Our relationship with cacao and chocolate has always been viewed through a lens of exoticism and excitement as cacao is not native to the United States. This sweet, dark treat that comes from a distant tropical place has somehow been processed and designed to fit our American palettes. Sugar is the main ingredient that has sparked the addiction to chocolate in the West and it has been one of the most influential commodities to ever exist. The combination of exoticism, fat and sugar create a dynamic bite that we simply can’t get enough of.
As adults, we all know that candy is not healthy for us yet we sill feed our children bite after bite and drink after drink pumped full of high fructose corn syrup and other synthetic compounds that have no place in the human body. For example, teenage boys eat the equivalent of eighteen fun-size candy bars every day according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (https://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/food-agriculture/expand-healthy-food-access/infographic-halloween-every-day). We also have one day out of the year, Halloween, where kids are given pounds of candy, for free, from their neighbors. From a young age we are accustomed to this high level of sugar and chocolate.
Chocolate fundamentally changed as candy bar production was introduced into the world market. At every grocery store check-out across the country there is a multi-shelf unit that hosts twenty to thirty different candy options. More than half of them consist of chocolate. Even though candy bars typically do not have a high percentage of chocolate they are often thought of to be the most common way that most of us ingest the sweet treat. If you stop at the grocery check-out aisle and look at the back panel of one of the candy bar packages you will see a list of chemicals and no specific designation to the origin of the cacao. Chocolate in the United States is a blurred statement of different sugars and additives.
Understanding where your food comes from creates a system of integrity that forces you to make a decision every time you put a bite into your mouth. Every day consumers are faced with choices such as “grass fed”, “free range”, “BPA Free”. Someone might be unfamiliar with the term “BPA Free” but will automatically assume that it’s better for them not to use products with BPA. Educating the consumer is tricky because the food system in the United States was founded on efficiency, not quality. Only in the last twenty years have line-specific brands of chocolate come to the market place. Companies such as Whole Foods will only sell fair-trade chocolate as it has been a major factor in establishing sustainable relationships with cacao producers around the world.
The five major chocolate companies in the world have been known to have poor working conditions, unfair wages and some have been tied to slavery and indentured servants. Now these companies thrive in American culture using models and children to sell chocolate as sophistication and happiness. What if the public knew the history behind the success? Would you stop buying a product if you knew that it caused diabetes, cavities, high-blood pressure and contributed to other deadly diseases? The answer is no. Chocolate and sugar consumption have been on a steady rise for the last one hundred years in America. Sidney Mintz states that “All over the world sugar has helped to fill the calorie gap for the laboring poor, and has become of the first foods of the industrial work break.” (Sweetness and Power-149) Sugar is used as a crutch, a stimulant, a break from reality for people when their stress levels are high. This sugar is often consumed in combination with chocolate which softens the delivery to the blood stream by adding a buffer of fat and other inclusions. Emotional eating is directly correlated to sugar, or sucrose. The sugar culture has steadily raised the rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States. We know the effects yet we continue to stuff our faces.
Sugar has been heavily subsidized and is available, in candy form, at prices that are half the cost of fruits and vegetables. If the government is willing to make the unhealthy food cheap and healthy food expensive, what kind of black hole does this create for lower income economies?
Are we setting them up for failure? What responsibility does the chocolate and sugar industry have to its customers? These companies control the lobbyists and their voices are the only ones that are heard. Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In, comments in reference to the politicians making food policy decisions, “they see social change as making people become like them. This gives far too much power to those who happen to be privileged (and thin) to define the parameters of food system change.” If we know that these chocolate companies were built on the backs of slaves and that their products damage the nutrition of our youth and also lead to high rates of diabetes and obesity, why on Earth do we still consume so much of them?
Guthman, Julie. Weighing In. Pg. #141 UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. 2012.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The place of sugar in modern history. Pg.# 149 Penguin Random House LLC
Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/food-agriculture/expand-healthy-food-access/infographic-halloween-every-day