Chocolate is among the most important food products in contemporary society. Its rich history originated in the Amazon River region, but today its influence can be observed in almost every corner of the world. Despite the “significant a role [that] chocolate presently plays in the lives of many who appreciate its fine qualities, knowledge of the origins and history and history of chocolate seems to be largely unexamined and removed from the awareness of modern life” (Grofe, 2). I wanted to understand the implications of this phenomenon and grasp modern conceptualizations of chocolate. In order to do this, I conducted an interview with Christine Lewis, a frequent consumer of chocolate. I met Christine through a family friend about ten years ago, and she has been a professional mentor for me throughout my college career. She lives and works in New York City, and has held a job in private equity for the last fifteen years. At forty-two years old, Christine lives an active lifestyle and makes her health a high priority, and is conscious about including her two sons and husband in her health endeavors. She is a self-labeled chocolate fanatic—every day she consumes it in some form, but prefers to eat dark chocolate squares. We discussed the multi-faceted roles that chocolate plays in her life, allowing us to see where her relationship with chocolate fit into the context of its complicated history and contemporary cultural significance.
Because Christine values health and generally sticks to a nutritious diet, I was curious about whether she believed chocolate qualified as a healthy food or not. I asked her questions about the type of chocolate she ate, what narratives she has heard around the health benefits or risks, and how she herself reconciles those conflicting narratives:
“I feel as though every few months there’s a new study out about chocolate that contradicts the previous one. One day I’m reading that half a bar of dark chocolate will increase my lifespan by six years, and then the next I’m reading that it’ll make me overweight or affect my mood in strange ways. This isn’t necessarily characteristic of just chocolate though—I’ve seen similar things done with red wine, meat, and the like. Even though there’s a never-ending feed of contradictions, I personally ascribe to the belief that dark chocolate is healthy in moderation. I try to stick only to dark chocolate for health reasons, but I can’t deny that I gravitate toward anything chocolate-flavored on a menu. I know that dark chocolate is a good source of antioxidants and has a bunch of other health benefits. Do I eat it because I’m trying to accomplish a certain health goal? Not really. I pretty much only consider the health benefits when I need to justify my own consumption.” (Lewis)
In ancient societies such as the Maya, chocolate was employed for a multitude of medicinal uses, such as digestive, anaesthetic, anti-inflammatory, energy-related purposes. While some of the beliefs surrounding its benefits were scientifically far-fetched, the idea that chocolate has significant health-related properties still is relevant in contemporary society. Watson’s Chocolate in Health and Nutrition (2013) investigates some of these claims. He explains that popular conceptions of chocolate characterize it as a “stimulant, relaxant, euphoriant, aphrodisiac, tonic, and antidepressant” (Watson, 265). Ultimately, the various studies in the book find that “cocoa intake enhances antioxidant defenses quickly and over a short period after ingestion,” that it “has a cardioprotective effect,” and that it “can be a new and interesting food for regulating mood and brain disorders” (Watson, 265). These were just some of the main findings about the major benefits. The antioxidant property that Christine values has been scientifically proven among other benefits.
Article listing popular opinions about chocolate’s health benefits and risks—many of which have been proved and disproved by various studies: Medical News Today
In addition to the health properties of chocolate, I asked Christine questions about the role of gender in advertisements, and whether these advertisements resonated with her or not. Because chocolate has historically been associated with women, I was curious about her thoughts regarding that connection:
“As a woman and mother, I’m pretty aware of the attempts to market to my demographic. Have you seen those chocolate ads where women are licking the chocolate or mostly naked, and then you take a step back and wonder how that had to do anything with the product at all? That reminds me of this Godiva ad I saw once—there were up close shots of women biting into chocolate and it showed a woman being submerged in a thick pool of chocolate. I feel like that’s how most the ads are which is pretty frustrating for someone like me. Women are already hypersexualized in marketing campaigns, but it seems to be especially egregious with chocolate ads. I have no idea where this association even originated. Why don’t we have chocolate ads were people in suits are sitting around a table and enjoying a nice square of chocolate? Also as a mother, I definitely notice those ads where the company is trying to get the mom to buy into the product for their kids, or ads that make kids think they need to come to the mother for approval.” (Lewis)
Ultimately, Christine was quick to point out the sexist characteristics of modern chocolate advertisements. She believed they were inappropriate at times and unrelated to chocolate as a consumer product. However, the sexist characteristics of chocolate advertisements and their association with females is not a product of modern times. Advertisements dating back to the 1930s even played upon sexist ideas of women. In Emma Robertson’s Chocolate, Women, and Empire (2009), she explains that “[w]omen as consumers of chocolate have been historically depicted as obsessed by the product…Chocolate supposedly has addictive properties which women are unable to resist” (Robertson, 35). This is especially true in examples such as the one that Christine brought up, where women are depicted as completely overcome by desire and lacking any agency to control themselves.
Godiva ad illustrating what Christine has noticed about the portrayal of women in chocolate ads: Godiva ad 2017
After we discussed gender in relation to chocolate, I asked Christine about her knowledge regarding different certifications that could be found on chocolate packaging. More specifically, I asked her to discern between organic, fair trade, and direct trade certifications, and explain whether these markers factored into her decision to buy a certain chocolate product. I also wanted to know what types of chocolate she opted to buy and why:
“To be completely transparent, I know very little about what qualifies a product as ‘organic,’ ‘fair trade,’ or ‘direct trade.’” That means very little to me at the moment, although I do think I should probably start looking into that so I could be a more responsible consumer. I do my grocery shopping at Whole Foods and there are so many different options and markers—how am I supposed to tell the difference? I guess I am more inclined to buy something if its organic because it’s more natural. When I’m searching for a chocolate bar to eat, I try to find something with over 50% cacao and a little bit of flavoring like orange or sea salt. My absolute favorite bar is the Chocolove bar with almonds and sea salt. I can’t recall if the packaging has any certifications, but I’m pretty sure they have some kind of social initiative. Honestly that doesn’t make much of a difference to me, because I prioritize what looks like it tastes better. I couldn’t tell you the meaning of fair trade or direct trade if my life depended on it. I would guess that is has something to do with ethical sourcing, but I don’t feel confident enough to make any further guesses.” (Lewis)
Photo of Chocolove’s Almonds and Sea Salt bar, sourced from Chocolove
Christine’s comments regarding her preference for organically-labeled chocolate bars are reminiscent of issues discussed in Julie Guthman’s 2003 work, Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘Yuppie Chow.’ Guthman draws attention to consumer ignorance, saying that “[h]undreds of millions of people buy fast food every day without giving it much thought, unaware of the subtle and not so subtle ramifications of their purchases. They rarely consider where this food came from, how it was made, and what it is doing the community around them” (Guthman, 496). While Christine conceives of herself as socially and politically aware, her awareness of the implications of her chocolate consumption were lacking. Her selection of organic products aligns with her values of health, but her ethical values were not implicated in the process. Guthman argues in her article that “growth in organic production has been strongly correlated with increased consumer knowledge about mass-produced food…Yet, a look at the growth in organic food in geographic and historical context shows that the explosion in organic food production and consumption was not entirely innocent of some of the very factors that were implicated in the growth of fast food” (Guthman, 497). The rise in organically labeled products has been tied to class differentiation and processes of gentrification. Aside from the domestic implications of certain chocolate purchases, the global ramifications also did not factor into her selection of chocolate. Christine explained that she “[wasn’t] aware that slave labor still [was] behind some of chocolate production” when I asked her if she avoided products involved with slave labor. Her responses indicated an ignorance toward the origins of her products, but not a lack of ethical concern once she understood more about the process.
Video explaining what exactly “organic food” is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhIZWhJtY8w
Ultimately, Christine’s experience with chocolate allows us to better understand facets of some of the current consumer trends around chocolate, and how it relates to its historical context. Through the interview, I learned about her thoughts regarding chocolate’s health benefits, its relationship to gender, and whether certifications play a role in her decision to purchase certain chocolate products over others. As authors like Guthman note, it is rare for people to devote time and effort into understanding the politics of production, and letting that guide their decisions as consumers. Christine—although highly educated, well-intentioned, and politically aware—represented this ignorance that Guthman claims is characteristic of most consumers. Chocolate’s incredibly rich history and cultural significance often gets lost in the noise around trends in certifications on packages and contradictory health analyses. It is important to note that Christine’s lack of knowledge regarding the history of chocolate and the current features on packaging is not indicative of a lack of caring about the social and political issues that persist around the production of chocolate. In fact, her inability to answer some of my questions allowed her to reevaluate some of the gaps in her own knowledge of the subject. At the end of the interview, she expressed a strong desire to learn more about what actually goes into the products that she purchases in order to be a more responsible consumer.
Grofe, Michael. “Questioning Chocolate.” Questioning Chocolate, 1998, pp. ProQuest
Dissertations and Theses.
Guthman, Julie. “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘Yuppie
Chow’.” Social &Amp; Cultural Geography, vol. 4, no. 1, 2003, pp. 45–58.
Lewis, Christine. Personal Interview. 1 May 2018.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester University Press; Distributed in the United States Exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Watson, et al. Chocolate in Health and Nutrition. Humana Press, 2013.