On Sunday, May 1st 2016 I interviewed a woman by the name of Martina about her memories of, experiences with, preferences for, and decisions regarding chocolate. I didn’t ask very many questions, but we spoke for a little over an hour as she provided rich descriptions and recollections in her answers. Over the course of the interview it became apparent that Martina has an almost uniformly positive mental association with chocolate. This is a particularly strong association as she engages with chocolate on a daily basis. Indeed, it is this powerful link of chocolate to pleasure and happiness for Martina that had prevented or at least dissuaded her from considering any negative aspects of chocolate production and trade.
When asked about her first chocolate-related memory, Martina spoke about the chocolate egg that she received on Easter when she was very young.
“When I was about 6 or so I got this enormous chocolate egg from the Easter bunny. It must have been about 6 by 3 inches. It was this beautiful egg that had coconut cream on the inside, chocolate enrobing the coconut, and then my name written in cursive on the outside of the egg. I wanted to eat it right away, but I also wanted to look at it because it had my name and was so beautiful. So I ended up setting it aside and went with my family to the UU church. When we returned, my dog had eaten it. I was heartbroken. But it is still this wonderful memory of having this beautiful chocolate creation that was mine.”
Martina also commented on her favorite treats at the time and the sweets on which she would spend her allowance money, showing that she valued chocolate highly at an early age.
“I always loved chocolate. I would always spend allowance money on food, especially chocolate. And it was so foreign to me that best friend growing up didn’t like it! I still don’t understand it… Anyway, I remember often spending my money on Mallow Cups. They looked like Reese’s peanut butter cups but with marshmallow instead of peanut butter inside. I don’t remember if there were jokes or tokens on the cardboard cards under the mallow cups, but there was also some sort of additional incentive to buying them. I remember that kids collected them. When I was older and had more allowance money, I would go spend all of it on English Toffee at John Wanamaker’s department store – I think I was able to purchase a quarter pound or so. That toffee with milk chocolate and almonds on outside – so good.”
Some other memories that Martina readily recalls revolve around chocolate in different forms:
“I really didn’t have a preference when it came to chocolate – I loved eating it any which way. One of the first things I learned how to cook was a batch of chocolate meringues – delicious. I also really liked chocolate ice cream. I would always love going over to my friend Samantha’s house because her father worked for Breyers and they always had great chocolate ice cream. But one of my most memorable childhood experiences was eating a 10 gallon container of chocolate, chocolate chip ice cream with my four brothers. My dad had been driving behind an ice cream truck on his way back from work, when the tub of ice cream fell off. This was before they had fancy ice cream flavors in grocery stores, so this was some sort of specialty flavor that you could only get in ice cream parlors.”
From these memories it is clear that throughout Martina’s childhood she developed an extremely strong relationship with chocolate and still has these very fond recollections of her experience with friends, family, and chocolate. As she put it: “thinking about it now, it seems like most of my favorite memories and stories deal with chocolate.” This observation is telling, as Martina has formed strong positive associations with chocolate due to her enjoyable memories with the good.
Martina’s fond experiences with chocolate are not only in the past, in fact they happen on a daily basis. When I asked Martina when she had last consumed chocolate and about how regularly she consumes it, she responded “about an hour ago” and “I would say that in a month, there is only a day or two that I go without eating chocolate.”
When I gave an involuntary “wow” in surprise, Martina responded:
“I know it sounds excessive, but I normally eat chocolate in moderation. I am able to do so because I find a small amount so satisfying. I really like that about chocolate. But if I am going to indulge in something that I know is not great for me, it is likely going to be a chocolate dessert. When I go to a dinner or some sort of social gathering, people often expect me to bring a chocolate dessert because they know how much I like it.”
Martina said that the chocolate that she consumes now is different from the types of chocolate that she consumed as a kid. She doesn’t like candy bars and now prefers “chocolate in more of a darker and purer form.” These “darker and purer” chocolates that she consumes on a daily basis are either Dove’s Silky Smooth Promises or Hershey’s Bliss (images shown below). When I asked why she came to like these chocolates and if she had seen them advertised she responded that she really liked the smoothness and taste of the chocolates, but really wasn’t exposed to much chocolate advertising at all.
Perhaps ironically, not being exposed to chocolate advertising could actually be beneficial to Martina’s positive image of chocolate. This is because she is not encountering the overtly sexualized language and imagery that is often used to sell chocolate products. This link between chocolate and sex was especially pushed in advertisements for luxury chocolates (Robertson, 2009). This tactic was most popular during the first three-fourths of the twentieth century, but it remains in use to this day (Robertson, 2009).
In addition to liking the flavor of these dark chocolates, Martina also states that she enjoys the health benefits that they provide: “I know that dark chocolate is good for me, so it is sorta like a health food. I mean that in terms of eating a couple pieces of dark chocolate every day. Not a big slice of chocolate cake with ice cream.”
This association that Martina makes between “moderate” chocolate consumption and good health is quite common. Yet, claims of chocolate’s health food properties are mostly misleading, if not inaccurate. Unprocessed cocoa powder does contain flavanol compounds that have been shown to have beneficial antioxidant and cardiovascular benefits (Fisher and Hollenberg, 2005). However, most chocolate undergoes extensive processing and does not retain these health benefits (Hollenberg and Fisher, 2007). Dutch processing, which treats cocoa with alkali to neutralize its acidity, is one process that robs cocoa of many of its beneficial flavanols (“Heart-Health”, 2012).
But even then, the health benefits derived from consuming flavanol-rich chocolate are likely exaggerated as well. Dr. Norman Hollenberg, a radiologist at Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, greatly exaggerates the amount of cocoa consumed by the Kuna, an indigenous population of Panama. He attributes their good vascular health to drinking “at least 5 cups of cocoa with extraordinarily high flavanol-content each day” and drinking this almost exclusively (Hollenberg and Fisher, 2007). In fact, anthropologists have not found cocoa beverage consumption to be this extensive or this exclusive. The Kuna consume many different types of drinks and have a multitude of different commercial beverages available to them (Howe, 2012). Additionally, the claim that the coastal Kuna exclusively consume flavanol-rich chocolate is likely inaccurate. The availability of commercially-produced chocolate and its use in the preparation of chocolate drinks means that the amount of flavanol consumption is less than what Hollenberg makes it out to be (Howe, 2012). Thus, it is unlikely that their excellent vascular health is due to massive, exclusive consumption of favanol-rich chocolate.
Thus, Martina is enjoying chocolate on a daily basis, and believing that the chocolate that she is eating is healthy for her. Although the health benefits that she thinks her Dove and Hershey chocolates contain are doubtful, the repeated pleasurable experience of consuming the chocolate and the added psychological boost of doing something to improve her health, further reinforce an aura of positivity around chocolate.
ENGAGING WITH THE ISSUES?
Even experiences that might have caused Martina to think about the production of chocolate and possible negative aspects, were overtaken by positive associations. She recalled her experience of seeing a cacao farm for the first time and thinking about the production of chocolate:
“I was on my honeymoon in St. Lucia and I saw a cacao plantation and thought it was very interesting. I hadn’t thought about the growing process before and where chocolate came from.”
The cacao plantation interests her but the joy and love associated with the honeymoon is the predominant sentiment that comes through when she describes the experience. She does not mention labor conditions or ecological considerations. I then asked Martina if she knew why she hadn’t thought about the production of chocolate before and if she currently has any concerns when making chocolate purchasing decisions.
“Hmmmm I am not really sure. I guess I just feel so far removed from the production of it that I hadn’t really considered the growing process. And I don’t really have any social or biological considerations in mind when I buy chocolate….. even though I probably should. I try to be conscious of what I eat. I get local vegetables, grass-fed meat (and little of it), cage-free eggs. I have done some reading about food health and environmental costs of food production, but I don’t think about it as much with chocolate. I think it might be because I can’t get locally-sourced chocolate. I feel like I don’t have as much control over what types I can get. And with the amount that I eat, I don’t think about if it is sustainably harvested on a daily basis. But I do appreciate getting that information when it is available.”
I found this response by Martina fascinating because it shows that she is normally a conscious consumer. She is invested in learning about where her food comes from and the impact of buying and eating certain products. She then acts on this information and buys in a manner consistent with her beliefs. It is then especially interesting that her careful purchasing of food items does not extend to chocolate. She suggests that this may be because of a lack of information – without having good knowledge about what types of chocolates are best for the environment and best for the farm workers, it is difficult to make a good choice.
I then asked her if she buys chocolate other than the Dove and Hershey individually wrapped chocolates, and she responded:
“When I buy for other people I am buying a nice chocolate. A good quality chocolate. It can be a little overwhelming even because there are such vast arrays. So sometimes I go by pretty packaging haha. Well, as long as there is something interesting about it – single source, or sustainably harvested, or fair trade. For example, I bought a range of chocolates (both in brand and chocolate percentage) to give to my brother for his birthday so that he could sample the different types. Some were single source, others were fair trade.”
It seems from this response that, for Martina, labels like “free trade” and “single source” are terms that add intrigue and a sense of high quality, rather than terms that could indicate the farming conditions, good pay, or positive social impact. Rather than mention buying fair trade as a way to, for example, combat the mistreatment of children working small plots of in West Africa, it is something that adds to the packaging and makes the bar an “interesting” purchase (Berlan 2013). Child slavery is a serious issue in some places, with evidence of children not being paid, often missing school, and some being made to do strenuous, dangerous work (Berlan, 2013; Off, 2008; Ryan, 2011). This is just one of many ethical considerations, but her inability to grapple with these types of issues stems from her ingrained positive relationship with chocolate and lack of good alternatives.
For Martina, deeply thinking about the chocolate that she consumes would mean questioning the fond memories that she has and the continual joy that she receives from consuming it daily. It would also mean changing her purchasing habits (as she has done with her vegetables, dairy, fruit, and meat). In fact, it is precisely because she acts on these environmental and health considerations when it comes to other foods that investigating chocolate would lead to an unfavorable outcome for her.
She makes the important point that getting good information about the production of chocolate is difficult, and there are few companies that have that knowledge and are transparent with it. Restricting herself to only buying from companies that share this knowledge publicly would greatly constrain her purchasing options and significantly increase the price she pays for chocolate. Her awareness that it would be nearly impossible to pivot her chocolate consumption to a different, more transparent brand at the levels that she consumes it, prevents her from engaging with the ethical side of chocolate production.
Martina’s experience is probably not that different from that of many people in the U.S.. Chocolate is ubiquitous in the United States and this prevalence has led many of us to develop a love for it. I doubt any member of “Chocolate and the Politics of Food” would support companies and operations that involve exploitative practices. But without access to good information about the nature of production of our favorite chocolates, what options do we have? It is certainly easier to switch to sustainable and ethical products in areas of life where they are readily accessible, than to give up a product you love.
Berlan, Amanda. “Social sustainability in agriculture: An anthropological perspective on child labour in cocoa production in Ghana.” The Journal of Development Studies 49.8 (2013): 1088-1100.
Fisher, Naomi DL, and Norman K. Hollenberg. “Flavanols for cardiovascular health: the science behind the sweetness.” Journal of hypertension 23.8 (2005): 1453-1459.
“Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate.” Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic, Jan. 2012. Web. 01 May 2016. <http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/heart/prevention/nutrition/food-choices/benefits-of-chocolate>.
Hollenberg, Norman K., and Naomi DL Fisher. “Is it the dark in dark chocolate?.” Circulation 116.21 (2007): 2360-2362.
Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica 12.1 (2012): 43.
Off, Carol. Bitter chocolate: Investigating the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet. Vintage Canada, 2010.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
Ryan, Orla. Chocolate nations: Living and dying for cocoa in West Africa. Zed books, 2011.