In my last blog post, I showed how the transformation of chocolate is a reflection of the industrialization of the food industry, as chocolate moved from being a natural, healthy food to a processed item that barely resembles cacao. When we think of modern chocolate, the first thing that comes to mind is often Hershey’s and Mars. The ingredients in these products mark the epitome of highly processed, artificial food. However, there is a whole different market for chocolate out there that counters this type of chocolate. As the food industry has become industrialized and increasingly processed, people have started to become aware of the negative health effects of these foods. They are becoming cognizant of what they are eating and where their food is coming from. This has given rise to a new trend in diet and lifestyle, in which people aim to eat healthier, organic, natural and local foods. Research shows that the rise in organic food production is strongly correlated with knowledge about mass-produced food, including awareness of the public health, environmental and moral risks of the food industry (Guthman). People are looking for something healthy, and Whole Foods has captured this audience, becoming a hugely successful grocery store nationwide. The chocolate selection at Whole Foods is a reflection of this new food trend that directly counters the fast, processed food industry.
The central message of Whole Foods promotes a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. On their website, they claim to be America’s healthiest grocery store and describe eight core values: (1) sell the highest quality natural and organic product; (2) satisfy, delight and nourish customers; (3) support team member excellence and happiness; (4) create wealth through profits and growth; (5) serve and support their local and global communities; (6) practice and advance environmental stewardship; (7) create on-going win-win partnerships with suppliers; (8) promotes the health of stakeholders through healthy eating education. The first thing I noticed when I walked in the store was the emphasis on these values. The signs around the store read: Sweetened by nature, more organic choice everyday, supporting organic and sustainable farming and get more green. This, combined with the imagery around the store, pulls you into their world of health food. There are products for every new fad diet, including paleo, vegan, vegetarian, and most food is labeled as local, organic or natural. The store appears to be the picture of health, ethics and well-being, and it makes you feel like you will be too if you shop there. This plays directly into the mentality of food enthusiasts who oppose the fast food industry. As Guthman describes this consumer, “In contrast to the fast food eater, the reflexive consumer pays attention to how food is made, and that knowledge shapes his or her ‘taste’ towards healthier food” (Guthman). Extensive signs and labeling are intended to draw customers in and help determine which products they want to buy. All of these observations are reflected in the chocolate selection at Whole Foods.
The first chocolate selection that I came upon was a shelf at the end of an aisle, as pictured to the right. The first thing that jumped out at me was the aesthetic of all the chocolate bars lined up. The bars displayed pictures of food, nature, and highlighted the words organic, natural and various other certifications to prove their quality. I then began to investigate each of the bars individually. For the purpose of comparison, I looked at the basic dark chocolate for each brand.
The first bar I picked up was the Endangered Species brand, pictured to the left. The first thing that caught my attention was the face of a chimpanzee staring at me. This was not something I expected to see on a chocolate bar. The bar is described as natural dark chocolate with 72% cacao. The ingredient list reads as follows: bittersweet chocolate (chocolate liquor, cane sugar, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla). This is a simple list, adding to the picture of being a natural chocolate. The certifications on the front are Fair Trade, Non-GMO project verified, certified gluten free and certified vegan. It also notes that they donate 10% of their profits, which is described further on the back. It says that by choosing this brand, you are supporting conservation programs worldwide. Each bar pictures a different engendered species, with information on that animal inside. This connects with the consumer on a moral level through the animals and certifications.
Next, I looked at the Whole Foods brand bar, which did not have plain dark chocolate, so I picked the dark chocolate and almond bar, pictured to the right. What stood out first were the three pictures on the front, one of school children, another of a woman working, and the third of a cacao tree. It was labeled “Tanzania Schoolhouse Project” where “a portion of proceeds helps fund the education of children in the Kyela district of Tanzania.” This connects with the consumer on a moral level, making them feel they are making a difference by choosing this bar. It is interesting that this bar only used the term “a portion,” whereas the Endangered Species bar specifies that 10% of their profits are donated. Whole Foods also specifies their sugar is organic and fairly traded. On the front, they have a Whole Trade guarantee certification, which I had not seen before. Their website explains that the product must meet the following criteria: meet our strict product Quality Standards, provide more money to producers, ensure better wages and working conditions for workers, and care for the environment. They also have the USDA organic certification on the front and on they back specify that is it certified organic by Quality Assurance International. They note that it is a product of Belgium, but do not specify where the cacao comes from. The ingredients in this bar were: organic chocolate liquor, organic cane sugar, organic almonds, organic cocoa butter.
While these are just two examples of bars on the shelf, they show a trend. They market a sense of morality in choosing chocolate. Each company pledges to donate a portion of their profits to make a difference in the world, trying to make their bar unique. All of the bars on the shelf were decorated with certifications, including fair trade, organic, vegan, non-GMO and more. They were also similarly priced, each at around $3 for about 3 ounces. The last thing I noticed were the ingredient lists. They all had few ingredients, many of them labeled again as fairly traded or organic. I did not encounter a single refined sugar or ingredient that I could not pronounce, which speaks to the quality of the chocolate. This chocolate is far from the average Hershey’s bar, as each company has tried to make itself authentic and unique.
The second section of chocolate in Whole Foods was a bit pricier, though was similar in terms of packaging, ingredients and certifications. One brand of interest was Taza, since it is a local company in Somerville. Having tasted this chocolate, I knew the texture was coarser than typical chocolate. It was labeled as stone ground, which suggests less processing, with more thought and effort put into the process. The bars on this shelf ranged from about $5-9 for roughly 2.5-3 ounces. The one bar that did not seem to fit in with the others was a brand called Mast, pictured above. The bar is simple, and the back lists the cacao percentage and ingredients. The bars contain cacao, cane sugar, sometimes an additional flavor and nothing else. I found this very intriguing, so I went to their website to investigate further. The company is located in New York and is owned by brothers Rick and Michael Mast. The design of the website was similar to the bar in its simplicity and lack of information. They claim to “source directly with regions around the world, looking for the rarest, complex and delicious cacao available. Mast pays far beyond commodity and fair trade minimums and has been instrumental in developing new growing regions.” However, they do not provide any further insight into where exactly they are sourcing their cacao. They do offer tours where you can learn more, so maybe they would reveal this information there. According to Rick Mast, “Our mission statement as a company is to provide locally produced craft chocolate…That’s it. We don’t need to design the packaging or do publicity to make sure people are educated in Singapore. That is the importance of the local food movement in general” (Williams and Eber). This is a unique philosophy in the current chocolate market. This bar stood out the most among all of the other brands that were trying so hard to distinguish themselves with promises or donations and certifications.
While Mast may not believe in them, certifications are definitely trending. The two most common themes were various fair trade and organic labels. Fair trade is a very complicated ongoing debate. Fairtrade is the most common fair trade label in the world (Sylla). While their intentions and values may be good, “It seems that the founders of Fairtrade unwittingly opened a Pandora’s box” (Sylla). After they became successful, many other labeling companies emerged and began competing with one another, each with different standards and no uniformity (Sylla). The actual effectiveness of a fair trade label is also questionable. Research shows that for one American consumer dollar spent on a fair trade product, the farmer in a developing country only makes three cents more than it would have otherwise (Sylla). However, consumers are not aware of all these issues, and thus when they see a fair trade label, assume that they are buying a more ethical product. The organic certification is less complicated but has a similar effect on the consumer. There has been a growth in consumer demand for organic-certified products, and people everywhere are willing to pay more for them (Williams and Eber). This holds true in the market for cocoa and chocolate according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (Williams and Eber). But what does this really mean? Williams and Eber describe this push for organic chocolate as a big misunderstanding. Organic cacao makes up only about .5% of the cacao market (Williams and Eber). There are a lot of hoops to jump through to get this certification, in addition to it being expensive. More than 90% of the cacao is grown by small families who cannot afford to go through this process. This also does not affect the flavor of the chocolate (Williams and Eber). The certifiers do not understand the process of making chocolate and thus do not adjust their standards accordingly. Small cacao farms are not the same as larger farms and use very few pesticides (Williams and Eber). Organic may in fact not matter in the chocolate industry and in some cases can decreases the quality of the flavor. Organic is just a certification that makes people feel better about buying the product, but in reality they are just government standards that may or may not be improving quality.
This trend does not seem to be unique to the U.S. Europe also underwent a similar industrialization of the food industry, as Hershey’s and Mars became the common chocolate (Martin and Sampeck). In order to combat the big companies and processed chocolate, bean-to-bar chocolate began to emerge, focusing on small-scale manufacturing and single origin fine cacao (Martin and Sampeck). To address the labor and sourcing of the cacao, certifications began popping up everywhere. However, certifications in Europe are being questioned as well. This seems to tell the same story that we have discovered in the U.S. Therefore, this issue is not unique to the U.S. but rather is a global issue surrounding the food industry.
The demand for quality in the chocolate industry has ultimately created a surge of certifications. This makes consumers feel that what they are getting is natural and ethical, and they feel better about it. But is this really what they are getting? It is hard to tell, but it seems like simply putting ever more certifications on bars has become a trend but is not necessarily ensuring a better product. However, in comparison to the highly processed chocolates made by Hershey’s or Mars, is is reasonable to assume that these are better quality. There is still more to be done in the market for quality chocolate. The Mast brothers have realized they don’t necessarily need all of these certifications to produce a quality bar, although they could be more transparent about their sourcing. The selection at Whole Foods demonstrated the trend in the chocolate market towards certifications and ethics, which is a worldwide issue.
Guthman, Julie. “Fast food/organic food: Reflexive tastes and the making of ‘yuppie chow’.” Social & Cultural Geography 4.1 (2003): 45-58.
Hsia, Winnie. “What Is the Whole Trade Guarantee?” Whole Foods Market. N.p., 02 Oct. 2012. Web. 05 May 2017. http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/what-whole-trade-guarantee.
“Learn.” Mast Brothers. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2017. https://mastbrothers.com/pages/learn.
Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The bitter and sweet of chocolate in Europe.” SOCIO. HU 2015.3 (2015): 37-60.
“Our Core Values.” Whole Foods Market. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2017. http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/mission-values/core-values.
Sylla, Ndongo. The fair trade scandal: Marketing poverty to benefit the rich. Ohio University Press, 2014.
Williams, Pam, and Jim Eber. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. BookBaby, 2012.
*Pictures were taken by me at the Whole Foods on River Street in Cambridge.