I recently interviewed a couple regarding the role of chocolate in their lives and how this has changed through time. During this interview, we discussed how their interaction with and consumption of chocolate changed significantly after they emigrated from India to America in the late 1980s. When they immigrated to America, their perception of chocolate and its relation to status and health shifted based on price and accessibility. This shift can be used to explain and predict perception of chocolate in the United States and India, depending on its quality, labor ethics and environmental sustainability. When examining this couple’s experience in the 1980s, a large discrepancy in consumption is apparent. However, analyzing their experience along with the modern industry suggests that consumption patterns in the United States and India may actually be converging.
After chocolate was introduced to Europe, it failed to gain traction of the same intensity in other parts of the world. Chocolate didn’t become popular in India, Southeast Asia or the Far East with the exception of the Philippines (a Spanish possession until 1898) (Coe&Coe 177). Many Jesuit missionaries and Portuguese businessmen in the Philippines drank chocolate drinks during this time and people in the region today still do (Coe & Coe 178). While chocolate wasn’t a popular item in India, production of chocolate in India actually existed well before either the man or woman I interviewed was born. In 1906-1907, there was an Indian Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition at Calcutta. In this exhibition, Indian chocolates made by companies like Soyaji Chocolate Manufacturing Company Ltd. were exhibited along with milk and milk powder (Ray 24). Therefore, Indian chocolate companies did exist, yet their products were not very accessible to the public.
When the people I interviewed were growing up in India in the 1960s and 1970s, they had limited access to chocolate. I was surprised to hear that the woman had not tried chocolate until she was around 18 years old and the man when he was around 10 years old. Although she didn’t consume chocolate as a child, she would eat toffee candies, which were called chocolate. This misnomer indicates that knowledge of and desire for chocolate were not barriers to consumption, rather availability was. One of the major concepts that we covered in class was a significant disparity in consumption of chocolate across the world. This interview highlights this difference in amount of chocolate consumed across the world, as children growing up in the United States have most likely tried chocolate at a younger age.
In the limited chocolate market that existed, Cadbury had almost a complete monopoly. In fact, the only brand that this couple remembers seeing growing up was Cadbury, a British company. Cadbury began operating in India in 1948, using imported chocolate. This early introduction of Cadbury influenced the market of chocolate in India, also creating a strong brand recognition. Even today, it has above 65-70% of the market share in Indian chocolate, with a slew of popular products including Cadbury Dairy Milk and Perk.
The fact that Cadbury, a British company, had, and still has, such a large share of the market, is reflective of India’s earlier colonial ties to Britain. Although cacao production in India isn’t significant on a global scale, there is substantial production of sugar cane, which is essential for chocolate products. Sugar itself also has colonial ties. Following the abolition of slavery, Britain brought Indian workers to grow sugar, a highly labor intensive crop, in the British West Indies (Mintz 70). With this trend, we see a dichotomy between consumption and production emerge. It is particularly interesting to note that the type of sugar often consumed by people in producing regions was unrefined, not white sugar (which was processed and consumed elsewhere) (Mintz xxi-xxii). This was also reflected in my interview. The couple say that they prefer brown sugar to white sugar in terms of taste and usage (as jaggery) in cooking. This varied consumption of sugar across the globe corresponds to different chocolate consumption patterns, particularly between India and United States in the 1980s, as seen in this interview.
Due to a lack of accessibility, consumption of chocolate remained low in the 1960 and 1970s. For this couple, these factors, as well as a higher cost, meant that chocolate was often considered a luxury item- one that was a symbol of higher economic status. Moving to America, this perception changed. The couple encountered a wide array of different brands of chocolate and chocolate products- ones that I also recognize today- including Hershey’s bars, Snickers, Kit Kat etc. Chocolate was available in multiple forms, all at a low cost. This shift in chocolate consumption from the wealthy to the masses mirrors consumption patterns in Europe after chocolate was introduced. Sophie & Michael Coe, in their book, The True History of Chocolate, write that for over 28 centuries, chocolate was considered a drink for the elite, yet it eventually became a solid food for all. Following the French Revolution, the Church lost legitimacy and authority, dismantling much of the aristocracy’s credence in Catholic Europe. This social upset, coupled with the Industrial Revolution, which greatly lowered the costs associated with producing chocolate, meant that chocolate became a cheap food that all social classes could consume (Coe & Coe 235-236).
Following this shift in accessibility and price, this couple began consuming chocolate in much larger quantities than they did in India. For them, chocolate was no longer a symbol of status, it was commonplace. Although, they both began to consume additional chocolate, it is interesting to note that they did so at varying levels. The woman consumes more chocolate than the man does, and when he does consume chocolate, he mostly does so when she purchases it. This variation in chocolate consumption fits with the gendered advertising of most chocolate companies.
Women are the primary consumers and buyers of chocolate and often the target audience of advertisements. Chocolate companies have a long history of trying to appeal to women. For example, Rowntree chocolate in the early 1900s marketed its products towards women in a number of ways. For certain products, they used the image of a “high society woman” who is rich, in the hopes that women either identify with the image or aspire to achieve it (Robertson 26). In advertisements, there is generally a strong connection between class and chocolate. Companies projected an image of chocolate as a status symbol, even encouraging people to serve their guests chocolate drinks (Robertson 26). This image similar to the perception that the couple had when living in India. Additionally, products like Black Magic and Dairy Box, while mass produced at lower cost still had some luxury appeal (Robertson 29). This marketing strategy attempts to appeal to contradictory perceptions of chocolate in the same product. More recently, the industry has separated these perceptions in a diversified market. In advertising and branding, women are often the subject of messages and are almost always the intended audience.
In the United States, we are starting to see a return of chocolate as almost an economic status symbol (which it was for this couple when they were living in India) with products labeled as Fair Trade or Organic Certified. These products, which claim to either be more beneficial for farmers or the environment (or both) command a higher market price. Therefore, in the United States, there has been a diversification of chocolate- both cheaper “junk” chocolate and expensive “ethical” chocolate exist in tandem. This trend is also emerging in India, although the chocolate industry overall is much larger in the United States than India. A relatively new bean to bar India based company, Mason & Co serves as a case study for this phenomenon. The company currently works directly with three farms and claims that money goes directly to these farmers not intermediaries. They want to involve farmers and work with them to improve farming practices and taste since they typically don’t have a stake in chocolate post-harvest (for example, through the fermentation and drying process) All three farms are IMO Organic Certified and India Organic Certified and one is also USDA Organic Certified. The farms also grow the cacao trees along with coconut trees, nutmeg and pepper. Therefore, the type of image the company puts forth is one of environmental sustainability. With the current crop growing conditions, the company is avoiding monoculture and is instead pursuing an ecologically diverse farm. Organic foods indicate no pesticide, which is seen as better for the environment and is also associated with consumer health. On their website, Mason & Co tout cacao as a “superfood” that is rendered unhealthy by the addition of milk, sugar and “compound” (similar to vegetable fat and replaces cocoa butter) in typical Indian chocolates. The company attempts to offer an alternative to this type of chocolate that is both better for the environment and consumer health. As mentioned above, these types of certifications often come at a higher price. For example, a 70g 70% sea salt dark chocolate bar, pictured below costs Rs 295. For comparison, a 60g Cadbury Dairy Milk bar costs Rs 65.
While this specific company does not have Fair Trade certification, it is possible that they may in the future or other bean to bar companies will. Ndongo Samba Sylla writes, in his book, The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich, that India has 56 Fair Trade Certifications (as of 2009), primarily for products like cotton and tea, items he describes as “exotic oddities” for the region (Sylla 217). Therefore, chocolate, similarly not an item that is exported in large numbers from India, may also be a product associated with Fair Trade certification on a large scale in the future. Since this type of chocolate is more expensive and the targeted consumers are generally wealthier, it is seen as almost a status of economic wealth. Therefore, the same perception of chocolate as a status symbol that this couple experienced, still exists in India, through a different type of product.
Alongside the development of bean to bar companies like this, cheaper chocolate is also becoming increasingly available in India. Recently Cadbury has introduced very low prices for certain products. They are selling at Rs 5 for Cadbury Dairy Milk, Rs 7 for Perk and Rs 6 for Five Star, in an attempt to reach a broader base of people. In this way, in both the United States and India, there is a diversified market for chocolate. On one end of the spectrum, cheap products attempt to appeal to large number of people and on the other, “ethical” and expensive chocolate aims to appeal to a certain, wealthier cohort of consumers. While this couple associated chocolate with wealth in India and upon moving to America, began to perceive it as ordinary, as time has progressed a different trend is emerging. In both countries, chocolate is contradictorily coming to be associated as both an expensive and cheap item through a diversification of products.
This contradictory nature of chocolate does not exist solely for wealth; it extends to and is often tied to perceptions of health as well. Now that this couple has been consuming chocolate for several years, they view chocolate as more of a “junk food.” Throughout history, chocolate has been described as both healthy and unhealthy. Chocolate drinks were widely consumed among the Maya and the Aztec, often seen as a stimulant with several significant health benefits. However, one myth also warns against consumption of cacao. In the myth, an elder says that “those foods will bring death” and a goddess says that “this is what has burdened you” in reference to chocolate. (Coe & Coe 79-80). The introduction of chocolate to Europe also came with health questions and remedies. Cocoa powder was seen as a meal replacement for children (Martin). In 1591, Juan de Cárdenas wrote that “green” chocolate would hurt digestion and cause melancholy, paroxysms and irregular heartbeats but that roasted cacao is sustaining and aids digestion (Coe & Coe 124) Today, chocolate is mainly paired along with other high sugar foods as an unhealthy food option. However, recent studies have tried to advocate for increased consumption of cacao. One study, in particular, led by Dr. Norman Hollenberg, looked at the Kuna people (indigenous to Panama) who had very low blood pressure levels and attributed this to their consumption of chocolate drinks (Howe). Although this study has been criticized, especially in its portrayal of the Kuna people and their diets (Howe), it speaks to contradictory perceptions of chocolate as being both healthy and unhealthy in today’s society. Today, in general, cheaper chocolate is perceived to be unhealthy and more expensive chocolate is perceived as healthier. As mentioned above, companies like Mason & Co claim that their products are all-natural healthy alternatives to the typical chocolate products on the market. Therefore, perceptions of health and wealth are linked, each existing in contradictory forms.
When this couple immigrated to America from India around 30 years ago, their perception of chocolate changed from a status of economic wealth to a cheap, junk food. Today, in the United States, chocolate that is expensive and healthy as well as chocolate that is considered unhealthy and cheap exist concurrently. The same phenomenon is also appearing in India as well, albeit on a smaller scale since the chocolate market is smaller in India than in the United States. When this couple immigrated, perceptions of chocolate were very different in the United States and India, but an analysis of the market today suggests that chocolate’s role may be converging in the two countries.
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Martin, Carla. Lecture 5, Slide 43
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