A Double Edged Sword: Analyzing the Impact of the Raw and Craft Chocolate Industries

Since the opening of the first bean-to-bar chocolate company in the U.S. in 1997, the popularity of minimally processed chocolate products has grown at an incredibly rapid pace. Though the makers of products such as raw and craft chocolate offer a number of benefits for cacao producers through their support of better working conditions and wages for those working on cacao farms, one can also make a number of criticisms about the growing popularity of this food industry. Careful analysis of some of the claimed benefits of consuming raw or craft chocolate reveals that the movement towards less-processed chocolate products mirrors a larger natural food movement that is based on a very poor understanding of human evolution. In addition, because the foods recommended within these natural food movements tend to be more expensive due to their higher production costs, a very small segment of the population are able to actually afford these foods and access their nutritional benefits. Therefore, it seems that in spite of all of the benefits that the movement toward minimally processed chocolate has brought about, there are still very significant critiques that one could make.

The growing consumer demand for raw and craft chocolate has provided a number of benefits for the producers of cacao such as better wages and working conditions. Many makers of craft and raw chocolate pride themselves on knowing exactly where their cacao beans are grown and the fact they are very invested in providing sufficient wages for cacao famers. For instance, the Taza Chocolate Company in Somerville, Massachusetts boasts on its website that they believe that “both farmer and chocolate maker should share the reward of making a great product”. The company then describes how this belief is carried out practically by stating that they have direct trading relationships with cacao farming cooperatives and a strong commitment to paying their farmers fairly and to working with farmers who “respect the rights of their workers” (Taza Chocolate Company, 2015). Similarly, the Meridian Cacao Company in Portland, Oregon boasts that it pays farmers “four times the ‘Fair Trade Premium’ for cacao” through an incentive-based reward system (Meridian Cacao Company 2015). Motivated by a commitment to partnering with cooperatives with the best farming practices, the founder of this company also makes regular visits to the cacao sources in order to ensure that each farm is exhibiting proper work and farming conditions.

In this picture on the Meridian Cacao Company site, one can see that the makers of this chocolate are really trying to emphasize the close relationships that they have with cacao farmers. This could help increase consumer confidence that work conditions on these farms are being carefully monitored.
In this picture on the Meridian Cacao Company site, one can see that the makers of this chocolate are really trying to emphasize the close relationships that they have with cacao farmers. This could help increase consumer confidence that work conditions on these farms are being carefully monitored.

In spite of all of the benefits that the minimally processed chocolate industry creates for cacao farmers, one can still make a number of criticisms about its growing popularity. As a component of a larger Western movement toward more “natural” food, the raw and craft chocolate industries often benefit from lofty claims about the health advantages of their products that are based on misunderstandings of scientific theory. For example, many natural food diets such as the Paleo or Raw Food Diets cite evolutionary theory in order to support their claims about the health benefits of their proposed eating strategies. According to the theory of evolutionary mismatch, the human body evolved in an environment that is very different from the current one. In terms of diet, this ancestral environment offered foods that were “high in lean protein, polyunsaturated fats (especially omega-3 fatty acids), monounsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants” and virtually no cooked foods or refined grains or sugars (O’Keefe & Cordain 2004). The high energetic demand of the hunter-gatherer life-style caused early humans to develop physiological cravings for foods that are high in sugar, fat and starch because they increased survival in an environment in which these foods were uncommon (O’Keefe & Cordain 2004). Therefore, because humans still exhibit food cravings that are “mismatched” for the modern human environment in which high sugar, fat, and starch foods are prevalent, many chronic disease associated with diet such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are much more common today than early on in human evolutionary history.

This theory of evolutionary mismatch is often used to support a number of pop-science diets such as the raw food and Paleo diet and can even be used to justify the consumption of minimally processed chocolate. In seeing that there is a tremendous difference in the modern human diet compared to that of ancestral hunter-gatherers, proponents of such diets have turned to eating like early humans as a solution to the growing number of the chronic diseases seen today.

In the above video promotion for the Paleo diet, one can see that an evolutionary biological theoretical model is used to support the health benefits of this eating strategy.

According to Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution, the Paleo Diet is the healthiest way that a person can eat “because it is the only nutritional approach that works with [one’s] genetics to help [one] stay lean, strong and energetic” (Wolf 2015). Wolf attempts to support this claim by stating that hunter-gatherers showed no signs of cardiovascular disease while eating ancestral diets and that eating a Paleo diet of lean meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, root vegetables and nuts helped decrease the blood sugar of those with Type 2 diabetes (Lindeberg et. al 2007). Similarly, raw food diet supporters claim that eating more raw foods will result in “massive improvements in energy levels, emotional disposition, mental clarity and immunity” (The Fresh Network 2015).

The craft and raw chocolate industries also make bold assertions about the health benefits of minimally processed chocolate. For instance, according to a raw chocolate company in Asheville, North Carolina called Santosha Chocolate, raw cacao “is one of the most nutrient-rich foods on the planet” (Santosha Chocolate 2015). In addition, the chocolate company claims that raw cacao is full of antioxidants that can improve cardiovascular health.

For many people reading these pitches, the evidence for the health benefits of raw or unprocessed food diets may seem quite convincing. However, one cannot overlook the fact that proponents of these diets fail to acknowledge a number of factors that may complicate their arguments. For example, Robb Wolf fails to acknowledge the fact that, though hunter-gatherers may have exhibited low occurrences of cardiovascular diseases as they consumed an ancestral diet, this correlation does not necessarily mean the relationship is causal. The decreased levels of cardiovascular disease observed in early hunter-gatherers could simply be due to the fact that they had a much more active lifestyle than humans today. Similarly, many craft chocolate companies claim that their lack of processing methods mirror the practices of the early Mesoamericans and provide health benefits by allowing for higher levels of antioxidants in their chocolate that can improve cardiovascular health (Taza Chocolate 2015; Santosha Chocolate 2015). However, studies actually testing the relationship between antioxidants and cardiovascular health are largely inconclusive.

This video (above) depicts a TedTalk given by Christina Warinner and serves as a great critique of the Paleo diet.

When it comes to making claims about the health benefits of raw food, proponents of raw food diets and raw cacao companies often present an overly romanticized view of hunter-gatherer eating practices that neglects to show the disadvantages of failing to cook food. In fact, because early hunter-gatherers could not cook their food, they were barred them from eating foods that were toxic in a raw state and were sometimes exposed to bacteria and pathogens found in uncooked foods (Fleming 2014). Raw cacao presents similar concerns since the lack of roasting can also expose consumers to bacteria and fungi (William and Eber 2012). All in all, it seems that the prevalence of questionable information pertaining to the health benefits of natural foods and minimally processed chocolate serves as a major critique of the growing popularity of the food movements.

Another very important criticism that can be made about the minimally processed chocolate movement is the fact that these products are often quite expensive and are only accessible to a very small segment of the population. For instance, a 44% milk chocolate bar created by a Philadelphia-based craft chocolate company called Muchomas costs about 10 cents per gram while a typical Hershey’s chocolate bar at Wal-Mart costs about 1 cent per gram (Muchomas 2015; Wal-mart 2015). Using basic proportions, a consumer would have to pay around $4.00 for a Muchomas craft chocolate bar that is the size of a Hershey’s bar! (In reality, one would actually pay $5.00 for a Muchomas bar that is smaller than a Hershey’s bar.) Santosha chocolate bars made from raw cacao can cost an even greater amount at around 14 cents per gram. According to the prices listed on the company’s site, a consumer would pay $4.00 for a chocolate bar that is a third smaller than a Hershey bar. Compared to the 50 cents that one could pay for a single Hershey’s bar at Wal-Mart, this price may seem ludicrous for many consumers-especially those of lower socioeconomic statuses.

In order to justify the high cost of craft chocolate, a Scottish craft chocolate company called The Chocolate Tree claims that high processing costs needed to ensure the high quality of their products force craft chocolate makers to drive up prices. According to this company, persuading farmers to grow better quality cacao and to use better processing techniques “takes financial incentives”. The chocolate makers at The Chocolate Tree even go on to claim “if a product undergoes a more careful, natural treatment designed to harness the full flavor potential, then cost will inevitably rise” (The Chocolate Tree 2015). If one truly considers the implications of this argument that high quality foods necessitate higher costs, then one would expect to see a significant food-quality gap across socioeconomic strata. In fact, the results of a study conducted by Wang et al in 2014 seem to reveal just that. Within this study, researchers found that, based on National Health and Nutrition Survey results between 1999 and 2010, dietary quality was associated with higher socioeconomic classes and that the gap in food quality between high and low socioeconomic classes widened during that time period (Wang et al, 2014). These figures show how the rise of raw and craft chocolate that are low in added sugar and fat (in the form of cocoa butter) can contribute to these class differences in dietary quality by reserving these “better” quality foods for the wealthier members of society who can afford them.

This image (taken from the website of The Chocolate Tree Company) attempts to draw a comparison between the processing practices of craft chocolate makers and those of other companies in order to justify the high cost of their chocolate.
This image (taken from the website of The Chocolate Tree Company) attempts to draw a comparison between the processing practices of craft chocolate makers and those of other companies in order to justify the high cost of their chocolate.

In addition, companies that produce minimally processed chocolate can also hinder progress in addressing this issue by placing blame on lower class individuals for not making proper food decisions. For instance, on The Chocolate Tree site, the chocolate makers argue that, if faced with the decision to consume cheap mass-produced food or a better-quality food, they would easily choose the higher quality item. The makers even go on to state that consumers possess the power “to vote for the kind of world [they] want to live in via [their] purchases” (The Chocolate Tree 2015). Such claims clearly reflect a failure to understand the limited autonomy that those of lower socioeconomic status may have when their food choices are limited by financial constraints. How can a person metaphorically have the power to vote for a world with higher quality food when their socioeconomic status eliminates their ability to even participate in the election? According to Wang et. al, “collective actions, such as legislation and taxation, that aim toward creating an environment that fosters and supports individuals’ healthful choices are more effective at reducing dietary [disease] risk factors than actions that solely depend on personal responsibility.” Rather than condemning the food choices of those who cannot afford higher quality foods or solely funding initiatives that depend on consumers to make the healthier food decisions, effective interventions to address food quality disparities should be based on a recognition of the social and economic factors that cause consumers (particularly those within lower income brackets) to make their food choices and should also work to target those factors.

Overall, it seems that the growing popularity of minimal chocolate companies creates both positive and negative consequences for parties on either side of the production and consumption divide. Raw and craft chocolate makers provide a number of benefits for cacao farmers by giving them greater financial incentives to farm with better practices and also help protect the workers on cacao farms by choosing to partner with cooperatives that exhibit safe and fair working conditions. However, in spite of these benefits, one can also make a number of criticisms regarding these chocolate industries. As a part of a larger movement toward eating more natural and healthy food, the growing popularity of raw and craft chocolate can often be attributed to questionable claims about the products’ health benefits that are based on incomplete understandings of evolutionary theory. In addition, due to the high costs of their products, these chocolate companies could also perpetuate many class-based discrepancies in food quality seen in many Western countries today. Therefore, it seems that a thorough analysis and critique of the growing popularity of the raw and craft chocolate industry reveals that the impact of companies making minimally processed chocolate is truly a double-edged sword. It seems that, in trying to maintain a concern for high quality flavors and processing techniques, these companies have simultaneously helped elevate producers with higher wages and work practices and subjugated others by taking advantage of a lack of knowledge about the health benefits of their products and perpetuating the socioeconomic divide between those who can afford their products and those who cannot.

Works Cited

Lindeberg, S., Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Borgstrand, E., Soffman, J., Sjöström, K., & Ahrén, B. (2007). A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease.Diabetologia50(9), 1795-1807.

O’Keefe, James H., & Cordain, Loren. (2004). Cardiovascular Disease Resulting From a Diet and Lifestyle at Odds With Our Paleolithic Genome: How to Become a 21st-Century Hunter-Gatherer. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 79(1), 101-108.

Wang, D. D., Leung, C. W., Li, Y., Ding, E. L., Chiuve, S. E., Hu, F. B., & Willett, W. C. (2014). Trends in dietary quality among adults in the United States, 1999 through 2010. JAMA internal medicine174(10), 1587-1595.

Williams, P., & Eber, J. (2012). Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Wilmor Pub..

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