Comparing Chocolate: CVS versus Whole Foods Market

Earlier in the semester, we discussed how consumers may have as much responsibility as companies when it comes to impacting the social and ethical concerns surrounding chocolate. Some of these concerns are classism, unethical forms of labor and fair wages for cacao farmers. One way to study these issues is by focusing on a store and seeing what selection it offers; this post will discuss these issues surrounding chocolate and consumerism by looking at two retail chains, namely CVS and Whole Foods.


CVS is a pharmacy retailer with more than 9,600 stores in the United States, making it one of the top hundred drugstores in the nation (“Company”). In addition to offering pharmacy services, it usually contains an extensive retail portion in the store. Most CVSs are large enough to have an aisle dedicated to snacks and chocolate. If not, they are sure to include chocolate in the bins near the registers. In this post, we will first look at the chocolate aisle. Unsurprisingly, we see the Big Five: Ferrero, Nestle, Mars, Hershey’s and Cadbury. Most were fairly affordable as they ranged from roughly $1 to $6. The more expensive chocolate, however, were fairly large bags of chocolate consisting of at least 8 ounces of chocolate or more (up to 20 ounces). The selection ranged from individually wrapped chocolates in large bags to single chocolate bars. CVS also offered ways to cut down costs, often applying “Buy 2 Get 1 Free” deals or “Buy 2 for $6” deals. From this, it seems that CVS targets people who are less willing to spend exorbitant amounts on chocolate and are looking for convenience and value instead.

CVS Aisle
An image of the chocolate aisle at CVS. There was a mix of single bars, super-sized bars and bags of chocolate.

An interesting part was that CVS offered “Premium Chocolates” at the end of the aisle. While the unit price in the aisle chocolate did not usually exceed $0.80, the “premium” chocolates often had unit prices of around $0.95 to $1.39. Although one of the Big Five, it seems that Ferrero appeals to a slightly different audience that may spend more on chocolate, as a product line of Ferrero, Ferrero Rochers, were designated as “premium.” Some brands in this section were Lindt and Ghirardelli, with a large majority being Lindt chocolate bars. Lindt and Ghirardelli are both products of the Swiss company Lindt & Sprüngli. Lastly, most of the chocolate offerings were dark chocolate, often labeled “intense” or incorporating other flavors such as spice and fruits. As we will later see, even these “premium” chocolates were cheaper than the majority of the chocolates sold at Whole Foods.

CVS Premium booth.jpg
One side of the “Premium Chocolate” section at CVS.

The cheaper price point of chocolate is a double-edged sword. Although the ability to provide cheap chocolate has extremely negative connotations associated with it such as child slavery and other unethical practices, cheap price points allow for chocolate to be distributed to a wider amount of people. This helps negate discriminating against certain classes. First, we can discuss how chocolate manufacturers are able to get such cheap prices and the history behind this. One important factor was industrialization. Goody notes that four immediate factors made this possible: 1) preserving, 2) mechanization, 3) retailing (and wholesaling) and 4) transport (72). Because of industrialization, foods like chocolate were able to be shared worldwide and costs were able to be decreased. Compared to its initial beginnings as an upper-class commodity in Europe and North America in the 1600’s, chocolate has been significantly democratized in terms of price and accessibility (Coe & Coe 138).

This desire to drive down prices was also historically relevant, especially with the Big Five as they competed against each other for larger market shares. For example, in the early 1900s, Frank Mars originally depended on Hershey’s for their chocolate coating, but eventually stopped contracting out this manufacturing need. Frank Mars wanted total control of his chocolate, so that he could go head-to-head with Hershey (Brenner 181). Thus, we see the results of this fierce competition as the chocolate prices are quite comparable for the most part among these giants.

While capitalism and industrialization have helped democratize chocolate, there are also ethical concerns associated with such low price points. One of the largest ethical concerns are the types of labor used to farm the cacao. Big Chocolate, especially, has had trouble with this. In 2001, a scandal erupted with headlines saying that American chocolate was made from child slavery (Off 139). Many Big Chocolate companies were blind-sided and U.S. companies like Mars and Hershey’s “insisted that the cocoa chain in Cote d’Ivoire was outside their control” (140). Despite this pushback from the industry, the Harkin-Engel Protocol came to fruition.

A young child raking cacao beans as they dry.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol was a fully voluntary arrangement for regulating industry in the U.S. In this agreement, chocolate companies agreed to follow this program to “eliminate child slave labour in the cocoa chain” (144). Although well-intentioned, it ran into many obstacles including but not limited to: debates on what was considered child slavery, lack of increase in farmers’ wages, meddling by Big Chocolate to downplay the scandal, and not meeting the deadline of 2005 to eliminate slavery (145-46). Carol Off says the Harkin-Engel Protocol was significant in that it forced the chocolate industry to recognize forced child labour, but it “amount[ed] to window dressing” (161).

There has been a history of slavery in chocolate and it shouldn’t be ignored by consumers. For example, in the 1900s, Cadbury was scandalized for its cacao grown by forced laborers in São Tomé and Príncipe. Although industry and government should perhaps try to combat this, consumers also have the power to influence the market through their purchases. Thus, evaluating the history of chocolate as well as its present situation helps consumers make more educated decisions in their purchasing.

Lastly, something to note was the chocolate selection offered near the registers. Compared to the chocolate selection in the aisles, the chocolate near the registers were smaller and thus, cheaper on the whole. However, while these items near checkout account for only 1% of a store’s final sales, they account for 4% of its profits. Hershey’s and other big chocolate manufacturers took note of this and have implemented ways to profit from the psychological effect of chocolate. For example, Hershey’s has conducted research on “chocolaty gratification” to study why people are so apt to buy items near checkout and have increased the visibility of their products near the register (Harwell). At CVS, there were either bins of chocolates on the counter itself or below the counter.

CVS Register
The chocolate selection near the checkout area at CVS.

Whole Foods

Compared to CVS, Whole Foods Market is a supermarket chain with about 300 to 400 stores in the United States. It focuses on selling foods that are “free of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats.” In their company values, they promote quality and the well-being of their customers (“Quality”). There is an overall emphasis on health and “natural, whole” foods and ingredients, appealing to a certain niche market.

Whole Foods Aisle
The chocolate section at Whole Foods.

The chocolate section in Whole Foods seemed smaller than CVS’s. Whereas the chocolate in CVS seemed to take up one whole aisle, the Whole Foods chocolate section was only a portion of the aisle. First, I noticed the lack of Big Five’s products. Instead, there were some recognizable products from smaller brands. Some of these brands included Taza Chocolate, Green & Black’s, Theo Chocolate, Pure7 Chocolate, and Not Your Sugar Mama’s. Several of these brands were also local, such as Pure7 Chocolate and Taza Chocolate.

Whole Foods Taza
A portion of the chocolate section dedicated to Taza Chocolate, a local chocolatier in Somerville, MA.

In discussing the market of CVS versus Whole Foods, Whole Foods appeals to a different customer who 1) is willing to spend more on chocolate, 2) is health-conscious, and 3) is perhaps conscious about forms of labor and the purity of the ingredients. Off the bat, the prices of the chocolates at Whole Foods were more expensive. Although there were $6 bags of chocolate sold at CVS, it was a bulk purchase. However, in Whole Foods, for $6.99 it was a 2 oz. bar of chocolate. As education grows around chocolate, there seems to be an increasing trend of people who are willing to spend more for a luxury item. High prices don’t necessarily mean that chocolate may be “slave-free,” though, or fully ethical; high prices aren’t the end-all-be-all situation for ameliorating the ethical concerns surrounding chocolate. However, these smaller companies often pay farmers much more, sometimes triple the price, for their beans, suggesting that these smaller chocolatiers are trying to address some of these labor and wage issues (Martin). Taza Chocolate, in particular, is known for its “Taza Direct Trade” philosophy where there is transparency for the consumer about the farmer’s wages.

Whole Foods Health.JPG
A few chocolate brands that market certain health benefits of chocolate or sugar-substitutes.

In addition to labels concerning fair prices and labor practices, there are also labels more oriented towards health-conscious consumers. For example, there was an abundance of chocolates labeled as “USDA Organic” and “Non-GMO Certified.” At CVS, there were much fewer chocolates if at all with these labels. Furthermore, many of these chocolates were labeled as “antioxidant-rich superfoods,” suggesting that chocolate is a healthy food. In addition, many chocolates marketed their sugar-free alternatives. For example, Pure7 emphasizes its use of honey as a sugar alternative.

Health and chocolate have had a long relationship, so it is unsurprising that a health-conscious store would select chocolates that tout its health benefits. The Mesoamericans (the Olmec, Maya and Aztecs) were known for their medicinal uses of cacao, which were often recorded by Europeans in the 1500s. For example, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún wrote the Florentine Codex (1590), documenting detailed cacao prescriptions for ailments such as infection, diarrhea and cough used by the Aztec (Dillinger et al.). Europeans adopted some of these medical uses and also applied their Galenic theory of hot, cold, wet, and dry onto cacao in the 1600s. Health and chocolate still have strong ties today. Most recently, in 2007, Norman Hollenberg associated chocolate with the low blood pressure in the Kuna people. However, James Howe, an anthropologist, criticizes medical research for its sometimes unilateral methods and oversimplification when dealing with communities of people (Howe 50). Lastly, some scientists have further explored the clinical benefits of chocolate some of them being: cardioprotection by improving endothelial function, enhanced antioxidant defenses, mood elevation, and anti-inflammatory effects (Castell 265).

Evaluating two different stores with different markets in terms of chocolate consumers reveals a lot about consumers’ habits. Whole Foods was, on the whole, more expensive, but had more labels and fewer added ingredients in their chocolate. However, its chocolate was more expensive, perhaps excluding those who are unable or unwilling to spend over $6 for a bar of chocolate. CVS, on the other hand, had more bulk chocolate at more affordable prices. This high price versus low price shouldn’t be the only focus, though, as high prices don’t necessarily correlate with fairer practices. For example, labeling can often be vague or unclear about its purposes and methods. Perhaps through better education about chocolate and food, one can make more socially conscious purchases as well as be aware of certain marketing ploys, whether it be in stores like CVS or stores like Whole Foods.

Works Cited

Brenner, Joël. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.

Castell, Margarida, Jean-François Bisson and Francisco Perez-Cano. “Clinical Benefits of Cocoa: An Overview.” Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Ed. Ronald Watson, Victor Preedy, and Sherma Zibadi. N.p.: Springer, n.d. 265-75. Print.

Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Print.

“Company Information, Facts & Figures.” CVS Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2016. <;.

Dillinger, Teresa, Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escárcega, Martha Jimenez, Diana Lowe, and Louis Grivetti. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition 130.8 (2000): 20575-0725. Web.

Goody, Jack. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997. 72-90. Print.

Harwell, Drew. “Hershey’s Plan to Hook Americans onto Impulse-buying Chocolate Again.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12.1 (2012): 43-52. Web.

Martin, Carla. “Haute Patisserie, Artisan Chocolate, and Food Justice: The Future?” African and African American Studies 119x Lecture. Tsai Auditorium, Cambridge. 27 Apr. 2016. Lecture.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New, 2008. Print.

“Quality Standards.” Whole Foods Market. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2016. <;.


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