Is Certified Chocolate Better Chocolate?

Chocolate is a delicious treat, but for the farmers who grow cacao, life is not so sweet. Cacao farmers inhabit some of the world’s poorest regions and earn small, irregular wages. When Carol Off visited a farming community in Côte d’Ivoire, she found that the cacao laborers lacked access to basic services including education and medical care (Off, 6). Additionally, the cacao farmers faced highly variable pricing and high taxation levels (Off, 6). These conditions severely hinder economic development and allow poverty to persist among farm workers. Because these problems are so prevalent, several organizations have risen to promote more fair business practices. These groups certify producers who follow a strict set of policies throughout their production process. This paper focuses on three groups in particular: Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and USDA Organic. Carla Martin’s course “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food” discusses the benefits of these various certifications as well as their flaws. Among the many critiques of these certifications is their failure to ensure a higher quality product and to gain traction among American consumers. To test these weaknesses, I decided to perform an informational chocolate tasting to gauge Harvard students’ understanding of these certifications and to ascertain whether certified products were of a higher quality.

image locating cote divoire
Côte d’Ivoire: The world leader in cacao farming. 

Brief Summary of Certifications

According to Fair Trade’s mission statement, the organization seeks to empower farmers by using a market-based approach to improve wages and working conditions for farmers and laborers. Additionally, Fair Trade seeks to strengthen local economies while simultaneously protecting the local environment (Fair Trade). Ndongo Samba Sylla argues in her book The Fair Trade Scandal that while Fair Trade is an organization with good intentions, the organization often falls short of its aims. Among Sylla’s complaints is the lack of money actually reaching certified producers. Fair Trade products charge a premium, but only minimal amounts of this increased price actually reach the farmers (233). Thus, Fair Trade’s impact on poor farmers is negligible. Similar sentiments are echoed in “The Fair Trade Shell Game” which suggests that Fair Trade hurts non-certified farmers and offers no real quality guarantee (Markham Nolan, Dusan Sekulovic, and Sara Rao). With these and many other problems, it seems that Fair Trade, while commendable in its aims, fails to truly benefit producers and can also mislead consumers.

The USDA Organic website suggests that the intent of this certification is to promote healthier and safer agricultural practices for producing the crops (USDA). While their efforts to promote better environmental and health practices are admirable, this strategy fails to account for social issues. Julie Guthman notes that if certified organic products focus intensely on the materials used during the production process, the labor practices should also be scrutinized (507). Evaluating the USDA’s various certification levels also reveals the potential for great disparity among certified products (USDA). In addition to these concerns, it has been suggested that organic standards have declined over time and that certification provides a false assurance of quality (Martin). With these critiques, it is important to understand that organic products may not be as beneficial as they are often portrayed.

Finally, Direct Trade is intended to serve as an alternative to Fair Trade. According to Taza, Direct Trade implies a rejection of unfair labor practices and unfair wages. Direct interaction with cacao growers is intended to ensure better treatment of farmers and a higher quality product (Taza). As can be seen with Taza, however, these relationships often rely on small chocolate makers which can lead to potential problems in stability and quantities being purchased (Martin). Nonetheless, Direct Trade may prove to be an effective means of combating unfair treatment of cacao growers.

The logos for the certifications appear below. Direct Trade’s logo was unavailable under Creative Commons.

The Chocolate

Sample 1: Hershey’s Special Dark (45% cacao; $0.59/oz.; no certifications)

The first sample in the tasting was a Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate bar. While only 45% cacao, significantly below the other chocolates in percentage, this bar was selected to serve as the typical dark chocolate bar that could be found in American households. For its prevalence, it was selected as the first sample in the tasting in order to establish a comparison point for the other chocolates.

Sample 2: Lake Champlain Dark Chocolate (72% cacao; $2.00/oz.; 100% Fair Trade, USDA Organic)

The second sample, a dark chocolate bar from Lake Champlain, was selected to fill the role of the Fair Trade certified bar, although it was also certified organic. At 72% it was close to the 70% cacao I was targeting in the study. Every ingredient in the bar was reported to be organic and Fair Trade certified.

Sample 3: Taza Cacao Puro (70% cacao; $2.04/oz.; Direct Trade, USDA Organic)

Taza is known for its small, dedicated chocolate making team. Participating in the Direct Trade initiative, Taza claims to work with cacao farmers to ensure that they are selecting the best cacao possible and purchasing it at a fair price. The chocolate selected was 70% cacao, perfectly at my target percentage. The chocolate disc was also certified organic.

Sample 4: Ghirardelli Intense Dark (72% cacao; $0.85/oz.; no certifications)

Ghirardelli’s Intense Dark bar was selected as a good quality non-certified bar to challenge the quality assumptions that the tasters might have about certified and non-certified bars. At 72%, it fell within my target range. With its general perception of higher quality, it seemed an excellent choice to challenge the craft producers in the tasting.

Sample 5: Lindt Smooth Dark (70% cacao; $0.85/oz.; no certifications)

The Lindt chocolate was selected as another good quality non-certified chocolate bar. This bar matched the 70% cacao chocolate without receiving any certifications.

Sample 6: Dick Taylor Northerner Blend (73% cacao; $3.98/oz.; organic*)

The Dick Taylor bar carried a similar cacao percentage to the other bars in the study. While the bar does not bear the USDA Organic symbol, it advertises its ingredients as organic. According to the USDA website “You may only, on the information panel, identify the certified organic ingredients as organic and the percentage of organic ingredients.” With the bar using only certified organic ingredients, I considered this bar to be certified organic though some may disagree with this assessment. This bar is not Fair Trade or Direct Trade and so was used to capture the impact of using only organic materials without the effects of other certifications.

Certified Samples-Personal Photo
Non-Certified Samples-Personal Photo


The Process

Five of my friends, who were not involved with Martin’s course, generously volunteered to participate in the tasting. Before providing them with any chocolate, I gave them a brief questionnaire about the three certifications. For each certification, I asked them if they were familiar with it and how they interpreted it. Across all five participants, the only certification that was familiar to the tasters was USDA Organic. None of the tasters were familiar with Fair Trade or Direct Trade. Having ascertained that the participants did not have a well-developed understanding of these certifications, I provided them with information sheets describing the purpose of each and the critiques that were discussed in Martin’s class. While these information sheets were certainly not comprehensive, they were intended to help the tasters understand the intent of my tasting.

After ensuring that all of the participants had read through their information sheets, I moved onto the tasting portion of the event. Before beginning, I allowed the tasters to read the series of questions asked on their tasting sheets. Using Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate as the first sample, I walked the group through the tasting process. Because the tasting was intended to be a blind test, I asked that the participants not look at the chocolate samples throughout the process. While not a foolproof method, the participants were able to avoid seeing the chocolate while performing the tasting. They were asked to first smell the chocolate, evaluating its aroma. Next, they were asked to snap their samples to judge the sound of the chocolate. Finally, they were allowed to put the chocolate on their tongues and let it melt. This final step was used for them to evaluate the texture and flavor of the chocolate. During each of these steps, the participants were asked to provide ratings for certain qualities on a scale of 1-5. An image of the specific questions asked is posted below. After answering this series of questions intended to help the tasters evaluate the chocolate, they were asked to judge the overall flavor and quality of the chocolate on scales of 1-10. The separation of flavor and quality was intended to account for tasters who prefer lower quality chocolate. One taster was particularly aware of his preference for low quality chocolate. His self-awareness was evident in his responses. Between each sample, tasters were asked to use carbonated water to cleanse their palates.

tasting sample
Tasting Sheet-Personal Photo


Once each of the 6 samples had been tasted, the tasters were told to rank the chocolate based on apparent quality. Once this task was completed, I announced the name of each sample and its certifications. I then asked the tasters based on their analysis whether they thought that there existed a correlation between quality and certification. Finally, I asked the participants how large of a premium they would be willing to pay to consume an equal amount of certified chocolate as non-certified. For example, if they would be willing to pay $1.50 for a certified chocolate bar and $1.00 for a non-certified bar of the same size, this difference was considered to be a 50% premium. Once this question was answered, the task was left to me to interpret the tasters’ responses.


By the time that the tasting was complete, both questions I sought to address in my tasting had been answered. Simply put, the participants did not understand Fair Trade or Direct Trade, but had a basic knowledge about USDA Organic. Despite understanding the intent behind organic certification, they were not aware of the varying levels of certification and the requirements for each level. Since these Harvard students, a group which tends to have high engagement on socioeconomic and environmental issues, failed to recognize these certifications, it could be inferred that American consumers are unlikely to recognize them as well. For the organizations who provide these certifications, this lack of recognition should be concerning. Certified products may not be appropriately valued by consumers because the certifications mean little to the average person purchasing a chocolate bar or other certified products.

Flavor Ratings


Hershey’s Lake Champlain Taza Ghirardelli Lindt Dick Taylor


9 4 6 7 3 1


3 8 9 5 1 10


8 8 6 7 8


D 6 8 7 5 6


E 7 9 6 9 6


Average 6.6 7.4 6.8 6.6 4.8



No Yes Yes No No


This table shows the tasters’ reviews of the chocolate’s taste on a scale of 1-10.

Quality Ratings


Hershey’s Lake Champlain Taza Ghirardelli Lindt Dick Taylor


3 4 8 7 3 1


1 7 9 6 2 10
C 8 8 6 7 7


D 6 8 8 5 6


E 5 9 7 8 6


Average 4.6 7.2 7.6 6.6 4.8



No Yes Yes No No


This table shows the tasters’ estimates of the chocolate’s quality on a scale of 1-10.

The above tables display the participant’s responses to the various chocolate samples in terms of flavor and quality. The row labeled “Certified?” identifies whether the sample is certified with any of the three certifications discussed in this paper. In the flavor ratings, the certified chocolate performed well with Lake Champlain and Taza having the highest average response. Dick Taylor was below Hershey’s and Ghirardelli but was not far behind. Lindt was easily the least popular among the group. In the quality ratings, the gap between certified and non-certified chocolate was clear. Taza, Lake Champlain, and Dick Taylor were rated as the three highest quality chocolates on average. Ghirardelli’s average was slightly lower than this group, but the other two non-certified chocolates received much worse scores. While this sample of tasters and chocolate bars is too small to claim that the relationship between certification and quality is statistically significant, the selection of the certified bars as the best tasting and highest quality seems to indicate that these companies do in fact produce a higher quality product. This result could be explained by these companies’ relatively small supply as they tend to be craft chocolate makers while the non-certified companies produce on a much larger scale. This smaller production could be viewed as a confounding variable in my study. Without further study and a significant budget increase, it would be quite difficult to determine whether the smaller production or the certifications are the cause of the higher quality. Regardless of which aspect of these producers leads to their apparent higher quality, the selection of the certified products as the highest quality in this study seems to indicate that there is at least a correlation between quality and certification. In the table below, it is shown that the participants in the study were able to guess almost perfectly which chocolate bars were certified and which were not. Tasters A and C incorrectly guessed that Ghirardelli was certified, but all other answers in the study were correct. Since Ghirardelli had a significantly higher quality rating than the other non-certified chocolates, these incorrect guesses suggest that the participants perceived an association between quality and certification. The participants all felt that they could identify the certified bars based on apparent quality, further confirming this hypothesis.

Do you think it is certified?


Hershey’s Lake Champlain Taza Ghirardelli Lindt Dick Taylor


No Yes Yes Yes No Yes


No Yes Yes No No Yes
C No Yes Yes Yes No


D No Yes Yes No No


E No Yes Yes No No


Certified? No Yes Yes No No


Participants’ guesses as to which bars were certified.

While the tasters’ failure to recognize the certifying bodies speaks to a lack of consumer education, the ability of participants to identify certified chocolates with near perfect accuracy signals that concerns about quality assurance from these certifying bodies may be unwarranted. The apparently discernable higher quality of certified chocolates may indicate that companies concerned with their business practices tend to produce better products. Despite this indication, the responses to the question of how large a premium should be on certified products fell significantly short of capturing the true price differences in the samples provided. On average, participants were willing to pay a 16% premium for certified chocolate. Based on prices for the certified chocolate and non-certified chocolate, the premium for these certified chocolates was approximately 249%. In other words the certified chocolate was approximately 3.5 times as expensive as the non-certified chocolate. With such disparity between actual pricing and the participants’ willingness to pay, the certified chocolate seems to be too expensive for the consumers in my study. Furthermore, only a small portion of this high premium reaches the farmers growing the cacao anyway (Sylla, 233). In conclusion, despite providing a higher quality product, these chocolate makers may not achieve their objectives in addressing issues in production due to high pricing, poor distribution of the price premium, and lack of consumer recognition. While these certifications are a step toward improving the chocolate industry, further efforts are necessary to fully address the poor conditions on cacao farms.


Works Cited

Fair Trade USA. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

Guthman, Julie. “Fast Food/Organic Food Reflexive Tastes and the Making of “Yuppie Chow”.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Martin, Carla. “Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization/globalization.” Cambridge, MA. 05 Apr. 2017. Lecture.

Nolan, Markham, Dusan Sekulovic, and Sara Rao. “The Fair Trade Shell Game.” Vocativ. Vocativ, 16 Apr. 2014. Web. 03 May 2017.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New, 2008. Print.

“Organic Regulations.” Organic Regulations | Agricultural Marketing Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba. The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Trans. David Cleiment Leye. London: Pluto, 2014. Print.

“Taza Direct Trade.” Taza Chocolate. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.


Photo Sources

Several photos in the essay are personal photos taken by me. These are labeled as such in the captions.

Côte d’Ivoire:

Fair Trade Logo:

USDA Organic Logo:

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