The invasion of adulterated chocolate mirrors the collapse of the middle class.
As the world edges its way into the future, there is a new set of economic realities that has been introduced to the common middle-class American which has the startling tendency to imply that the middle-class is not only shrinking, but may be an endangered species altogether (“Endangered,” 2015, p. 1). It is not just a feeling that your money is not going as far as it used to or that your grocery bill is higher than you remember it being. The truth is that the average person in the United States has lost much of their purchasing power in the last decade: higher education, health car, housing, child care, retirement costs have risen by more than $12,000 from 2000-2012(“Squeeze,” 2014, p. 1), while incomes have remained stagnant, or in some cases, in decline. If you are a food producer, you have no doubt been faced with the choice of either raising your prices in order to court a more upscale clientele, or to cut quality in order to keep your prices in line with expectations. So it is within the world of chocolate and chocolate derivatives. What is a chocolate derivative? You have probably tasted one; they lurk in the common mass-produced chocolate bars ubiquitous in the states. One of these derivatives is the coco powder/vegetable oil combination.
Cocoa powder (the cocoa solids separated from the cocoa butter): One removes the cocoa butter from the solids, saves it, and then recombines the two in a prescribed ratio so as to control the physical and flavor (including mouthfeel) characteristics of the final product.
The United States Food and Drug Administration loose translation: you may call chocolate “chocolate” when (at least 10% by weight ratio of the solids to the cocoa butter) cocoa powder is recombined with cocoa butter for the final product. Critically, if you recombine your cocoa powder with any number of cheaper vegetable oils, you get two things: one, you get a cheaper final product cost, and, two, you no longer get to use the term “chocolate” anymore (“FDA,” 2015, p. 1).
Many large U.S. confection makers have opted for catchy names like “chocolicious”, “chocolate flavored”, and “chocolate candy” to cover up their choice to reduce the price of production. Interestingly, along with simply raising prices and keeping quality ingredients at status quo, there has been a move to cater to the upscale chocolate enthusiast by introducing non-traditional ingredients into their products in order to cash in on the perceived higher-value/health-giving qualities of these “enhanced” chocolate products. Ultimately, there seems to be a correlation between the declining purchasing power of the middle-class in the U.S. and the decline in the quality/cost of ingredients in chocolate-themed confections. Furthermore, there seems to be a growing set of Americans who have prospered financially in this time frame, and there is a correlated spike in high-end chocolate products for them as well. In one case, the decline in traditional ingredients is now so far from the original product specifications, that it is no longer legal to call it chocolate, and in the other case, the added ingredients and processes have also taken the original product ingredients far from traditional products.
Is it simply that business decisions are being made in order to maximize profit or is there a subtle trend away from traditional chocolate products that will continue into the future–a future in which you may no longer recognize the chocolate products you grew up with?
Fortunately, it is quite simple to point to the decline of the purchasing power of the middle-class and the correlated decline of the real (as in legal to call “chocolate”) chocolate products–but first, a few definitions. What is a “real” chocolate bar? Technically speaking, in order to make a chocolate bar, all you need is four ingredients: cacao paste, sugar, cocoa butter and lecithin. If you like, you can add vanilla for a total of five ingredients. One could argue the details of what goes into a “standard” chocolate bar, but for the purposes set out, we will call this the baseline chocolate bar and continue.
It’s 2007 and the housing market bubble collapse is hitting the mass media. Over the next two years, the economy loses over six trillion dollars in value (“Bubble,” 2014, p. 1). What time is it? Time to reduce the costs of chocolate production. In 2008, America’s middle class faces median household income drops ($1,175) and increased expenses ($2,195), thus reducing median disposable income significantly (“On the Edge,” 2008, p. 1). It is at this time that the U.S. got its first taste of “unchocolate”, or chocolate that violates the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s definition of what can legally be called “Chocolate”. Americans are treated to “cocoa butter free” chocolate products (cocoa butter being responsible for giving chocolate its highly desirable creamy texture). Products such as Whatchamacallit, Milk Duds, Mr. Goodbar and Krackel lost their milk chocolate coatings, and Hershey’s Kissables were now labeled “chocolate candy” instead of “milk chocolate.”(“Chocoholics,” 2008, p. 1). Here, a clear correlation between economic hard times and cheaper chocolate ingredients can be seen–but what about the one percent-ers? They certainly are affected by this degradation of chocolate’s quality too, but they will become the lucky benefactors of new and very expensive innovations in chocolate.
In 2008, in their quest to court the ever more fabulously rich, chocolate makers looked to take advantage of the wealth being consolidated by those on the long end of the stick in the great depression by wooing them with heretofore unheard-of chocolate fantasies.
While the rich did suffer income decline in the great depression, it is noteworthy to mention that on the upswing of the economy over 95% of the incomes gained were reserved for those inside the one percent (those Americans who earn from $135,000-$350,00 and up–depending on your age (Thompson, 2014, p. 1)). That’s a lot of money hanging around for an enterprising chocolatier. The market responded. Let’s take a look at an extreme example. Instead of dumbing down the ingredients, Sacred Chocolate Company (perfectly timing their founding in 2006) began to offer such magical delights as “raw”(chocolate that has been processed without high heat–less than 115 degrees Fahrenheit) (“Different,” 2016, p. 1)). This move toward more expensive processes and exotic terminology mirrored perfectly the new raw food movement (Adams, 2008, p. 1) and, while innovative, was only the beginning for Sacred Chocolate’s marketing arm.
Witness the extremes this company goes to in order to upscale its chocolate products:
- Slowly stone ground (keeping the temperature below 115 degrees Fahrenheit from bean to bar.
- Hand wrapped (with much love, gratitude and high “Phi-bration”)
- Made in a custom-designed, factory
- Certified organic
- Certified vegan
- Certified Kosher
- Carbon balanced, 100% renewable energy process
- Certified fair trade
- Sourced from a “small cooperative in Ecuador known for its prized Arriba National variety of cacao”.
- “Healthy sweeteners such as maple, Inulin from Jerusalem Artichoke, and Erythritol
- No refined cane sugar
Further enticements on Sacred Chocolate’s website include studies that show you can improve your life and brain while eating their chocolate:
- It’s good for your brain (“Brain,” 2009, p. 1)
- It treats Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (“Chronic Fatigue,” 2013, p. 1)
- It has the bliss chemical in it (“Anandamide,” 2012, p. 1)
- It’s good for your liver (“Liver,” 2011, p. 1)
- It makes you thinner (“Diet,” 2012, p. 1)
- It’s as good for you as exercise (“Exercise,” 2012, p. 1)
- It may prevent colon cancer (“Colon Cancer,” 2012, p. 1)
- It’s good for your endothelial cells (“Endothelial,” 2011, p. 1)
- It’s better than snake oil! (Just kidding:)
An astute business-minded soul might suddenly be stricken with the concern that Sacred Chocolate was charging enough for their services (as of this writing, to have a 1.44 ounce bar mailed to my location (I live within two states of California, the home of Sacred Chocolate Company) would be $20.04 with regular U.S.P.S. Priority Mail 3-day. But, of course, since we are talking about the one percent-ers, we need to Fed-Ex it ($98.17)).
Yes, that’s one hundred bucks for an ounce and a half of chocolate.
Yet this mirrors perfectly the vast amount of wealth that the elite has amassed since the great recession: Suppose you are an average American who consumes 12 pounds of chocolate per year (“Americans,” 2015, p. 1). That’s’ 192 ounces times the cost of a Hershey bar ($1.79 or so). That equals 0.6616993011032173% (or a little more than half a percent) of your median income ($51939)(“Median Income,” 2016, p. 1).
The same holds true with the “high Phi-bration” chocolate too: 192 ounces times the $9 or so per ounce comes out to 0.6283636363636363% (or a little more than half a percent) of your $275,000 income. Of course, when we add shipping, the numbers are even more closely matched.
Ultimately, the market follows the money and in an efficient market, this seemingly vast difference in chocolate prices and quality points remains unremarkable except for one question: Is this adulteration a trend that will fade as soon as the market changes, or is there a deeper meaning?
Is this the beginning of our detachment from our traditional tastes/recipes for chocolate confections? Given the acceptance of the decline in quality ingredients in mass-produced foods in the recent past (who can forget the “Pink Slime” debacle?), there may indeed be reason to kiss (pun intended) our old school chocolate flavors goodbye forever.
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