Chocolate is everywhere. From grocery stores to gas stations, this sweet tasting, divine bar of goodness is inescapable in normal American life, especially if you’re in poverty. While Americans consume 12 pounds of chocolate each year, Americans categorized as “in or near poverty” consume more chocolate than individuals who are not in poverty (O’Neil et al.), and given that nearly 32% of the U.S. population is at or near poverty (Aulls), it is important to study their eating habits. The chocolate consumption habits of the poor, both in terms of quality and quantity, has consequences for both their health and ethical chocolate production. A study of the chocolate selection at the Dollar Tree shows that the chocolate marketed towards low income individuals is of the cheaper, unhealthier variety, produced without concern for human rights or the environment. The prevalence of Big, cheap chocolate is indicative of both the obesity and diabetes epidemic facing low income Americans today and the severe human rights violations and ethical concerns surrounding chocolate production.
Visiting the Dollar Tree
To get a concrete sense of the chocolate selection low income Americans often have and its implications for health and ethical concerns, I took a trip to the Dollar tree in Somerville. While there, I looked at several factors such as price point, types of chocolates available, the number of chocolates that were advertised as ethically certified through Utz or Fair Trade, and finally, the nutritional value of these types of chocolates. In this observation, only bars of chocolate or an amalgamation of chocolate and other ingredients (such as peanut butter or wafers) were studied.
A Dollar Tree was chosen as a case study to represent the shopping experience of a low income American because of its prevalence in food deserts and “because the American economy of late has pushed so many middle-class people into poverty, and poverty is what pushes people to line up at the cash registers of…Dollar stores” (Griffin-Nolan). Food deserts “are areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food” (Dutko) and usually contain “households with low incomes, inadequate access to transportation, and a limited number of food retailers providing fresh produce” (Dutko). Since these individuals cannot afford cars, they rely on places such as convenience stores and dollar stores such as the Dollar Tree. In fact, “three chains, Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Dollar Tree, made up two-thirds of new stores in food deserts” (Schneider) because large grocery stores don’t want to risk lower profit margins. While obviously not all lower income Americans live in food deserts, nearly “23.5 million people” (Dutko) do. In addition, dollar stores offer individuals food products and other items at a fraction of other stores’ prices, making them the natural choice if you’re on a budget. Given that these stores also accept some form of EBT, or foods stamps, a Dollar Tree store is a good sample of a typical low income American’s shopping experience.
There are however 3 primary issues with selecting a Dollar Tree. First, with some exceptions, everything in the store is $1, which may imply that craft chocolates or chocolates that were created ethically may be absent from the store due to their traditionally higher prices. Second, Dollar Trees are usually small, meaning the chocolate selection might be limited. Thirdly, low income Americans don’t always shop at the Dollar Tree, and may instead opt to visit a Walmart which might have a much larger chocolate selection. However, given that the closest Walmart in the Boston Metro area is over an hour and a half away on public transit while Dollar Trees are typically no more than 15 minutes away on transit anywhere in the city, studying a Dollar Tree might accurately represent where a low income person living in Boston may shop.
The findings at the Dollar Tree were not surprising. Of the 37 different types of chocolate bars present, all but one of them were produced by either Mars, Nestle, or Hershey’s. The lone chocolate bar not created by the companies mentioned was created by Russell Stover. None of the chocolate bars were craft chocolate bars or produced by small companies. In addition, none of the chocolates were Fair Trade or Utz certified, or certified as organic. The only chocolate bar that was close to having a label marking it as ethical was Crunch, which had the Nestle Cocoa Plan label. According to Nestle’s website, the Cocoa Plan “aims to improve the lives of cocoa farmers and the quality of their products” (“The Nestle Cocoa Plan”); however, upon closer inspection of their website, it is unclear how this plan improves the livelihood of farmers or reduces child labor. Furthermore, the only chocolates without fillings were a Hershey’s Chocolate bar, the Russell Stover solid chocolate bar, the Dove Milk Chocolate bar, and Kisses. Other chocolates had a combination of nuts, peanut butter, caramel, mint, or wafer filling. In addition, there was only one white chocolate option, which was the Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Creme Bar. There were no dark chocolate options available.
Most chocolate bars made some health claims, though their actual nutritional value was questionable. Hershey’s chocolate bar had “Made with Farm Fresh Milk” on the bar, and the 3 Musketeers proudly wrote “45% less fat than the leading Chocolate Brands.” While the 3 Musketeers bar contains 5 grams of saturated fat and Hershey’s bar contains 8g (which is indeed close to 45% less), a Hershey’s bar only has 24g of sugar, while a 3 Musketeers bar has nearly twice as much at 40g of sugar. Another claim on the “Crunch” bar was that it was made with “100% Real Chocolate” and that it had “No artificial Flavors or Colors.”
The price point was the same across all chocolates, which was $1. The Dollar Tree also had a value pack which included 6 smaller “fun size” chocolate bars of the same type in a packet for $1. The weight of the fun sized packet of chocolates was 75g or $.013/gram, while a normal chocolate bar was 1.55 oz, or about 44g, costing twice as much at $.022/gram. Only the Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar, Crunch, Snickers, Kit Kat, Reeses, 100 Grand, and Butterfingers bars were sold in fun sized packets, making them the cheapest chocolate options.
In terms of actual nutrition, the worst chocolate bar for saturated fat was a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar, with 8g of saturated fat and 13g of total fat, and the best bar for saturated fat was the York Peppermint Patty, with 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 2.5 grams of total fat. The worst bar in terms of sugar was a Three Musketeers, with 40g of sugar, and the best in terms of sugar content was the Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Creme bar, which contained 19g of sugar. For reference, a healthy adult should consume between 25 and 37 grams of sugar each day and around 16g of saturated fat per day.
The chocolate selection at the Dollar Tree has three worrisome implications: Big Chocolate takes advantage of gross human rights violations present in the chocolate supply chain to sell at low prices; Big Chocolate pumps chocolate bars with cheap alternatives such as sugar and other ingredients to even further lower the price of their chocolate bars; finally, because of the two reasons mentioned, the cheapest chocolate on the market (the one that low income Americans will buy) is filled with inordinate amounts of sugar and fat, fueling the diabetes and obesity epidemic plaguing low income Americans today. In the next section, I will substantiate these claims and explain how they feed into one another and result in unhealthy Americans and abused workers and farmers.
The cheapest chocolate available at the Dollar Tree was produced by Big Chocolate companies, Mars, Nestle, and The Hershey Company. These companies typically get their cacao beans from West African farms or plantations by interacting with complicated systems involving national, government, and local powers (Martin); however, human rights violations run rampant on these farms. More often than not, these farms are pressured to lower their cost of production by these large chocolate corporations, which results in child labor, abuse, slavery, and extremely unsafe working conditions. Slavery and child labor are the most salient problems, which exposes nearly “half million to 1.5 million child workers” (ACI Group) to dangerous work conditions, with “more than half reporting injury at work” (Martin). Some individuals, including children, “are trafficked and forced to labor without or with little pay on cocoa farms” (Martin), but these human rights violations are often overlooked in favor of cheaper cacao prices.
While human right violations in the chocolate supply chain decrease the price Big Chocolate pays for their cacao, their inclusion of insane amounts of sugar, milk, and other ingredients further pushes down the price of their chocolate. Let’s take a look at a normal Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar. According to the Nutrition Label, the ingredients are Milk Chocolate (Sugar; Milk; Chocolate; cocoa butter; Lactose; Milk Fat; Soy lecithin; PGPR, Emulsifier, Vanillin, Artificial Flavors). According to the FDA, “ingredients are listed in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first, followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts” (FDA). Sugar is the first listed ingredient, which is vastly cheaper than cacao as sugar is about $0.26/lb. Assuming that “chocolate” is made of cacao beans, this is the most expensive ingredient used, since the ICCO price was around $1.35/lb on May 3, 2018, which is over 5 times the cost of sugar. It is clear that chocolate manufacturers inject their products with incredible amounts of sugar because it is the cheapest ingredient. But it wasn’t just Hershey’s; of the 37 bars I observed, all of them had sugar listed as the very first ingredient on the nutrition label, meaning these bars are no more than a hint of chocolate and a heap of sugar. In addition, most bars weren’t pure chocolate, but instead contained peanuts, caramel, nougat, and other cheaper costing ingredients that further increase the sugar content and decrease the cost to make the bar.
Knowing that nearly all the candy bars had more sugar content than the recommended daily allowance, it’s apparent why the US population, especially the lower income one, is so incredibly unhealthy. The average amount of sugar present in these bars was 29 grams, while it is recommended that children consume no more than 25 grams of sugar daily, and adults between 25 and 37.
But why is consuming so much sugar, which low income people disproportionately do, such a problem? Sugar has been identified as the leading cause for the obesity and diabetes outbreak in modern American. Although some experts argue that fat, not sugar, is the main proponent of diabetes and obesity, seeing who has funded sugar research is alarming. Multiple corporations such as Coca-Cola, Hershey’s, and Nabisco have given millions to the Sugar Association, or ISRF, to exonerate sugar. The ISRF attempted to shift the blame of obesity and diabetes to fat intake and create multiple research panels to argue that any research that points sugar to negative health claims is inconclusive. They have funded researchers such as Edward Biernan, who claimed that diabetics “need not pay strict attention to their sugar intake,” and Ancel Keys who claimed “Cholesterol and dietary fat—especially saturated fat—were the likely causes of heart disease” (Taubes). The FDA even subcontracted a committee “led by biochemist George W. Irving Jr., who had previously served two years as chairman” (Taubes) of the ISRF to determine if sugar was harmful, which has caused uncertainty of sugar’s effect on health for decades.
However, while the ISRF and Big Chocolate tried to hide the truth about sugar, the verdict is out. New research suggests that not only is sugar “addictive in much the same way as cigarettes and alcohol,” but the “overconsumption of them is driving worldwide epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes” (Taubes). No wonder “obesity rates in the United States have more than doubled, while the incidence of diabetes has more than tripled” (Taubes). Regarding diabetes, “long term consumption of sucrose can result in a functional change in the capacity to metabolize carbohydrates and thus lead to diabetes mellitus” (Taubes).
Obesity and Diabetes in Low Income Americans
Rates of diabetes and obesity are even more startling among low income individuals and children. “Those live in the most poverty-dense counties are those most prone to obesity. Counties with poverty rates of >35% have obesity rates 145% greater than wealthy counties” (Levine). In addition, “diabetes may be up to two times more prevalent in low income populations compared to wealthy populations” (Rabi, Doreen M et al.). This is believed to the case because “that individuals who live in impoverished regions have poor access to fresh food,” (Levine) and are instead bombarded with food items that are loaded in sugar. This is consistent with the unhealthy and sugary chocolate selection at the Dollar Tree.
In regards to children, the “number of overweight children in the US has tripled since 1980” (Albritton 344), and low income children “were more likely to be overweight than higher income children (7 percent vs. 4 percent)” (Lin). Companies, such as Hershey’s, specifically target children to develop a lifetime loyalty of their products, and it’s working. Research shows that sugar is addicting, almost as addicting as tobacco (Albritton 344), and when children and even adults consume these products, they will desire their products throughout their life and continue to consume them with disastrous results. “Overweight children often become overweight adults, and overweight in adulthood increases the risk of developing many diseases, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, and…cancer” (Lin).
The Big Takeaway
By understanding how Big Chocolate reduces the price of its chocolate, we can see how cheap chocolate has crippled the low income population in the United States. But a question still remains: given all this information on how terrible sugar and cheap chocolate are for you and the world, why do low income individuals continue to consume it? Do low income customers just not care the people who make their chocolate, or even their own health? Or is it that don’t have a choice, or the proper education to understand how sugar will affect them?
Packaging and propaganda have made it incredibly difficult for low-income individuals to choose the products that match their values. They are bombarded with misleading information on bars that contain supposedly 45% less fat when in fact it contains twice the amount of recommended daily sugar, they are told that bars bought through the “Nestle Cocoa Plan” will help farmers and eliminate child labor when in reality no one understands how these organizations impact the lives of farmers, and lastly, they are told by their doctors and schools to reduce their saturated fats intake when it is in fact sugar that is killing them. While it may be true that some low income consumers just don’t care about what they buy, the widespread misinformation and the products available renders them almost helpless in choosing products that are good for them and the world. It’s on us to give not only these individuals, but everyone the power to know what we put into our bodies and its effect on the world around us. Perhaps it’s time to take the power out of Big Chocolate and Sugar’s hands and place it into where it belongs—the consumer’s.
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