Chocolate in the 21st Century: A Chocolate-Tasting Experiment and Essay

Introduction

For my final project, I decided to host a chocolate tasting with fellow students Frankie Hill and Sarah Kahn, who will be writing their thoughts on the tasting independently. The six types of chocolate we chose to use for the tasting were Cote D’Or’s Belgian Milk Chocolate, produced by Mondelez International, Valrhona’s Blond Dulcey, a special take on traditional white chocolate, Antidote’s 84% cacao dark chocolate with nibs as well as their 100% “raw” chocolate with nibs, and finally, Taza Chocolate’s Stone Ground 84% dark chocolate from Haiti, as well as their 80% dark chocolate from the Dominican Republic. We thought that these chocolates represented a variety of different tastes, textures, countries of origin and philosophical approaches to chocolate-making, and as such, we felt it would be appropriate to use them as units of scholarly analysis, and to use our subjects’ reactions to the various types of chocolates as real-world context through which to frame our analysis. These different types of chocolates are connected to various issues in the contemporary chocolate industry, from the growth of the “fair trade” movement, to the evolution of our modern understanding of what constitutes “chocolate” to the surge in the “craft chocolate” industry, to the exploitation of labor in Africa and much of the rest of the developing world. In this post, I will be detailing the chocolate tasting subjects’ subjective evaluations of the various chocolates my colleagues and I selected, and then diving into my own analysis of how these chocolates connect from a historical, economic and sociological perspective to the various issues that I have raised.

Chocolates used for tasting in the experiment (proprietary image)
Chocolate tasting subjects enjoying some dark chocolate (proprietary image)

Chocolate #1: Cote D’Or’s Belgian Milk Chocolate, by Mondelez International

Background

Cote D’Or’s Belgian Milk Chocolate is a fairly standard milk chocolate blend produced by Mondelez, the largest chocolate company in the world. It has been a staple of the Belgian commercial market since its introduction in 1883 (Mondelez International, “Brand Family”). Every aspect of the chocolate’s packaging and presentation looks corporate and modern, from the relatively modest off-white exterior of the package to the basic foil wrapping to the neatly lined, Kit-Kat like rows into which the chocolate is divided, virtually identical to each other.

Taster Reactions

The general reaction to the Cote D’Or chocolate from our chocolate tasters was unimpressive. They commented that the texture was fairly smooth, the chocolate melted in one’s mouth at a somewhat average rate, and the taste was largely indistinguishable from the kind of chocolate you would get in a store-bought basket for Christmas or Easter. The taste of the chocolate seems consistent with its presentation as the product of a large, Western corporate conglomerate tailoring its chocolate and ingredients towards mass consumption. One taster remarked that the bars tasted like “Kit-Kat without the middle part.” One could say that this chocolate served as a sort of control for the experiment, a flavor of chocolate most people in the West would already be familiar with.

Connection to Broader Themes from the Course

The most important aspect of the first chocolate, to me, was Mondelez’s use of its “Cocoa Life” logo on the front of the packaging. Cocoa Life is Mondelez’s proprietary branding of what it refers to as its “global sustainability program… tackling the complex challenges that cocoa farmers face, including climate change, gender inequality, poverty and child labor.” Mondelez’s stated goal is to have all of its chocolate sourced through its Cocoa Life program by 2025 (Mondelez International, “Why Cocoa Life?”). This struck an interesting attempt for a large multinational corporation, often associated in the popular imagination with oppressive hierarchies and exploitation, to capitalize on recent trends towards sustainably sourced chocolate. As Kristie Leissle argues in her book Cocoa, in a chapter focusing on trade justice, consumers in the West are increasingly aware of the abuses that can occur in chocolate production and seek “guilt-free” sources of chocolate. There is a movement towards not “free trade,” but “fair trade” in which chocolate farmers and workers are fairly treated and compensated for their product (Leissle, Cocoa, pgs. 128-158). What is truly interesting is that even traditional players in the market seem to be convinced that marketing themselves as fair trade-compliant is now good for profits, a development which may represent a positive trend towards greater equality in the chocolate production industry, or more cynically, a coopting of grassroots movements for economic justice by the usual suspects.

Chocolate #2: Valrhona’s Blond Dulcey

Background

According to Valrhona, Blond Dulcey was the result of a fortunate accident when pastry chef Frederic Bau “absentmindedly left some white chocolate in the double-boiler for too long.” After removing the chocolate from the boiler, he “noteiced it had turned a blond color and the faint smell of toasted shortbread and caramelized milk wafted out of the pan.” Sliced up into irregularly-sized pieces, with a light beige color reminiscent of crackers, and containing 32% cocoa butter (Valrhona US), Blond Dulcey is anything but typical white chocolate, and it seemed appropriate as part of the experiment to try this unique chocolate on our tasters.

Taster Reactions

Our tasters described the chocolate as very buttery, melting easily in one’s mouth. It was also described as slightly bitter, sweet but in a mild way, and as tasting “like nothing” according to one of the tasters. It seems the high concentration of cocoa butter in the chocolate, as well as the unique chemical processes giving it its off-white color, produced the intended effect of a substance which, while marketed as chocolate, tastes, looks and feels very different from the twenty-first century conception of what “chocolate” is.

Connection to Broader Themes from the Course

“What is chocolate?” is a theme that has been grappled with from the food’s inception as a grainy Mesoamerican drink that was originally served cold and consumed by elites for a variety of ritualistic purposes to a hot, smooth, often bitter concoction taken by European nobility along with coffee, to the modern, mass-produced chocolate bar consumed widely across the (mostly) Western world today (Coe and Coe). As chocolate made its way from the New World to the Old, and then eventually from Old World elites to the masses, its flavor profile changed, most dramatically so with the introduction of sugar, and a variety of substances pleasing to Western palettes changed the nature of chocolate so as to make it almost unrecognizable from its starting point (Schwartzkopf and Sampeck). The kind of experimentation with chocolate which led to the creation of Valrhona’s Blond Dulcey has been an integral part of chocolate’s history, leading us to a moment in modern history where a white chocolate bar, containing no part of the cacao plant except for the cocoa butter harvested from the chocolate production process, can legitimately fall within the spectrum of foods considered “chocolate.”

Chocolates #3 and #4: Antidote Chocolate’s 84% Cacao with Nibs and “Raw 100%” Cacao with Nibs

Background

Antidote produces its chocolates with “rich Arriba Nacional beans from the south and west of Ecuador.” The company claims to work mostly with farm cooperatives and to use a proprietary process for its Raw 100% bars in order to “maximize the potency of anti-oxidants, flavonoids and holistic nutrients” (Antidote Chocolate). Its founder goes by “Red,” and the packaging on the company’s bars gives off a very new age, hipster, pseudo-anarchist vibe which seems common to many craft chocolate brands these days. For our chocolate tasting session, we offered participants both the 84% and “Raw 100%” cacao varieties. We thought these bars would provide an excellent contrast with the earlier chocolate samples and expose our tasters to the experience of “raw” dark chocolate.

Taster Reactions

Our tasters immediately identified the rough, crunchy texture of the cacao nibs embedded within the chocolates, though they originally misidentified them as nuts. They were able to distinguish between the 84% and 100% cacao varieties, with one taster remarking that the 100% cacao tasted “like tree bark,” and many commenting that it was “unusually bitter.” Another taster remarked that there was a hint of fruit in the 84% cacao bar. I informed him that the plants around which a cacao tree is grown often influence the taste of its fruit, and that “terroir” is an important concept in the burgeoning world of craft chocolate. All in all, our tasters, which had never tasted chocolate nibs or anything close to “pure” cacao, were strongly impacted by the taste, though they did not rate it highly on average.

Connection to Broader Themes from the Course

The Antidote chocolate bars represent a glimpse into the workings of the modern craft chocolate industry. As Kristy Leissle argues, the craft chocolate community is obsessed with the concept of artisanal chocolate (Leissle, “‘Artisan’ as Brand: Adding Value In A Craft Chocolate Community”) and constantly seeks to differentiate itself from big, corporate, traditional chocolate by marketing its brands as more art-like and less processed. This is exemplified by the obsession in some craft circles with the concept of “raw” chocolate, though there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes “raw.” The “Raw 100%” antidote chocolate bar also highlights another tendency of craft chocolate makers: evoking imagery of ancient Mesoamerican cultures in order to add the air of authenticity to their products. Antidote’s Raw 100% bar claims on the packaging to be inspired by Tonacatecuhtli, the Aztec god of creation and fertility. The debate continues over whether this should be considered dangerous cultural appropriation, or should be celebrated as a marketing move which Mesoamerican chocolate farmers will ultimately profit from (Coe and Coe, pgs. 262-263).

Chocolates #5 and #6: Taza Chocolate’s 84% Dark from Haiti and 80% Dark from the Dominican Republic

Background

Taza Chocolate specializes in stone ground chocolate, which it calls “perfectly unrefined, minimally processed chocolate with bold flavor and texture.” Supposedly, its founder and CEO Alex Whitmore was inspired to create a stone ground chocolate-factory in Somerville, MA after taking his first bite of stone ground chocolate while traveling in Oaxaca, Mexico (Taza Chocolate). For our chocolate tasting session, we chose Taza Chocolates’s 84% Dark with chocolate from Haiti, as well as the 80% Dark with chocolate from the Dominican Republic. We wanted to stick with dark chocolate to give our tasters further exposure to concentrated cacao flavors, and chose both Haiti and the Dominican Republic as they less common sources of chocolate than the typical chocolate from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, yet are connected to these two countries through shared histories of colonialism and exploitation. We also thought that stone ground chocolate might present an interesting spin on the concept of “raw” chocolate as compared to Antidote’s take on “raw” chocolate.

Taster Reactions

Our tasters repeatedly remarked that there was a rougher texture to the Taza bars than to previous chocolate samples, likely due to the larger particle size of the chocolate due to the unconventional refining process, as I informed them after the tasting process. They could also taste the difference between 84% and 80% dark chocolate, though only slightly, suggesting that slight gradations in cacao concentration can be detected to a limited extent even by inexperienced tasters. Curiously, our tasters seemed to prefer the 84% Dark from Haiti over the 80% Dark from the Dominican Republic, even though they reported the 80% Dark as being slightly sweeter, suggesting that country of origin is an important factor in determining chocolate taste and quality.

Connections to Broader Themes from the Course

            Though Taza claims to go above and beyond in pursuing ethically sourced chocolate, paying farmers above the fair trade price for their wares (Taza Chocolate), it still relies heavily on the racialized system of value extraction that has historically categorized chocolate production since its inception. As late as the early 20th century, slave labor was still being used to produce chocolate in places such as Sao Tome (Satre). In modern times, over 70% of chocolate is produced in Africa, with a large quantity of the rest being produced by low-paid black labor in countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Yet nonetheless, black workers which produce the majority of the world’s chocolate consume only a tiny fraction, and most of the profits go to the white owners of Western chocolate companies (Leissle, pgs. 4-7, 36-46).


Modern chocolate production and consumption patterns (April 2010 to March 2011)

Conclusion

Ultimately, our chocolate tasting experiment presented an opportunity to both enjoy chocolate with friends as well as to continue educating ourselves and others on some of the broad themes explored in the course this year. It is my hope that people in the West and across the globe will continue to consume and enjoy chocolate for many years to come, while keeping in mind the realities of the global chocolate trade and never taking for granted the blood, sweat and tears of the less powerful people who make it all possible, fighting every day to ensure they receive justice.

Works Cited

“Antidote 100% Raw Cacao Bar with Nibs.” Antidote, 2019, antidotechoco.com/products/raw-100-cacao-nibs.

“Antidote 84% Dark Chocolate Bar with Nibs.” Antidote, 2019, antidotechoco.com/products/cacao-nibs-84.

Antidote Chocolate. “ABOUT US – Antidote Chocolate.” Antidote, antidotechoco.com/pages/about-1.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.

“Cote D’Or Milk Chocolate.” Gourmet Boutique, 2019, http://www.gourmetboutique.net/collections/cote-dor-chocolate.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Leissle, Kristy. “‘Artisan’ as Brand: Adding Value In A Craft Chocolate Community.” Food, Culture & Society, vol. 20, no. 1, 2017, pp. 37–57., doi:10.1080/15528014.2016.1272201.

Mondelez International. “Brand Family.” Mondelez International, http://www.mondelezinternational.com/brand-family.

Mondelez International. “Why Cocoa Life?” Cocoa Life, http://www.cocoalife.org/.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2006.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 73–99.

“Taza 80% Dark Stone Ground Chocolate Bar, Dominican Republic.” The Chocolate Path, 2019, http://www.chocolatepath.com/products/taza-80-stone-ground-organic-chocolate-bar.

“Taza 84% Dark Stone Ground Chocolate Bar, Haiti.” IHerb, 3 May 2019, http://www.iherb.com/pr/taza-chocolate-organic-84-dark-stone-ground-chocolate-bar-haiti-2-5-oz-70-g/75609.

Taza Chocolate. “About Taza.” Taza Chocolate, http://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/about-taza.

“Valrhona Blond Dulcey.” Confectionery News, 2019, http://www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2012/10/17/World-s-first-blond-chocolate-claims-Valrhona.

Valrhona US. “Blond® Dulcey 32%.” Valrhona US | Retour à La Page D’accueil, us.valrhona.com/chocolate-catalog/couverture-chocolate/blondr-dulcey-32/bag-beans. Wade, Kristine. “The Production of Chocolate.” Flickr, 3 Feb. 2017, http://www.flickr.com/photos/147998004@N06/32640931946.

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