The history of chocolate and its relation to society is long and full of dichotomies, some true, and some false: the use of chocolate by Aztec male soldiers and nobility as an energizing, strengthening elixir in preparing for battles, while women grinded and prepared the cacao (Coe); the consumption of chocolate drinks by European aristocrats, while those of lower classes were could not really afford indulging in tea, coffee, and cacao beverages (Coe); advertisements where women do the chocolate-indulging and men are the providers who gift it; chocolate as a healthy superfood or chocolate as an evil, sugary cavity-causing agent (Martin, Lecture 7, Slide 28). These are just some of the instances in the history of chocolate where there are binary instances in who is eating chocolates and what kinds of chocolate consumers can eat.
With my new background surrounding the culture, history, and food politics of chocolate products from class, I went into Harvard Square to examine what the stores there had to offer. Two of the shops that I explored sold a wide variety of products. I noticed the stores seemed to offer two very different sorts of chocolate- a dichotomy in chocolate price, quality, and social-consciousness. This observation is based on just a glance at the labels and the price tags at the chocolates sold at the two different stores: CVS and Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe. Considering the labels and inconsistencies between them, however, I found that there was no binary in chocolate quality between the two stores, but that each offered an array of production process differences to consider.
Big 5, Small Prices:
I first browsed the chocolate offerings at the Harvard Square CVS on the corner of Brattle Street. CVS arranged their chocolates in two different sections. Through the aisles of the store, on a shelf facing the back wall was a small shelf labeled “Premium Chocolate.” On this shelf, there were a dozen or so types of chocolates, composed of fewer brands than the other “non-Premium” chocolate shelves of the store contain. About six feet away, in the direction of the register, is a second panel of chocolate bars, not labeled “Premium.”
CVS’s “Premium” assortment of chocolates.
CVS does not spell out what Premium actually means, and how the chocolates on the “Premium” shelf differ from the others. To me, the difference seems to be defined by the brands of chocolate: Ghiradelli, Lindt, and Ferrero Rochers, which all have more decadent images on their gold and metallic-hued wrappers than the loud and bibrant wrappers in CVS’s second chocolate section. The bars in the “Premium Chocolate” section are pricier, also, but only by a few dollars.
The CVS chocolates, made up of inexpensive impulse buys and the more expensive “Premium” Chocolates, which I found were still not as costly as the chocolate products in Cardullo’s, were not always the cheap, industrialized foods they are on these shelves. Once a luxury reserved for drinking in elite chocolate houses in Europe, the price of chocolate was driven down by industrialization of the chocolate production process. Chocolate making began as a laborious process, the ability to mechanically winnow, mill, and conch in chocolate making made cacao products a more easy-to-make and available foodstuff, driving down the price (Martin, Lecture 5, Slide 66).
Moreover, the less expensive chocolate products of CVS were mostly products of the “Big 5.” The Big 5 are mainly composed of enormous food companies that have dominated in the chocolate industry for centuries. They include Ferrero, Nestlé, Cadbury, Hershey, and Mars (Allen, 7). Each company has its own unique historic roots that make it a well-established and sought-out brand. The five complete with one another for power in the chocolate market, driving down the cost of their products. These corporations do not label where their chocolate comes from, and bulk cacao can come from many sources, often through middle men who make an unfair share of the pay coming from bigger chocolate producers (Martin, Lecture 10, Slide 42). As a result, those who shop for Ferrero, Nestlé, Cadbury, Hershey, and Mars get these outstandingly low prices, like those I found at CVS, but sacrifice the knowing social consciousness of smaller chocolate producers, who often pinpoint on wrappers where their cacao is from. Because the cacao is sourced from many different places and obtained using these “middle men,” it is less likely that these bigger companies have long-term relationships with the cacao farmers they are using, and there is no way the “Big 5” can make sure the farmers themselves are being fairly paid for their work in the cocoa supply chain (Martin, Lecture 10).
Furthermore, child labor has been accounted as an issue in parts of West Africa where farmers depend on cacao as a livelihood (Off, 130). In some instances, young boys help of farms as a way to assist the family, but when labor is physically injurious and keeps children from school or a normal childhood, these farming sources are problematic and unethical (Martin, Lecture 8, Slide 49). By not properly and informatively labeling chocolates or certifying them in some way to warn customers, there is no way of knowing who farmed the cacao in the bar or how those people were paid, even if evidence of child labor on cacao farms is varied (Ryan, 47). Still, even in the 21st century it is a consideration for chocolate consumers to think about.
The chocolates at CVS are all ones that I recognized by name. As is the nature of chain stores, the CVS candy selection was not different at all from that of other CVS stores I had been to. Moreover, the products are ones I have been exposed to at cash registers, on TV, in magazines, and all around my in advertising from a very young age. An important part of the business of these major chocolate companies is a cradle-to-grave loyalty established with consumers of chocolate from a very young age (Martin, Lecture 7, Slide 20). By going into CVS, customers are guaranteed to find brands that they know well and most likely have been exposed to over time.
The CVS selection overall was quite different from that of Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe. Its selection offered familiar, inexpensive chocolate bars produced by major well-established food corporations was a trade off for the possible unethical qualities along the chocolate production line, which could not really be indicated to the uneducated chocolate consumer buying at CVS. I did, however find one instance of more “ethical” chocolate at CVS. Among the shelves of non-”Premium” chocolate, there was a brand of chocolate called “Endangered Species Chocolate.” This bar was a stark contrast from all others at CVS, which had no ethical chocolate certifications, and instead advertised that its contents are “Fairtrade,” “Non-GMO Verified,” “Certified Gluten Free,” and “Certified Vegan.” This stood out to me as an indication that not all of the chocolate at CVS is evil and corporate (in fact, chocolate being affordable and accessible is a great thing about the CVS candy selection, it just comes with supply chain trade offs to consider). CVS offered the majority of certification-free, big corporation candy bars, but definitely had something to offer for customers looking for another, perhaps more informative option.
Endangered Species Chocolate was an enormous contrast the the other chocolate bars I found at CVS. It had lots of informational certifications on the wrapper, and was still much less expensive than most of the Cardullo’s options.
A “Gourmet” Selection:
Across the street, at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, there is a very different selection of chocolate offerings. Cardullo’s is not a chain store like CVS. The store sells all sorts of specialty gourmet foods, including candy, syrup, tea, coffee, seasonings, and wine. On the store’s left wall, is their panel labeled “Chocolate.” The shelves are taller than me by a few feet, and it seems that the chocolate selection is wider than CVS’s selection. The wrappings and brands enveloping the candies are all less loudly colorful than the candies I saw in CVS. Overall, the chocolates are less familiar to my eyes- not the brands I find at my supermarket in my home town. None of these candies are produced by any of the “Big 5” corporations represented in CVS. Anyone shopping for chocolates at Cardullo’s has to be willing to spend more than they might at CVS. The prices here are higher, between seven and thirty dollars. Part of this is because not many of the chocolates sold at Cardullo’s are from the “Big 5” corporate chocolate manufacturers. Many are instead from smaller chocolate companies that emphasize an assortment of certifications on their labels, which indicate the chocolates are “Fairtrade,” “Non GMO Project Verified,” “Certified Gluten Free,” and “USDA Organic” among other things.
A picture of just some of the diverse selection of chocolates Cardullo’s had to offer.
These are what separate the chocolates at Cardullo’s from the chocolates at CVS. I could conclude two things a customer might be looking in chocolate here: more “ethical” chocolates, and chocolates that have some “health benefits.” Many of the products emphasized, right on the wrappers, where the cacao came from, empowering Cardullo’s customers with the ability to decide about single-source chocolate and the kind of relationship the chocolate company has the the cacao farmers. Often times, these smaller chocolate companies have more direct relationships with the farmers and offer long-term business to them, as well as fair working wages. Still, chocolate with higher prices can mean that the middle man is being paid more also, and that the farmer’s wages are not being increased as much as a customer thinks (Martin, Lecture 10, Slide 9). So while there is this ethical choice customers at Cardullo’s are able to make, unclarity and inconsistency in the way the chocolate is labeled obfuscates this decision.
A fair trade certification on food labels, like this, lets customers know that the workers in the farming and production process of the food they are purchasing were paid fair wages, still there are other similar certifications and sorting out their meaning in relation to each other can be a lot for customers to consider.
Of course, just like at CVS, there were exceptions to the surface idea that one store has better or more ethical chocolate than the other. Cardullo’s had an enormous selection of Cadbury chocolates. Cadbury is included in the Big 5 so prominently marketed at CVS. The Cadbury chocolates, unlike many of the chocolates from smaller companies at Cardullo’s, did not have any fair trade certifications or special health labels. A customer at Cardullo’s buying the Cadbury chocolates there would be less sure of the origins and contents of the chocolate than if he or she were buying and of the Taza chocolate or Chuao chocolate. Just like CVS had options outside of the Big 5 majority on its shelves, Cardullo’s offered Cadbury chocolates free of labels indicating any superfood or healthy benefits to the candy or socially conscious certifications, so neither store sold exclusively chocolate from either sort of company, and even within these companies are more differences in food content and social responsibility.
While certainly confusing and perhaps in need of some sort of standardization to help customers decide what chocolate they would like to buy, the selection at Cardullo’s does offer more information for customers to consider according to their values in a way the Reese’s, Snickers, and 3 Musketeer’s of the CVS shelves do not. In this way, the Cardullo’s customer is seemingly more empowered and aware of the social consequences of the chocolate they buy. Still, there are chocolate options at Cardullo’s that are from Big 5 chocolate companies and chocolate that does not include fair trade certifications or informations about the cacao’s origins. Moreover, while CVS was filled with familiar big brand chocolate bars, customers looking for more “ethical” chocolate there will not be at a complete loss.
Additionally, besides considering the stores themselves based on their offerings, the companies cannot be properly compared using any kind of binary. Bigger chocolate companies are often placed into this role with their cacao sources where the corporation is the exploiter and the farmers are being exploited. However, there are many parts to the problems in unethical chocolate. Its continuation on shelves can be attributed to consumer action, government regulations, the cultures in the communities the cacao comes from, and relationships between countries that trade cacao (Martin, Lecture 8, Slide 22). It is a complex and important problem which cannot be blamed solely on the Big 5 or CVS. Customers of Cardullo’s and CVS can help chocolate move in the ethical direction by educating themselves in social problems surrounding cacao and using that to their power in buying.
In considering the manifold options while buying chocolate bars and candies, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration. For many, price is one of the most important considerations, and companies that purchase bulk cacao like Hershey and Mars are the sought out options. Beyond price, chocolate buyers can be provided with information about the ingredient origins, the company’s relationships with farmers, and nutritional details to consider. This is a lot to think about, and until there is some standardized certifications or rating across all chocolate labels for customers to read and compare, it makes buying “better chocolate” pretty tricky. Because of these inconsistencies in labeling and certification, as well as evidence of chocolate from both major chocolate producers and smaller companies in both stores, the binary “good chocolate/bad chocolate” that I had first considered upon glancing over the stores’ selection was rejected. Instead, Harvard Square’s chocolate destinations offer an assortment of options that customers who know about chocolate quality and food politics must consider for themselves and their own values.
Allen, Lawrence L. “Chocolate Fortunes.” New York: AMACOM, 2009. Print.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Print.
Martin, Carla. Lecture 5.
Martin, Carla. Lecture 7.
Martin, Carla. Lecture 8.
Martin, Carla. Lecture 10.
Off, Carol. “Bitter Chocolate The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet.” New York: The New Press, 2008. Print.
Ryan, Orla. “Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa.” New York: Zed Books, 2011. Print.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fairtrade-logo.jpg (Fair Trade logo)
(All other images taken by the author)