Choosing Chocolate: Ethical concerns and nutritional considerations

Last Sunday, I invited four opinionated family members to join me for an international chocolate tasting. My goal for this tasting and analysis was twofold. I wanted to survey my tasters’ preferences for various international chocolate offerings, and gauge their opinions and knowledge on many of the topics that we learned about in class. My family often discusses politics and current events, however I was curious to discover each guest’s individual level of knowledge of fair trade, direct trade, child labor and other troublesome issues related to cacao farming. My ultimate question for each participant was “would you alter your chocolate buying preferences based on potential ethical issues in the harvesting and production of cacao”. The evening did not disappoint. We enjoyed a colorful and insightful discussion on numerous levels.

My first task was to buy international chocolate for the sample tasting. On my way to Trader Joe’s and Fresh Market in the neighboring town, I stopped by my local grocery store to investigate their selection and confirm my suspicion of the limited choices. I live in a small town with a seasonal population and our little grocery store often presents slimly stocked shelves at this time of year. It appeared that the person responsible for chocolate buying was not interested in purchasing chocolate with any kind of ethical or organic certifications. The shelves were stocked with milk chocolate from the big American manufacturers. I was unable to locate one offering with any kind of ethical certification. Consumer demand in a mostly working class town may not be strong enough to offer chocolate with ethical certifications which often demand higher prices. As my guests debated later in the evening, many consumers are use to milk chocolate laden with sugar offered by the large manufacturers. The group’s contention was that ethical concerns in the production of cacao have not reached the vast majority of those in the United States who purchase chocolate on a regular basis. The limited selection at my local store confirmed my initial sense that I would be obligated to drive to the more affluent neighboring town where there is a Trader Joe’s and Fresh Market serving a larger population. The affluent town also includes a Whole Foods store on the opposite end of town. Whole Foods offers a good selection of international chocolate, however the choices offered at Trader Joe’s and Fresh Market, closer to my home, proved to be more than enough to support a successful tasting.

trader joe's chocolate shelves
Trader Joe’s Chocolate Bar Selection

Although I had visited Trader Joe’s in the past, I had never shopped in the chocolate section. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised at the variety and reasonable prices of many of the choices. My goal was to buy a wide range of chocolate that was manufactured outside of the United States with the cacao percentage and source of the cacao beans clearly labeled. Trader Joe’s offers numerous bars marketed with their own brand, most with the “USDA Certified Organic” label. However, the majority of bars branded with the Trader Joe’s name failed to list the detail of the source of the cacao or where it was manufactured. I found it frustrating that I could not determine where the cacao was sourced from. The Columbian chocolate bar was the only exception.

All of the Trader Joe’s chocolate bars I surveyed are distributed and sold exclusively through Trader Joe’s distribution center in Monrovia, California, even the bar that was listed as a product of Columbia. My guess is that most of the chocolate is manufactured in the United States. I reached out to Trader Joe’s through their website in an attempt to learn more, however, as of the date of this posting, I had not heard back. After searching the internet for information on Trader Joe’s business model, it is likely that I will not receive more specific information on the source of the cacao. It appears that Trader Joe’s brand is often white-labeled in an effort to sell quality brand name products at a lower price.

My intention was to purchase a wide variety of chocolate bars, with varying percentages of cacao. The selection at Trader Joe’s was broad, however Fresh Market’s international chocolate selection was impressive. Fresh Market often offers some good loss leaders, yet I find that the prices overall are higher than other grocery stores, especially compared to Trader Joe’s. The chocolate bar offerings were no exception. In total, I purchased eleven bars produced in numerous countries with differing cacao percentages and ethical certifications, plenty to engage in a good discussion with my tasters.

Fresh Market candy bar
Fresh Market’s Chocolate Bar Selection

To prime my guests for a meaningful discussion, I first asked them this question: “If they learned that unethical behavior was occurring in the production of cacao, would they alter their buying preferences and seek chocolate bars manufactured with confirmed ethical practices and legitimate certifications.” Quite honestly, I was a bit surprised at my guests firm conviction to alter their buying preferences. To be honest, three of the guests live in the affluent town in very close proximity to the Trader Joe’s and Fresh Market. Although they purchase their groceries at varying markets including Stop and Shop and Shaws, they regularly shop at Trader Joe’s and Fresh Market. Price is not necessarily a high priority for them.

Nonetheless, each guest confirmed they would be interested to learn more about fair trade and unethical practices in agriculture. In fact, one guest recollected an incident when she was traveling through Tanzania on a vacation and saw very young children working in a field. She could not ascertain which crop they were harvesting. After her description of the area, we felt the children were not harvesting cacao. Our suspicion was that the crop may have been coffee. According to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs as noted on the United States Department of Labor website, there is reason to believe that child labor exists in the harvesting of coffee in Tanzania. Our conversation brought back a disturbing memory to my guest and made our discussion surrounding child labor come to light. The other guests were clearly not educated on the prevalence of child labor or modern day slavery in the production of crops.

Child Labor photo DOL ILAB

After serving dinner, I quickly realized I needed to whittle down my offerings. Our discussion was lively and time was slipping away. Eleven tastings were too much to expect from my group on a Sunday night. Professor Martin had the ability to space out her tastings over time which would have been my preference but not an option in this situation. I quickly sorted through my chocolate stash and decided on the following choices making sure I only offered a very small sample of each:

  • Trader Joe’s dark Chocolate Lover’s Chocolate Bar 85% Cacao – Colombia-6g sugar per serving
  • Trader Joe’s Fair Trade Organic 72% Cacao Belgian Dark Chocolate Bar- 10g sugar per serving
  • Fresh Market Alter Eco Dark Blackout 85% cacao organic chocolate Switzerland- 6g sugar per serving
  • Valrhona Le Noir Amer 71% cacao- France- 12g sugar per serving
  • Vanini dark Chocolate 62% cocao with pear and cinnamon-Italy- 15g sugar per serving
  • Trader Joe’s Organic milk chocolate truffle 17g sugar per serving
  • Vosges Pink Himalayan Crystal Salt Caramel Bar 70% cacao 17g sugar per serving

    chocolate bars
    Original Chocolate Bars Selected for the Tasting

I lured the tasters to my house, stating they would be part of a blind chocolate tasting test. I explained my requirements: the tasters would be required to guess the percentage of cacao, the country of origin of each bar, and provide their honest opinions on the actual taste of each bar. Three of the guests have traveled extensively and have had the opportunity to taste many European chocolate offerings. Clearly, they were disappointed. None of the participants enjoyed the dark chocolate. Only one guest was somewhat accurate and able to guess the percentage of cacao in each sample. She’s a bit of a foodie, a good baker and was able to detect the percentage of cacao within a reasonable deviation. She was even able to describe the flavor as it was described in some of the packaging, i.e. full bodied, smooth or fruity. None of the tasters were able to detect the country where the chocolate was produced. They simply guessed and all guessed wrong. The group didn’t care for the initial offerings which included a high percentage of cacao. Their expressions were priceless. When I asked them to join me in a “chocolate tasting”, my guests clearly did not expect to eat chocolate with such a high percentage of cacao that lacked milk and sugar. After three pieces of dark chocolate in a row, I knew I needed to mix it up a bit and offered an olive branch, a piece of Trader Joe’s organic milk chocolate which quickly brought them back to life.

The tasters preferences were clear. All preferred the chocolate with the least amount of cacao and the highest amount of sugar. They were only able to tolerate the higher cacao percentage in the bars that included an additive such as the Vanini chocolate with pear and cinnamon and the Vosges chocolate bar with pink Himalayan crystal salt and caramel. After the last sample, we entered into a discussion around how they felt dark chocolate is an acquired taste similar to the varying choices of coffee offered at Starbucks versus a typical Dunkin Donuts coffee that many Americans were use to drinking before the advent of specialized coffee chains.

As I completed my assessment of the group’s chocolate preferences, I outlined their preferences versus the grams of sugar in each bar. It was not surprising to learn that the higher the sugar content included in each bar, the higher the personal preference. All of the testers agreed they enjoyed the chocolate bars with the most sugar as noted by the number of grams on the bar’s label. They clearly did not like the chocolate bars with less than 15 grams of sugar. Although their preferences were not surprising, it was somewhat disturbing. According to the USDA recommended dietary guidelines, individuals should consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugar. One small serving of chocolate can constitute a large portion of the suggested amount of added sugar in a consumer’s healthy daily diet. The new USDA nutrition labels required by July 26, 2018 mandate a separate category for “added sugar” in addition to the amount of natural sugar in a given food. No doubt this will highlight a negative aspect of the typical chocolate bar sold in the United States.

Food label changes coming. Old and new, all good!
USDA Nutrition Labels

Chocolate has proven to be beneficial in various studies, however moderation is key. There is evidence to suggest that eating too much sugar may raise your risk of heart disease (Corliss). If we plan to eat chocolate, we may need to consider reducing the amount of chocolate that we eat with high amounts of added sugar.

The final consensus of our tasting experiment, after our spirited discussion, led us to believe that we need to be more responsible in our chocolate choices. There is more to chocolate than the pretty packaging and sweet satisfaction. Ethical concerns and nutritional considerations should be at the forefront of our decisions.

 Works Cited

“Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor – Tanzania.” United States Department of Labor. N.p., 30 Sept. 2016. Web. 07 May 2017. <https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/tanzania&gt;.

Corliss, Julie. “Eating Too Much Added Sugar Increases the Risk of Dying with Heart Disease.” Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Health Publications, 30 Nov. 2016. Web. 07 May 2017. <http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-too-much-added-sugar-increases-the-risk-of-dying-with-heart-disease-201402067021&gt;.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020. Washington, D.C.: For Sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, 2015. Web. 7 May 2017.

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Labeling & Nutrition – Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, n.d. Web. 09 May 2017.

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