Before taking Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, I was nothing more than a novice in the field of chocolates. I knew nothing about the dramatic upstart of the chocolate industry, or even how to properly taste it. I didn’t even know how to taste-test chocolates, and I certainly had no clue how many different niche brands there were out there. In particular, I’ve learned to appreciate the layers of taste in a well crafted chocolate bar, as well as all of the social causes that niche chocolate brands support. For that reason, I am choosing to dedicate my final project to fully appreciating the chocolates selection at a local supermarket, and taste testing the ones that intrigue me. For first impressions in the supermarket, I wanted an objective figure who did not know about chocolate brands and their social causes. For my taste testers, I employed some friends whom I knew loved chocolate. As it turns out, these volunteers were not difficult to find at all, as the allure of chocolate basically singlehandedly convinced them to help. Featured as guests in my project are my girlfriend Michelle, and three of her friends, Christina, Natalie, and Kristen. Michelle joined me in my expedition to the supermarket while the rest simply taste tested our choices.
Next, it would be important to choose a meaningful supermarket, one that would not be chalked full of mainstream candy giants like Hershey’s or Mars. To fully appreciate the spectrum of chocolatiers, I needed to find a store with brands such as Taza, Endangered Species, and Green & Black. From our class discussion, I knew these brands tended to source higher quality cacao, and support meaningful social causes. I wanted to see the shelves decorated with a variety of different chocolate brands marketing themselves towards a variety of different consumer interests. One supermarket was guaranteed to have what I needed: Whole Foods Market. The popular but niche supermarket focuses on providing “natural”, socially responsible foods claiming that “We believe in real food” and won’t sell it unless it meets their standards. Specifically, their standards are that none of their products would contain any artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, or sweeteners. While their standards don’t always entail that their products would be healthier, they tend to be more natural, less commercialized, and asa result, created in smaller batches. Companies producing in smaller batches are then highly correlated with being niche brands that support a social cause to justify higher prices. I hoped Whole Foods would be my answer, as they tend to be more natural, more socially conscious, and slightly pricier than other competitors. As Michelle and I began surveying the chocolates section at Whole Foods, we knew immediately that we had found the right place.
The Whole Foods chocolates section was decorated with a full spectrum of niche brands, including Endangered Species, Green & Black’s, Lily’s, Icelandic Chocolates, Theo, Alter Eco, and Divine. Most of these bars marketed themselves as bean to bar brands that were one or more of the following: USDA Organic, Fair Trade Certified, Certified Gluten Free, Non-GMO, and Certified Vegan. They were all priced between $2.50 to $4.00 per bar, which is definitely a step up from Hershey’s bars, Kit-Kats, and many other mass produced chocolate products. On first impression, I was very surprised with how well stocked Whole Foods was; they seemed to carry every brand we discussed in class, and many more. In total, there were at least 10 different brands featuring many different flavors within their brand. I was however, a little surprised by the fact that Whole Foods did not stock Taza, a local chocolatier based in Somerville. Taza creates organic products that seek to give a fair portion of profits to farmers in Mexico. They are committed to sourcing high quality cacao and seek to cut out predatory middlemen and abusive labor practices. When we asked a store representative, they pointed us to the front half of the aisle, where they featured some of their sexier, more attention grabbing products. It turns out that we had been wandering around in the back of the store, and stumbled upon the chocolates that only the determined folks knew to look for. The majority of the consumers typically stumbles upon a well packed product near the front of the store and impulse buys from that selection. Very interesting marketing ploy…
The front section seemed much more neatly presented, and was obviously much more conscious of not providing too many mind-boggling options which could stress out uneducated buyers. Featured front and center was hometown hero Taza Chocolates, with an additional coffee bean processor. The Taza stand was placed directly facing the front part of the store where a consumer might enter the store. It’s certainly noticeable and certainly eye-catching. As far as brand selection goes, Taza was the only brand that enjoyed the front and center attention, as other brands were placed at the bottom of the sides of this stand. The other brands were not particularly well displayed and their placement certainly did not garner much attention. Despite Whole Foods’ lackluster presentation, one very notable quality of this bottom shelf was that prices were nothing short of top shelf. Chocolate bars here ranged from being priced $7/bar to $10/bar and featured brands such as Vosges, Mast, Pure7, and Wild Ophelia, mostly brands I had not heard of previously. Michelle fell in love with the design of the Mast bars($8/bar). In her own words, they looked “totally chic” and something she might stick on the back of her phone or laptop. In fact, the design was so beautiful, and the names of the flavors were so unordinary(smoke and almond butter), that we had pretty much committed to buying it. Fortunately for us, I quickly searched up the Mast company, and found a plethora of negative reviews from chocolate critics, all of them praising only their wrappers and nothing more. It was only after this news that we decided to forego the chocolate with the beautiful packaging. We were heartbroken, and it was difficult, but we knew that we had to look beyond the cover.
It seems incredible to me that simply the packaging and price are enough to convince most consumers of quality. Heck, it fooled me until I performed due diligence. But comparing the various products, it is abundantly obvious what type of consumer these chocolate brands are targeting. Most mainstream candy chocolates such as KitKat under the Hershey’s brand know their consumers are just sweet-tooths who crave sugar. They don’t typically include any sort of message or health-conscious claim such as USDA organic. Other brands, like Endangered Species chocolates(http://www.chocolatebar.com/?page_id=18), are clearly marketing towards a socially conscious, health conscious consumer. 10% of their profits are donated to what they call “Giveback Partners”, companies they partner with in order to support their cause. Beyond the social justice, Endangered Species is also plastered with health conscious endorsements such as GlutenFree, Non-GMO, Fair-Trade, and others. It’s obvious that the typical Endangered Species consumer probably cares about the well-being of vulnerable animals, as well as their own personal health. It is notable that many of these certifications are somewhat misleading, and not always advertised with 100% transparency. However, these labels are mostly tools for these chocolatiers to target a socially-conscious consumer base. This fact does not change regardless of the truthfulness of the label.
Similarly to Endangered Species, Theo Chocolates is also socially aware. Their packaging is simple, includes Fair For Life and USDA Organic stickers, and features a message on the back about sourcing high quality cacao. A look around their website(https://www.theochocolate.com/mission) makes it apparent that Theo is committed to high quality cacao, and paying farmers fairly for it. They claim that they are both “passionate about chocolate” and that their “growth will never come at the expense of their values”. Clearly, Theo chocolates justify their prices by boasting quality and ethics. Finally, we have Mast Chocolates, the beautiful brand that we did not buy. Their website(https://mastbrothers.com/pages/learn) suggests that they are concerned heavily with presentation, neatness, and overall aesthetic. They only briefly mentioned sourcing high quality cacao or paying farmers fairly. Their approach is clearly one centered around appearance: prominent and pronounced, but not so respectable once you dig deeper.
You may be wondering why the chocolate industry focuses so much on ethically sourced cacao and labels like fair trade. The history behind the chocolate ethics is soiled by the blood, sweat, and tears of generations of slaves, a problem which has not yet been solved. According to Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate, 18th century Europeans ravaged colonies for cacao production, and then imported slaves once the natives had died of fatigue. The cruel mistreatment of cacao workers continued for centuries, unbeknownst to the public. Nowadays, there is much attention towards the problem of forced labor, yet the problem still persists, especially regarding forced child labor. According to Orla Ryan’s Chocolate Nations, slaves, many of which are below 15 years of age, are exposed to many harsh conditions, including dangerous machinery, dangerous equipment or tools, handling heavy loads, and exposure to pesticides and chemicals. These conditions are clearly unsafe, and workers should be consenting and fairly compensated for their work. However, such amendments to the current system would drive the price of chocolate through the roof. According to CNN Freedom Project’s The Human Cost of Chocolate, roughly 200,000 children work in the Ivory Coast alone, many of them against their will. These children work because they have no other way to support their families, and are thus exposed to the dark, predatory side of capitalism. So when you see labels on higher end chocolates that claim Fair Trade or Ethically and Responsibly Sourced, they are attempting to help solve this situation, and receive credit for their attempts.
Ultimately, we chose to buy four chocolates to try at home: Madecasse Expresso Bean Milk Chocolate, Vosges’ Mo’s Milk Bar with Bacon, Theo Salted Almond Milk, and Lily’s Blood Orange Dark Chocolate. Our choices reflected our taste preferences as best we knew it. In general, we had determined that we both tended to like milk chocolate, nutty qualities, and somewhat fruity tints. Coffee was also a wonderful addition; we both like the refreshing hit that come with coffee beans, and the Madecasse bar featured Arabica coffee and cocoa nibs. Personally, I was very curious how these bitter ornaments would taste on milk chocolate as they seem to be more commonly paired with darker chocolates. Bacon was an oddball. When applied to chocolates, bacon seems like a risky bet at best. I just couldn’t resist sampling such an interesting clash of flavors though, as bacon has been irresistible to me since I was very young.
For our taste testing session, Michelle, Kristen, Christina, Natalie, and I followed the protocol that we learned in lecture from Professor Martin, supplemented by the helpful tips from National Geographic’s traveler’s blog. Among the four chocolates, Lily’s Blood Orange Dark Chocolate had the most distinct snap. This generally indicates higher quality chocolates with fewer air bubbles, but may have also been affected by the fact that the other 3 bars all had bits of nuts, salt, or bacon mixed in the chocolate. We all agreed that the dark chocolate was by far the heaviest and difficult to swallow, with a pasty texture on the tongue. Theo’s salted almond milk featured a creamy texture, and was by far the creamiest of the four. We all expected Madecasse’s espresso bean chocolate to be much more coffee-like, but the coffee note was very mild. Unfortunately for the Vosges, the bacon milk chocolate did not receive compliments. The girls mostly thought it was too much of a clash: sweet, salty, savory. To quote Christina, who actually normally appreciate bacon, “the bar tastes like pure indecision”. To rank the chocolates, I had tasters rank the four chocolates on a scale of 1-4, 1 being the best, and 4 being the least favorite option. The leader was Theo’s salted almond milk chocolate, who received an average score of 1.6. 2nd place was Lily’s blood orange dark, which earned an average score of 2.2. Madecasse disappointed with an average of 2.8. And finally, Vosges’ bacon milk chocolate earned a 3.4. I think I may have been the only one to not rank that one my least favorite. Ultimately, this trip to Whole Foods as well as this taste test has put an exclamation on my journey this semester. I have learned so much about the history, implications, and problems surrounding chocolate, and it has been my pleasure. I will be able to forever enjoy my chocolates, knowing a thing or two about where it comes from and how to properly taste it.
Wells, Jane. Produce at a Whole Foods store, CNBC.
- Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate. Toronto, Random House, 2006.
Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations. London, Zed Books, 1988.
Escobedo, Tricia. “The Human Cost of Chocolate.” CNN, The CNN Freedom Project Ending Modern-Day Slavery, 16 Jan. 2012. Accessed 5 May 2017.
Evans, Andrew. “How to Eat Chocolate.” National Geographic Digital Nomad, National Geographic Traveler, 26 June 2012. Accessed 5 May 2017.
The remaining photos were all taken from by me.