“Chocolate is a physical incarnation of happiness for me”, said my sophomore friend, when I casually asked her what role chocolate plays in her life. I laughed at her response and figured she was just the typical avid chocolate lover, the kind that jumps up and yells “I’ll eat it!!” to any mention of chocolate. Little did I know that this friend of mine would be the perfect candidate for an interview for my chocolate class because of her “bougie” opinion of chocolate but ignorance, for lack of a better word, of the issues surrounding this sweet. She embodies a true chocolate-lover who strictly buys chocolate because she loves the taste, and doesn’t buy into marketing strategies.
Memories created around chocolate:
Anytime she eats chocolate, my interviewee is reminded a lot of her family at home who also loves chocolate. Every single holiday, she and her siblings buy their mom chocolate as a gift. Every year on her dad’s birthday, her family makes a “really rich chocolate mousse cake”. Every single day, her parents eat a square of chocolate after lunch for dessert. Even while in college, her mom sends her chocolate in care packages.
It is not uncommon for a sweet like chocolate to mean so much to a group of people. In fact, throughout history, chocolate has had great significance in social settings. In ancient Mayan society, the word “chokola’j” meant “to drink chocolate together” (Martin). When chocolate was introduced in England in the 1650s, the act of drinking chocolate in chocolate and coffee houses while socializing and talking about politics and playing games quickly became popular (Coe 165).
A chocolate house in London, 1708
Chocolate evidently still has a social nature, as it is a common snack at get-togethers or holiday events. Even while writing this, my friend brought us chocolate to enjoy while studying together. My interviewee clearly also enjoys eating chocolate with others, like her family, and chocolate, therefore, has become a special part of her life.
This family doesn’t just enjoy any chocolate, however. To my surprise, my interviewee knew the exact percentage of cacao that she and her parents like best. She told me that her parents always buy 72% Ghirardelli bars and that she, specifically, prefers bars with 85-88% cacao, but “the percentage has been increasing over the last three years”. She went on to explain that in high school, she “was super down with 72” but then started eating 77 and found that she liked it better, and so “kept trying darker chocolate and kept really liking it”.
When I asked if that’s because she prefers the bitter taste usually associated with darker chocolate over the sweet and dairy taste associated with milk chocolate, she answered, “No, I actually feel like it gets sweeter as it gets darker and I love it”. I found this opinion interesting, especially coming from someone who knows the exact percentages of cacao she prefers, and should then know that milk chocolate contains more sugar than dark. One look at the ingredients for milk chocolate compared to dark would show this fact. For instance, the top ingredients for a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Kiss are “sugar, milk, and chocolate”, while the top ingredients for a Lindt’s 90% Excellence Bar are “chocolate, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder” (Martin). Although my friend could be considered “dumb” for thinking that the darker the chocolate the sweeter, I consider her a true chocolate lover who could care less about the ingredients and just wants to enjoy the taste.
It seemed fitting to ask if my interviewee cares at all about the health effects. I, too, prefer dark chocolate over milk or white but one of the main reasons is because I know it’s less unhealthy for me. Not only is there less sugar, but there are studies that show that dark chocolate, specifically, can reduce heart attack risk and blood pressure (Watson). But when I asked my interviewee if she ever considers the nutritional or health effects, she yelled, “oh, hell no!”. She said that she sometimes eats chocolate in small amounts to not feel guilty, but when she’s purchasing chocolate, she never thinks about the fat and sugar content. Instead, she bases her decisions solely off what taste she prefers. She told me, “If I’m choosing between two different chocolates, I would never go for the one with less sugar content”. She added that she convinces herself that the sugar and caffeine in one square of chocolate is “enough to perk her up” so she uses it as an “award” when studying.
I asked her if she ever thinks about where the cacao in the chocolate she eats comes from and she answered that she sometimes does, but “actually has no idea” how chocolate is made. She continued to say that she knows there are such things as cacao nibs and has always wanted to know more, but from the way she was talking, I could tell she was more interested in the machinery and technology aspect and less of what actual cacao farmers in places like Ivory Coast do. When I threw in the word Africa, my interviewee started reminiscing on a “chocolate passport” that her aunt once gave her that had different South American and African countries on it, but then quickly said, “I feel like a lot of chocolate bars have information on them about what country it’s from but it doesn’t really influence what I buy”. She proceeded to say that she sometimes buys Endangered Species chocolate because it makes her feel “better” about herself but she knows in her heart that it’s just a marketing strategy.
I asked her if she knew about the child labor issues surrounding chocolate, to which she responded that she figured there were labor issues but not child labor, in particular. She told me that she knows chocolate is the “biggest thing that’s fair trade-oriented” and that she always notices the Fair Trade symbol. But when I asked her if that affects her in anyway, she said it doesn’t because she feels “so removed” from the issues at hand and that she thinks the label was “made for elites to feel better about our choices, as if we’re actually making a difference”. When purchasing chocolate, the Fair Trade label does nothing to sway my friend in any direction. The organization that claims to “improve an entire community’s day-to-day lives” with “day-to-day purchases” of products with their label has failed to influence the decisions of customers like my friend, who comes from a social class that may be more likely to spend the money in the first place (“What is Fair Trade?”).
My interviewee is actually quite correct in saying that the label just makes customers “feel good”. Ndongo Sylla explains in The Fair Trade Scandal that in theory, through the Fair Trade strategy of pricing some goods made from raw materials produced in the South at a slightly higher price, the living conditions of workers in the South should be improved. Sylla writes that although Fair Trade products have gone up dramatically in sales, the actual economic gains are low, especially for the poorest developing countries – the minority producers which Fair Trade USA seemingly favor most. The countries ranked by the World Bank as upper middle-income countries account for 54 percent of the producer organizations that have received Fair Trade certification, while only 21 percent are low-income countries. This means that from a marketing standpoint, Fair Trade has been successful. Sylla concludes that “whatever definition of poverty and economic vulnerability used, the conclusion is the same: Fair Trade tends to exclude the poorest countries”, and yet, its “Fair Trade” label gives consumers a false confidence (as shown in the video below). Thankfully, there are people like my interviewee who aren’t completely fooled.
Chocolate as a luxury:
I then asked my friend how she chooses her chocolate: What’s the most important detail to her? And does she choose some brands over others? She immediately answered that she looks at the percentage of cacao first, then the price. Her cutoff price is around five or six dollars, since she doesn’t like the texture and taste of some really expensive chocolate (her example was Taza chocolate that makes her feel as if she is eating “chocolate sawdust”) but also “won’t buy sh*tty chocolate”. I, of course, asked her what she defines as “sh*tty chocolate” to which she responded, “like Hershey’s dark chocolate, like the kind that says extra dark and it’s not even that dark”. Another friend overhearing our conversation commented that my interviewee sounded like a “chocolate elitist”, and I honestly couldn’t disagree because I felt a tad offended. Sure, I don’t think Hershey’s chocolate is the best of the best, but I do love Hershey’s extra dark and it was a low blow to my heart. She added that she doesn’t like salted or flavored chocolate (like added orange flavoring) and that Ghiradelli is her favorite because it’s “perfectly good and on the cheap end”.
Next, I asked her if she thinks everyone can afford to and has the liberty to be this picky when it comes to a simple snack like chocolate. To my relief, she replied that “it’s definitely a bougie thing” and “definitely a luxury, not an essential” but she’s willing to spend the money for her contentment. My interviewee explained that when she was younger, her family considered themselves in the upper middle class and although they may be lower in economic status now, she said with a laugh, “I developed my tastes while we had more money and I refuse to back down now”. Whenever she eats chocolate, she said she refuses to chew it like others might, and instead breaks the bar into small pieces and sucks on each piece individually to get the full taste. Being in college, she said she doesn’t eat as much as she does at home with her family, but sometimes gets “some good chocolate” for “pretty cheap” at Trader Joe’s. She added, “now more than before, if I’m buying myself chocolate, I know I’m indulging myself so I’m willing to spend more”.
It’s certainly true that better-quality chocolate is a “luxury” for some economic classes, and chocolate has been linked to notions of class since its origin. From Mesoamerica to Baroque Europe, chocolate was solely associated with the elite class. The chocolate houses mentioned earlier were only used by the upper class, and in France, chocolatières were prized by the nobility (Coe). Since then, chocolate has certainly become more widespread and is consumed by all economic classes. Some products of brands like Hershey’s and Mars are even considered a “cheap commodity” that is available in almost every convenience store. This doesn’t change, however, the stigma that still exists around “good” chocolate and “sh*tty” chocolate. As there continues to be a wide gap between “Fair Trade”, “better quality”, “saving animals”, or “higher percentage of cacao” chocolate and the cheapest Hershey’s bar, chocolate will always be associated with different classes. If more consumers are like my interviewee, however, maybe we’d have less conflict. In a perfect world, all consumers would have the freedom to ignore marketing strategies or sugar content or price and solely buy chocolate based off of preference of taste. Unfortunately, this is unrealistic and not everyone can afford to do this or wants to. But props to my interviewee and friend for being the truest chocolate lover I have ever met!
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Martin, Carla. “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization”. Harvard University, CGIS, AAS 119x. 2017.
Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University, CGIS, AAS 119x. 2017.
Sylla, Ndongo Samba. The Fair Trade Scandal, Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2014.
Watson, et al. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Vol. 7. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 2013.
“What is Fair Trade?”. Fair Trade USA. Web. 2016.