Cacao: For Luxury, Flavor, or Health?

Wherever I share information about cacao, it is the Maya obsession with cacao that people find most surprising.

From religion, marriage ritual, and chokola’j drinking ceremonies to fete visiting dignitaries, to economics, agronomy, botany, and currency, to death and the afterlife, cacao was as vital as maize to ancient Mesoamerican diets.

It is understood that this importance started  with the Olmec and probably even earlier. But the cacao obsession continued for the Maya, the Aztec, and forward from there, even into the post-Columbian. There are still pockets of ritual chocolate drinkers in central America and southern Mexico, but so much knowledge has been lost to time, in this regard and others. Colonialism brought about the end of most of the native cacao plantations, as the cacao plantations throughout mesoamerica were laid waste by disease, and by the loss of aboriginal peoples who also succumbed to abuse, neglect, and disease (Ferry, 1989).

The loss of ancient expertise which spanned back over millennia after so many from the native populations were lost (Acuna-Soto, 2002; 2005), and the over-all colonial mismanagement and exploitation, eventually brought about the end of a colonial enterprise in cacao.  There was clearly a cause (the co-option by  the colonial Spanish), in depleting the widespread native stake in the cacao agronomy, and the concomitant extinction of ancient varieties and strains of cacao. It is easy to imagine that the Spanish cacao plantations, in contrast to the native Cacao forests, were hostile not only to growing healthy cacao, but also beneficial insects and any similarly symbiotic plants, bacteria and fungi that might keep pests and diseases at bay.

Fortunately there were a few Spanish colonial priests who diligently recorded so many aspects of native Mesoamerican life. And by their works we know some about the medical conditions that the American peoples used cacao for. Some of these made their way to Europe, where Europeans expanded greatly on the indications for cacao, much of it very often quackery and superstition (Coe, 1996).

karlins8-14-11

Censer Lid with Woman Holding Cacao
Guatemala, Maya, A.D. 250-450
Coastal Plain
Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City

One additional cause of surprise  for people that I visit with about cacao, is the possible myriad health benefits of consuming cacao (as dark chocolate). When I understood that the Madécasse company had found their cacao sourced in Madagascar from plantations apparently growing an old line of Criollo, there was a mix of happiness and trepidation. Happiness on learning my taste buds are discerning for having discovered this otherwise low visibility chocolate bar to be yards ahead of the rest (as far as cost, taste, and aftertaste goes). Trepidation because  of what will happen as elites jump on a criollo dark chocolate bandwagon with a well-monied vengeance. I also envision supply issues for cacao, as what was done to the subsistence grain Quinoa (Philpott, 2013).

Perhaps my trepidation is a form of misplaced paranoia, as Madécasse does not appear to compete with the overpriced much-hyped hipster founded and hipster marketed brands. Madécasse bars taste so much better than the bars I have tried at twice the price earlier, when I was experimenting with taste and price. My reasoning is that the elites will spend their money on fancy wrapping and understated marketing themes that play to ideals of exclusivity, narcissism ,and greed. Hopefully they might be leaving the plain wrapped Heirloom Madécasse bars for humbler, albeit savvier consumers. And by that route spare us related supply issues.

The company at the top of the chocolate Elite is Amedei, the Tuscan manufacturer of “The World’s Finest” chocolate. At 17 dollars a bar on Amazon.com, the Amedei bars are rightly called the “world’s most expensive” Chocolate.

It is a lovely, even elegant manufacturing facility.

But are they distinguishable from less expensive bars?

I am not well-to-do so I will not be taste testing Amedei any time soon. What I can do is contrast the Amedei marketing and branding with Madécasse’s marketing and branding. This video above, of the Amedei processing plant, is very stylish and even understated. The stylish understatement speaks volumes to a new elite sensibility around inconspicuous consumption (“Luxury Branding,” 2015).

I had become aware of the fine Amedei wares but had passed on the opportunity to purchase. To begin a contrast, I was completely unaware of the flavor bonanza in Madécasse’s bean to bar product at 5 dollars or so a bar at Whole Foods (which is why I grabbed an “Heirloom” bar) and I was very willing to try it without knowing anything about the product. I was completely aware of the luxury symbolism pre-loaded into my psyche by the pricing alone of Amedei’s product line. My stopping point has been consistently around 6 dollars when I regularly contemplate the dark chocolate display at Whole Foods.

“Generally, luxury brands increase in profitability when consumers perceive that these goods offer more value (or premium degree) than other comparable products… We’ve found that symbolic brands can be more easily exported into nonadjacent categories than functional brands and can succeed in these categories when they consistently promote their core symbolic attributes.”      Reddy, 2005

The Madécasse company has a remarkable founder story in a field replete with fairly sentimental gestures (as opposed to effective gestures) underlying the basic marketing themes that Fair Trade has come to signify (unfortunately). Two Peace Corps volunteers who worked with the corps on the Island of Madagascar off the coast of Southeast Africa, decided to start a chocolate manufacturing concern in Madagascar.

The west coast of Africa where nearly 75% of the world’s chocolate is grown, does not produce chocolate product in any measurable quantity. The founders of Madécasse, Tim McCollum and Brett Beach, went beyond the Fair Trade gesture of direct relations and direct sourcing from farmers in developing countriesin the purchasing of raw materials, and decided to manufacture the product in-situ on Madagascar. Instead of the more common practice of exporting the raw cacao to be produced in more developed countries.  (Evans, 2014)

Moving a bit beyond the caring connections idealism in Fair Trade symbologies and signifiers, such as farmer stories and founder stories, Amedei, with its implications of an inconspicuous consumption that is a signifier to elites (Eckhardt, 2015), is a stark contrast to the practically shy (by comparison) marketing themes of the Madécasse brand.

However, another complicating discovery for my consideration here, is that the Forastero cacao of a few areas in Brazil that were tested and compared to Nacional of Ecuador, and Trinitario of Venezuela and New Guinea, are highest in flavan-3-ols (Oracz, 2015) under varying roasting conditions.

And so now we have three confounding consumer ideals, the inconspicuous elite consumers  of Amedei (varietal craft chocolates), the tasty and cheap Madécasse (heirloom criollo bars), and the additional health benefits such as what might be obtained via consumption of Brazil forastero dark chocolate products.

cacaobeancomparison

The health benefits of cacao clearly show promise for the most common health issues in our times. One disease in particular which may have some treatment options with combinations of compounds found only in cacao, is Trigeminal Neuralgia (Cady, 2010). Also known as “suicide disease” trigeminal neuralgia has a severe impact on well-being by the intense and unrelenting facial pain associated. The sufferers are not always responsive to an array of treatment regimes for it, which include medications. Without relief by medication, the treatments will culminate in surgeries that may or may not work. At the end of options, the suicide disease leads to irreversible decisions of too many of its sufferers. But the likelihood of those afflicted with trigeminal neuralgia finding an avenue for relief by dietary intake of pure dark chocolate, is greatly decreased by the actions of chocolate marketing by producers.

When otherwise beneficial chocolate products are branded and publicized as either luxury, revived ancient heirlooms, or for perceptions of a rarified tastiness, the likelihood is greatly decreased that a general public realizes the benefits of cacao as a supplement that can possibly alleviate an issue so drastic as Trigeminal Neuralgia, and possibly other debilitating medical issues as well.

While it is understandable that a company will distance its products from liability for any claims of health benefits, there are still ways for chocolate producers to inform the public and enhance well-being by providing access to information as a sideline in their marketing. But if cacao producers are more concerned with taste and pricing, there is  going to be little to no energy expended on figuring out how to boost the beneficial compounds, such as might be done by a careful attention to roasting temperature and humidity.

The importance of cacao health benefits in marketing chocolate, has taken a rear seat to the luxury and taste components when it comes to marketing and branding cacao products in the form of consumable dark chocolate bars. This is an artifact of the times, where marketing and branding is imprinting tastes and compulsions with imagery, symbology, hierarchy and status; by appealing to more base human emotions and selfish drivers of human behavior. In that context, might it also be unethical to ignore the health benefits in order to reach consumers with status and hierarchy concerns, vis-a-vis developing needs for taste and status at the expense of educating about less tasty/less status, but with more health benefits?

The amount of energy and expenditure in creating branding ideals around chocolate that have less to do with its intrinsic life-improving benefits and more to do with perceptions of materialistic benefits, is truly wasted effort.

Bibliography & Works Cited

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Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

 Evans, Lisa. “How A Chocolate Company In Madagascar Overcame The Odds.” Fast Company. Mansueto Ventures, LLC, 3 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 May 2016.

Ferry, Robert J. The Colonial Elite of Early Caracas: Formation & Crisis, 1567-1767. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Print.

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Henein, Maryam. “The Future of Chocolate: Will It Turn GMO?” Truthout. Truth Out, 26 Mar. 2013. Web.

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Wielgoss, A, Y Clough, T Tscharntke, B Fiala, and A Rumede. “A Minor Pest Reduces Yield Losses by a Major Pest: Plant-Mediated Herbivore Interactions in Indonesian Cacao.” Journal of Applied Ecology. 49.2 (2012): 465-473. Print.
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