produces over 70% of the cacao on the world market today, but only 3.8% of single origin chocolates are sourced from West Africa (Leissle 2013). How is it that 70% of the world’s chocolate is produced in this region but few chocolate artisans have chosen this area to supply their cacao beans?
Leissle argues that consumers today are unaware of the origins of chocolate because single origin chocolate makers claim the bean strain and bulk amounts sold are not conducive to their goals (2013). They claim the beans are too bitter and have weak, simple flavors, whereas single origin chocolates aim to bring out the complex, diverse flavors of chocolate. Additionally, the cocoa farms only sell in bulk which is not efficient for these kinds of companies, which make the chocolate from bean to bar. Ghana is considered to have the best cacao in West Africa because of the strenuous quality measures its Cocoa Board exercises. However, the Ghana Cocoa Board also presents an obstacle: it is under government control and it is the government that controls where the cacao can be exported. Though this system does indeed present a difficult obstacle, countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Nigeria have similar quality beans but with deregulated markets that allow for direct contact with the farmers. Furthermore, artisans from other countries source a lot of their products from West Africa.
Why then has the United States not followed this trend? We look to the history of relations between the United States and West Africa. Leissle claims that because the US has historically had negative relations with West Africa, the cacao beans are perceived as being of lower quality (2013). Media in the US has created a negative image of West Africa and Africa in general. The average American only knows stories of West Africa’s political instability, the poor infrastructure, and today, most prominently, the Ebola outbreak. This negative light the media has painted of West Africa has led to the conclusion that West Africa has poor quality cacao beans, at least from the point of view of the chocolate artisans.
The charged history of slavery has also turned these artisans away from sourcing cacao beans out of West Africa. Even as late as the early 1900s, slavery was a hot topic as rumors of slavery on cacao plantations in Sao Tome and Principe turned out to be true (Satre 2005). This is the clear motive for American companies staying away from West African origins of cacao beans–slavery will always be a delicate subject in the United States.
Chocolate companies typically use the wrapper and exotic words to entice the consumer, to elicit some curiosity (Leissle 2013; Stuckey 2012). Images of exotic scenery with hardworking cacao farmers are included on the wrapper as well as exciting descriptors. Some companies even appeal to the goals of social justice in order to hook the consumer. These ploys clearly will not appeal to American consumers. Companies cannot market the Wet African countries because the first words that come to mind when considering West Africa are not “vacation spot.” Instead, Americans see danger, AIDS, Ebola. A quick Google search of this topic leads to articles on armed robbery, civil war, and the Ebola outbreak. Appeals to social justice will also be aversive because of America’s history with slavery.
All of these factors have led to few chocolates of single source from West Africa in the United States. What does this mean to the consumer though? Bill Nesto explores the consumer reaction to single origin chocolate in one of his articles (2010). According to Nesto, it does not appear that most customers understand the phrase single origin chocolate. Indeed, there are so many different terms that have not been officially defined in the chocolate world that a consumer would be hard-pressed to understand all the concepts.
Recent studies though may have a consumer-side explanation for why no chocolate is from West Africa. Studies have shown that expectation, as well as one’s surroundings, can change how a food tastes (Zelano and Gottfried 2012; Grabenhorst et al 2008). Applying these results to the chocolate world, this negative imagery of West Africa can indeed leave a bad taste in the mouth though the chocolate is the same as all other chocolates we have been consuming. Chocolate single-sourced from Ghana might not taste as delicious as the Ghanaian chocolate in a Hershey’s bar. For chocolate amateurs who does not understand the distinction of single origin chocolate, they only see the country of origin; negative portrayals of West African countries by the media do not lend themselves well. If the chocolate is expected to be of lower quality, then it will taste like it is lower quality, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
All of these factors keep the origins of chocolate in the dark despite the fact that over 70% of all marketed chocolate comes from a single region. Chocolate has been completely divorced from its origins (Norton 2006). The negative image of a country leads to an expectation of lower quality which, in turn, results in a worse-tasting chocolate. It is a vicious cycle that does not benefit anyone–a cycle inherent in the system. Because of the perception of low quality chocolate, no one invests in West Africa, reinforcing its bad reputation. The issue now is how to solve these problems. A weakening cacao industry is turning people away from growing cacao and there soon may be a shortage of chocolate. Should chocolate producers be more transparent about where the cacao is coming from? Or should we be striving to eliminate the negative media coverage of West Africa? There is currently no incentive for a change in the system, so it seems it will be a while yet before we see more single origin chocolates from West Africa on the US market.
Coe, S and Coe, M. (2013). The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson.
Grabenhorst, F., Rolls, E., and Bilderbeck, A. (2008). “How Cognition Modulates Affective Responses to Taste and Flavor: Top-down Influences on the Orbitofrontal and Pregenual Cingulate Cortices.” Cerebral Cortex 18 (7): 1549-1559.
Leissle, K. (2013). “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 13, No.3, pp. 22-31.
Montanari, M. (2006). Food is Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
Nesto, B. (2010). “Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol.10, No.1, pp. 131-135.
Norton, M. (2006). “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” American Historical Review 111 (3): 660-691.
Satre, L. (2005). Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Stuckey, B. (2012). Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Zelano, C. and Gottfried, J. (2012). “A Taste of What to Expect: Top-Down Modulation of Neural Coding in Rodent Gustatory Cortex.” Neuron, Vol.74, No.2, 217-219.