Sugar and cacao: their interplay and drive towards neocolonialism

In the present day, people generally do not conceptualize chocolate to be a health food. Like many beliefs in modern times, this interpretation of chocolate was arguably born out of the West (three of the five “Big Chocolate” multinational producers are American companies, one is Swiss, and the last Italian)[1] and then exported out to other parts of the world. The effects are obvious. In war-torn countries like Afghanistan, children, upon meeting American soldiers, ask for “chocolate” constantly, a confection indistinguishable from “candy” in their eyes.[2] The soldiers foreseeably hand them not artisanal chocolate bars with dense 70% cacao contents, but rather industrial chocolate products[3] laden with sugar, an ingredient that provides the kids some neurochemical respite from their day-to-day realities.

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An Afghani child making the pitch for sweets (Credit: Jeremy Ross)

Elsewhere, in China, the chocolate market has been growing at double-digit clip annually.[4] And though one Hershey’s manager concedes that the Chinese demographic pines for chocolate confections that are less sweet than those typically found in the US, the baseline assumption is that such treats still be “sugary” at its core.

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An M&M in very handsome, culturally appropriated Terracotta warrior garb (Credit: FITCH)

These modern notions of what chocolate is, and what class of food it belongs in (unfortunately, “junk” in many instances), have a basis in fact. The iconic Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar contains just 11% cacao, a hair above the 10% minimum requirement set by the FDA for a product to be called “chocolate.”[5] The same bar, at less than two ounces, contains 24 grams of sugar, or six teaspoons worth. For further reference, the World Health Organization recently revised its daily sugar intake recommendation to 25 grams a day.[6]

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Extrapolating from the above, a five-pound Hershey’s bar has more than 1.2 kilograms of sugar, or more than half of the net weight of the bar! (Credit: Hershey)

But this was not always the message. After all, cacao beans may have historically been used as a currency, and the consumption of cacao-derived drinks existed as a prestige marker for both the Mayans and Aztecs alike. Even the merchants who dealt with cacao were considered to be of a higher class. This understanding of cacao as a food product of spiritual and medicinal significance continued on into the Western world. After all, it was as early as the 16th century that Catholic religious figures asked the Pope for guidance as to whether chocolate drinks could be consumed on fasting days; it was not until 1662, nearly a century later, that Pop Alexander VII declared that liquids (including chocolate) did not break the fast.[7] Regrettably, in accordance with some of the pseudosciences of those times (Galen’s humorism), sugar was also construed to have certain health benefits.[8]

It is indisputable that current modes of cacao and cane sugar production foster and perpetuate global neocolonial structures. There exist a multitude of reasons with respect to why this is, with recent neoliberal economic policies like the Washington Consensus playing a significant role. This much is difficult to argue against when the inverse, such as Ghana’s ad hoc economic approach to cacao farming in its country, has bolstered both cacao output and farmer incomes.[9]

In addition, we are far removed from Galen’s temperaments model in the 21st century, and contemporary research does well to show that the innate chemical nature of sugar (often in combination with chocolate) only serves to intensify the overconsumption that leads to health issues downstream, at the consumer level, and the neocolonial institutions upstream, at the producer level. Foods rich in fat, such as the aforementioned 70% cacao chocolate bar, promote satiety. So, while the production of a luxury food like foie gras has its own share of ethical concerns, the quality of the food (its richness, or high fat content) is such that few would wish to dine on it day in and day out. In this sense, the very nature of foie gras reins in its production. Chocolate, on the other hand, is now coupled with an ingredient that only promotes immediate cravings for more; the consumption of chocolate as most people understand it nowadays indirectly begets overproduction. New research shows that Oreos, a marriage of processed sugar and two cookies covered in cocoa powder (specifically, Dutch processed powder with almost no fat content) stimulate the brain in much the same way as cocaine or heroin.[10]

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Deceptively innocuous-looking (Credit: Oreo)

In consideration of all the above, affirmative efforts to consume more wholesome chocolate products whenever feasible might just have an effect in decoupling the presumption of sugar from cacao in the modern day, so as to end the perverse feedback loop, one which carries negative implications for people globally, whether it be consumers or producers.

[1] A Cocoa Farmer In Cadbury’s Court, New Internationalist Magazine, August 5, 1998, http://newint.org/features/1998/08/05/farmer/.

[2] Jeremy Ross, For Bravo 1/10 Marines, the kids are alright, DVIDS, April 23, 2011, https://www.dvidshub.net/news/69215/bravo-1-10-marines-kids-alright/.

[3] A Cocoa Farmer In Cadbury’s Court, New Internationalist Magazine, August 5, 1998, http://newint.org/features/1998/08/05/farmer/.

[4] Angela Doland, Who’s Winning China’s Chocolate War?, AdvertisingAge, December 8, 2014, http://adage.com/article/print-edition/winning-china-s-chocolate-war/296091/.

[5] Robert L. Wolke, Chocolate By the Numbers, Washington Post, June 9, 2004, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A24276-2004Jun8.html/.

[6] Ryan Jaslow, World Health Organization lowers sugar intake recommendations, CBS News, March 5, 2014, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/world-health-organization-lowers-sugar-intake-recommendations/.

[7] Ann Ball, When the Church said “No” to chocolate, Mexconnect, January 1, 2000, http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/1469-when-the-church-said-no-to-chocolate/.

[8] Andrzej K. Kuropatnicki, The well-balanced diet in England in the Late Middle Ages and at the beginning of the Modern Period, February 19, 2016, http://www.history.pth.net.pl/article,6/. 

[9] Ofosu-Asare, Kwaku (2011) Trade liberalisation, globalisation and the cocoa industry in Ghana: the case of the smallholder cocoa farmers. Doctoral thesis, University of Westminster.

[10] Jacob Sullum, Research Shows Cocaine And Heroin Are Less Addictive Than Oreos, Forbes, October 16, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jacobsullum/2013/10/16/research-shows-cocaine-and-heroin-are-less-addictive-than-oreos/.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

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