As the public experiences increasing pressure to become informed consumers, and corporate social responsibility reports gain popularity, it becomes evident that there is a gap between what chocolate consumers think they know and what they actually know. While striving to make healthy choices, consumers are undermined by clever marketing and manipulated research. Weak connections between chocolate and health are strengthened by wishful thinking and word of mouth. Greenwashing and guilt tripping are common practices in chocolate marketing, providing further obstacles for well-intentioned shoppers. Additionally, labels like “fair trade” and “organic” are not well understood. I hope to illustrate this by using an in-depth interview with a health and label conscious consumer, Jennifer Winn, whose name has been changed for the purpose of protecting her privacy. Through the analysis of three of her favorite chocolate products, Brookside Dark Chocolate Goji & Rasberry Flavours, Navita Naturals Raw Cacao Powder, and Endangered Species Chocolate, I will explore some of the issues that serve to undermine consumers’ good intentions as well as expose specific areas where consumers need to be more proactive in becoming informed. Jennifer Winn is a 44-year-old accountant living in Victoria, Canada. When asked to describe her relationship with chocolate, she says, “I like chocolate, I mean, who doesn’t? But I mostly buy chocolate for my kids. It can be hard because they want Smarties and those sugary, waxy bars. I hate supporting that kind of thing” (Winn). The chocolate products she purchases most are Brookside Dark Chocolate Goji Berries With Raspberry, Navita Naturals Raw Cacao Powder, and Endangered Species Chocolate. Winn’s strongest chocolate-related memory involves M&M’s. She was 7 months pregnant, on a vegan, no sugar diet, and gave into a craving for the small, round chocolate candies. She laughs, “I just had one. I felt so guilty after! I thought that’s it… now my son will love M&M’s. And he does!” (Winn). Winn describes herself as an informed consumer saying, “I only buy organic and fair trade. And healthy!” (Winn).
Winn describes Brookside Dark Chocolate Goji & Raspberry Flavours as one of her favorite on-the-go snacks; however, it is evident that she has neglected to examine the product’s nutritional information and lacks complete information regarding cocoa flavanols. Although the product displays the word “goji” in bold on some of its packages, the only goji involved in the product is a small amount of goji juice, which has been mixed with other juices to make the sugary, gummy candy that is covered in chocolate (Brookside Chocolate). When asked if she had realized she was consuming chocolate-covered gummy candies, Winn said no, indicating that she had not thoroughly read the package, but had instead taken the product’s health claims at face value. The product states, “0.1 g of cocoa flavanols per serving” (Brookside Chocolate). However, in vitro studies show that cocoa flavanols possess anti-inflammatory properties and are potentially cardioprotective; but, further research involving in vivo studies is required (Selmi et al. 1340). Additionally, they seem “to offer new and interesting opportunities to regulate mood and brain disorders” (Watson et al. 270), but again, more research is needed. Chocolate companies claim that cocoa flavanols are good for you; however, few consumers know the quantity of cocoa flavanols they need to consume to reap the perceived benefits. Furthermore, these benefits are often offset by drawbacks. If one were to ingest 64 Brookside Dark Chocolate Goji Berries, he or she would consume 0.4 g of cocoa flavanols and 100% of the recommended daily intake of saturated fat (Brookside Chocolate). Winn’s other favorite chocolate product, Navita Naturals Raw Cacao Powder, is also being marketed as healthy, when in fact it can be harmful.
Winn uses Navita Naturals Raw Cacao Powder every morning in her breakfast smoothie, as she accepts unsupported health claims regarding its nutritional value and is unfamiliar with the associated risks. She is one of many health-conscious consumers who has adopted David Wolfe’s opinion that raw cacao is worth consuming. He enthusiastically claims, “this is the highest antioxidant food in the world” and “it is one of the highest vitamin C containing foods of any food in the world” (Cocoa, The Chocolate Super Food of the Gods). However, consumers are not aware that cacao shells are host to mycotoxins; heavy metals including cadmium and lead; microbial contamination like salmonella; and other potentially harmful substances like pesticides (Martin 1). Although raw cacao is winnowed, it is not roasted and steamed and thus, consumers are at risk for illness. When questioned, Winn informed me that she is unfamiliar with the chocolate production process and thus, does not know about winnowing and roasting or of their importance, signifying the need for consumer education regarding the production of chocolate. In addition to being blinded by exaggerated health claims, many consumers are also being made to feel guilty through clever marketing schemes.
Firstly, it is obvious that the company seeks to play on consumers’ feelings of guilt by picturing an endangered animal on their packaging and thus, consumers should ask themselves whether they are purchasing the bar because it is a responsible choice or because they feel guilty. Winn confirms this when she says, “to be honest, if I forget my reusable grocery bags, I either make a donation to whatever cause they’re supporting at the till or I buy one of these bars” (Winn). Consumers should be skeptical of the company’s intentions as such a small percentage of profits donated may signify their commitment to the bottom line and nothing else. Furthermore, the company exhibits little transparency surrounding the projects they complete with this 10% donation.
Secondly, Endangered Species Chocolate is fair trade certified and consumers do not fully understand what this implies. Winn comments that she purchases fair trade because it aligns with her values (Winn), but fair trade seems to benefit consumers more than the people it is supposed to help. We feel good when we buy fair trade. Unfortunately, fair trade does what we were told not to do as children: it breaks promises. Although it claims to ensure everything from environmental sustainability to gender equity and sustainable businesses for farmers, there is a lack of evidence supporting this. Fair trade actually harms non-certified farmers, helps the rich, and it is suggested that little money actually reaches the developing world (Martin 2). Although a measurably better system, it is still not as good as it sounds. A 2015 study on chocolate consumers residing in Belgium revealed, “30% classify [fair trade] labels as marketing tools without guarantees of socially desirable outcomes” (Rousseau 95). It follows that 70% of the sample population is unaware of the uncertainty of fair trade and thus, more consumer education is needed regarding labels.
Lastly, Endangered Species Chocolate is certified organic and many consumers are unaware of what this means in the context of the chocolate industry. Organic chocolate means that cacao is grown without “the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation” (Martin 1). Not all organic chocolate is labeled this way because the process of acquiring the organic seal can be expensive and time consuming. Since the vast majority of cacao farmers are poor, many cannot afford it. Similarly, some of these farmers cannot afford pesticides and thus, their chocolate is nevertheless organic despite the lack of an organic label. Many consumers are unaware that in the United States, there are three types of organic: 100% organic, organic, and made with organic ingredients. Only 100% organic products are completely organic. The others have as little as 70% organic ingredients, but still possess the same seal as 100% organic products (Liu). Critiques surrounding organic products include the misperceptions that organic products are of high quality, the manipulative use of regulations around organics, and the fact that the label has no social considerations. So, although Winn is purchasing a product that is at least 70% pesticide free, she may still be consuming a product made with cacao beans from farmers too poor to avoid child labor.
Although all three of Winn’s favorite products have hidden negative attributes, chocolate is not all bad. The purpose of this essay is not to scare consumers away from chocolate, but rather to encourage them to go beyond marketing and labels and to take a holistic approach when seeking to make a healthy and sustainable purchase. It is evident that consumers are ineffectively analyzing nutrition related marketing claims due to misinformation or a lack thereof, especially when it comes to products such as raw cacao. Education regarding chocolate’s production process and the accompanied terms would help reduce consumer confusion. Furthermore, consumers would benefit from instruction concerning fair trade and organic labels within the context of the contemporary chocolate industry. It is difficult to determine whether the lack of informed consumption is due to an absence of information available or consumer neglect to seek out this information, but it is obvious that exaggerated claims and misinformation have left consumers confused.
Winn may be unrepresentative of the population as a whole in that she is well-educated regarding nutrition and is able to identify labels such as fair trade and organic. However, her interview demonstrates that even generally informed consumers are still in the dark when it comes to purchasing chocolate products. After sharing my essay with Winn she comments, “I am honestly surprised at the difference between what I thought I knew and what I actually know. I guess it’s all about checks and balances. There is a lot to consider when buying chocolate and although I will try my very best to make responsible purchases, I’m not going to get so caught up in it that it loses all its fun. I’m still going to buy Hershey’s chocolate chips to make cookies with my son and eat the truffle that comes with my dessert at my favorite restaurant” (Winn). She laughs, “Maybe I’ll stop eating the Goji berries though!” (Winn).
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