Can a Hershey’s Bar be “Simply” Chocolate?

Image 1: A Bag of Cheetos Highlighting the Preference for Non-Processed Foods

As seen in Image 1, buzzwords such as “natural”, “preservative free”, “homemade” are often used in advertisements when referring to food goods. There is a growing preference in today’s society for foods that are produced the “natural way, without preservatives or industrialized processing (Murdoch and Miele 2002). But simultaneously, people seem more and more distant from the actual processes their food undergoes during production. An example of this phenomenon is the contemporary understanding of chocolate in our culture: although people prefer “wholesome” ingredients, many consider a chocolate bar to be a single ingredient in itself or a basic unit of food. In contrast, other similarly produced goods—like a finished apple pie or a can of fruit—are viewed as comprising of many parts and steps.

In order to better understand contemporary understandings about food production, I interviewed eight of my classmates about their experiences with chocolate, specifically trying to uncover their conceptualizations of a Hershey’s chocolate bar. It is worth noting that my small-n sample of eight friends is not stratified nor representative of any larger body of people. However, the sample itself—eight college students from middle class backgrounds—can offer insight into the way that such a demographic might conceptualize chocolate and trade. These conversations revealed to me a focus on processed or non-organic products, but a lack of awareness regarding the actual processes of production and social and economic consequences of international companies like Hershey’s.

The Global Production of Hershey’s Chocolate: The Process and its Consequences

While my friends—specifically those who have not taken this class—may be unaware of the process that goes into the production of a single bar of chocolate, it is nonetheless extensive. The transformation from “bean to a Hershey’s bar” spans multiple continents, starting in the cacao plantations of West Africa, where 68.1% of the world’s cacao beans are grown (Lecture 15). Seen in Image 2, the cacao beans  are removed from their pods, fermented, dried, and roasted so that just cacao nibs remain.

Image 2: Dried cacao beans displayed in their pod husks

These nibs are then shipped to Hershey’s manufacturing plants in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Mexico where they are ground down into cacao liquor and pressed to create cocoa powder (Hersheys.com). This powder is then combined with a variety of different ingredients like cacao butter, powdered milk, and flavors to create the enormous selection of candy bars that Hershey produces.

The process of Hershey’s production also includes communities around the globe, influencing local social and economic forces. On the one hand, industrialization and globalization can generally be considered a good thing. The largest positive impact globalization of the food industry had was the reduction of starvation across the globe through the larger supply of food, which directly lowered the prices (Regmi et al.). When the processes of preservation, mechanization, retailing, and global transportation were newly discovered, the total volume of available food increased enormously (Lecture 12). Today, industrialized production of ingredients—like Hershey’s chocolate—allow for foods to travel far past their previously restrictive borders.

But there is also a darker side to the changes in the food production industry. As Lauden describes, the changes in production have led to the availability of “fresh” foods, but also a cultural tendency to overlook the processes that led to the creation of each component of the ultimate outcome (Lauden). The same concept applies to the production of Hershey’s chocolate: while many might think of chocolate as an ingredient or a “staple” food, the realities of its production include the myriad ingredients and steps listed above.

Though the consumer may think of a Hershey’s chocolate bar as a component of a recipe or a basic Halloween candy, each step in the process of its production involves individual people and their communities. Hershey’s has been under fire for its use of illegal child labor and was even the focus of a national campaign against child labor named Raise the Bar (Bloxham). Furthermore, Hershey’s and other multinational food conglomerates have been criticized for their transnational investment in poor countries. These corporations are able to fix prices below the countries’ equilibrium level and push out local corporations and therefore harm foreign economic development (Wimberley).

Surpassing typical evaluative processes, the Hershey’s brand has become so ubiquitously associated with chocolate that a change in recipe that drastically altered the final product didn’t stop consumers from defining the bar as “chocolate.” In 2007, The Chocolate Manufacturers Association, which Hershey’s is a member of, began lobbying the U.S. Food and Drug administration to allow the substitution of real chocolate ingredients like cocoa butter and sugar for “safe and suitable vegetable fats and oils” (including partially hydrogenated vegetable oils”(Bragg). Though this legislation did not pass, Hershey’s still takes many shortcuts today. The Mr. Goodbar, one of Hershey’s products made with vegetable fat substitutes , is labeled as “made with chocolate” in order to bypass the F.D.A. regulation.

Image 3: Hershey’s Mr. Goodbar displaying “Made with Chocolate”

But how does a typical consumer think about Hershey’s chocolate? Does the consumer consider the process of production when they think about which bar of chocolate to buy? Or even how they define chocolate itself?

What is Hershey’s Chocolate?: Analysis of Interview Results

Note: See Appendix for Interview Questions

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the students I interviewed seemed unaware of the process of production that goes into a Hershey’s chocolate bar. But they also did not know the basics of chocolate as a produced good. Said one student: “I don’t know what is in a bar of chocolate. The same thing that’s in chocolate? Like, chocolate?” Here we can see the blurred line between a “bar of chocolate” and its ingredients, as the two separate concepts seem merged into one idea of “chocolate.” A different student avoided listing what chocolate is made out of, and instead focused on what chocolate means to them. “I’m not really sure what chocolate is to me,” they said. “I guess it’s like, a cake or frosting or something. Or I guess it’s something you buy for Christmas or Valentine’s Day.” Like the previous quote, this excerpt reveals the student’s conception of chocolate as a facet of a greater experience, like an ingredient in baking or an aspect of a tradition. Instead of thinking about each step that goes into making chocolate, the student imagines chocolate to be a finished product, ready to be used for further production.

When differentiating Hershey’s chocolate from chocolate more generally, students most focused on the brand and its cultural significance. When asked what Hershey’s chocolate means to them, one student said: “Hershey’s is, like, the all-American chocolate bar. It’s the most simple chocolate I can think of.” This quote shows the connection of chocolate to its greater social meaning, in this case as a facet of what it means to be an “American” given the significance of Hershey’s in American culture. The individual’s description of the chocolate bar as the “most simple” of its kind might even strike a student in our class as humorous, given that Hershey’s contains the smallest actual amount of chocolate out of any major brand. Similarly, another student seemed convinced by more by Hershey’s branding than its actual use of chocolate in production. Hinting at the lack of actual chocolate in the bar, the student said: “Hershey’s doesn’t even taste that good. It just gives me that feeling that eating chocolate gives me so I keep on eating it when it’s around.” This quote further suggests that Hershey’s has developed a brand name that labels its “chocolate” to be a finished product in and of itself.

When specifically asked about the ingredients in a Hershey’s chocolate bar, students had more varied answers. Many seemed aware that the chocolate bar is not entirely “wholesome” or “natural,” but few could explain why. Linking it to the broader movement towards “natural” and “local” foods, one student said: “[Hershey’s is made of] chocolate and milk fat and probably something poisonous to me that we won’t realize is carcinogenic for like a million years. Although maybe I just am thinking that because Hershey’s is a giant corporation.” Although this student could not think of specifics, they realized that there were different products that ultimately go into the production of a Hershey’s bar. Their use of buzzwords like “corporation” and “carcinogenic” may illuminate a negative perspective of processed foods that is seen in the media.

The same student reported buying Hershey’s within the past week, and at a frequency of approximately once a month. Though this discrepancy between purchasing behavior and sustainable thinking might seem surprising to some, a survey by Vermeir and Verbeke on such a behavioral gap found that many young people exhibit little intention to buy sustainable goods if an alternative is perceived as much more widely attainable (Vermeir and Verbeke 2006). I believe that it is likely that Hershey’s universal availability and the lack of attention paid to chocolate and consumer responsibility allows people to continue to buy the chocolate with relatively little consumer guilt.

Another student mentioned a trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania during which they visited the company’s “Chocolate Lab” and watched “chocolate being made.” Further conversation revealed to me that the Hershey’s factory walks its visitors through the a much-briefer process of chocolate production—starting with examples of cacao pods and progressing straight to vats of swirling melted chocolate and Hershey’s kisses and bars prior to packaging.

Image 4: “ Liquid chocolate in a vat at the Hershey’s Factory”
Image 5: Hershey’s Kisses coming out as finished products

Rather than discuss the process of production, Hershey suggests to its visitors that cacao pods are somehow transformed into bars of chocolate. This student reported feeling “connected” to the end product as a result of their visit, and feeling as though the chocolate bar was simply made of “chocolate.”

In conclusion, modern understandings of a Hershey’s chocolate bar suggest that there is still a large gap between the starting blocks of a processed food, the supply chain, and the finished product. People today may be starting to realize this and thus have created movements such as Fair Trade USA and Direct Trade, but many more consumers continue to overlook basic processes of production. The branding of Hershey’s—from its logo to its factory tour—works to continue the image of a chocolate bar as fundamentally “chocolate,” preventing its customers from questioning its production practices. As one student said: “Hershey’s reminds me of Coke. It’s not the best chocolate I could buy, but it’s the easiest one to think of when I imagine chocolate.”

Work’s Cited

Bloxham, Eleanor. “Chocolate and child labor a hurdle for Hershey”. Fortune Magazine, November 2012. http://fortune.com/2012/11/16/chocolate-and-child-labor-a-hurdle-for-hershey/

Bragg, Lynn M. “Chocolate Manufacturers Association Stakeholder Letter”. Chocolate dasManufacturers Association, April 2007. http://web.archive.org/web/20071202030257/http://www.chocolateusa.org/pdfs/CMA-stakeholder.pdf

Lauden, Rachel. “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food”. Gastronomica. Winter 2001. http://www.jstor.org.ezp-   prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/pdf/10.1525/gfc.2001.1.1.36.pdf?acceptTC=true&jpdConfirm=true

Levenstein, Harvey. “Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet” Oxford University Press, 1988. Pg 31-32

Murdoch, J. & Miele, M “‘Back to Nature’: Changing ‘Worlds of Production’”. Sociologia. Ruralis. December 2002. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9523.00119/abstract

Regmi, A. & Gehlhar, G. “Processed Food Trade Pressured by Evolving Global Supply Chains”. USDA Economic Research Service. . http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/r/2/r2w/AGBM420/Readings/W10-12%20Vertical%20price%20variation/ImperativesForSCManInProcessedFoodFeb05.pdf

Vermeir, I & Verbeke, W. “Sustainable Food Consumption: Exploring the Consumer ‘Attitude –                                                                       Behavioral Intention’ Gap”. Journal of Agricuultural and Environmental Ethics. April                                                                                 2006 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10806-005-5485-3

Wimberley, Dale W. “Effects of Foreign Investment, Exports, and Economic Growth on Third World Food Consumption”. Oxford Journals, 1992 – http://sf.oxfordjournals.org/content/70/4/895.short

Multimedia Sources Cited

Image 1: “A Bag of Cheetos Highlighting the Preference for Non-Processed Foods”             http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/61NzIC4cXsL._SL1000_.jpg

Image 2: “Dried cacao beans displayed in their pod husks”            http://howardcocoacompany.yolasite.com/resources/image.jpeg

Image 3: “ Hershey’s Mr. Goodbar displaying “Made with Chocolate”                http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/81bOiZjzD3L._SL1500_.jpg

Image 4: “ Liquid chocolate at the Hershey’s Factory”            https://darkcargo.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/p1000029.jpg

Image 5: “Hershey’s Kisses coming out as finished products”            http://a.abcnews.go.com/images/GMA/ht_kiss_0057_090213_ssh.jpg

Appendix: Interview Questions

  1.       When you think about chocolate, what first comes to mind?
  2.       What are three ways that you might experience chocolate in everyday life?
  3.       Do people around you ever talk about chocolate? What do they say?
  4.       How often do you eat chocolate?
  5.       More specifically, how often do you eat Hershey’s chocolate?
  6.       What do you think of when you think about a Hershey’s chocolate bar?
  7.       Do you prefer chocolate on its own, or as a flavor or ingredient?
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