Modern Kings: Consumers in the Chocolate Aisle

(https://www.flickr.com/photos /lyza/49545547 )

Grocery stores, supermarkets, food marts, or whatever you call them, the places where millions of Americans get their food each week, are crucial to a vibrant nation.  While their presence influences the economy among many other sectors, this post will examine their relationship with consumer choices.  Modern grocery stores sell much more than food—beverages, hygiene and cleaning supplies, magazines, pharmaceutical goods, alcohol, clothing, gasoline, pet supplies, household items—the list goes on and on.   In 2017, the average number of items carried in a supermarket was over 30,000 (“Supermarket Facts”).  Although there are many products, shelf-space at grocery stores is nevertheless finite, leading to extreme competition among manufacturers to get their products in front of Americans.  After decades of this competition a short list of conglomerates dominate both the grocery store brands and the manufactures that supply them.  These few entities have tremendous influence and are involved in many industries.  An excellent example of this market penetration is the chocolate industry.

Mars, Mondelez, Ferrero, Nestle, and Hershey “dominate the mature markets of Europe and North America” and capture nearly two-thirds of global chocolate market share (Leissle 73-74).  This percentage is staggering, and a quick trip to CVS confirms the dominance.  The image above shows the traditional chocolate selection at the local CVS store in Cambridge, MA and each of The Big Five has a large presence.  Mars brands include Dove, M&M’s, Twix, Milky Way, and Snickers.  The Mondelez brands are Toblerone, Cadbury, and Oreo.  Ferrero surprisingly only has one brand in the pictures which is Butterfinger.  Nestle owns the brands Rolo, Reese’s, KitKat, Crunch, and Raisinets despite some of these brands produced by Hershey here in the United States.  Lastly, Hershey brands are many—Hershey Kisses, Heath, Reese’s, York, Almond Joy, Brookside—just to name a few.  Each of these brands comes in countless varieties and there are over easily several hundreds of bags of chocolate in each store.  So, chocolate is big business, but there is much more to the industry.   Careful analysis of this curated selection of chocolates reveals much more than what meets the eye in an ordinary trip to the grocery store. 

The adventure exploring this multi-faceted industry begins in a surprising place, the non-traditional chocolate selection in the same CVS store.  Aptly titled “Premium Chocolates,” this stand is much smaller and contains more expensive and more exclusive brands.  This premium selection includes only a handful of brands which provide a stark contrast to the brands above.  Ghirardelli, Russell Stover, Whitman’s, and Lindt’s Excellence, are the most prominent and all owned by Lindt & Sprüngli.  Also making an appearance are Ritter Sport, Endangered Species Chocolate, and Turtles.  There are only two Big Five brands—Raffaello and Ferrero Rocher—both which are owned by the company of the same name, Ferrero.  This display encourages the consumer to associate these chocolates with special occasions, luxury, health, romance, extravagance, and celebration, all events worth the companies hope consumers will splurge for.  Intense Dark, Irresistibly Smooth, Salted Caramel Cascade, Hazelnut Heaven, Sea Salt Soiree, Blood Orange Sunset, Raspberry Radiance, Cherry Tango, 90% cacao content, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Non-GMO verified, gluten free, and numerous other slogans and labels all indicate this chocolate is for the advanced palate and educated consumer.  However, more than a label is often needed to convince customers for the surcharge.  Three common avenues of getting higher prices are trade certifications, better cacao quality, and retail product differences.

First, trade certifications are stamps of approval from agencies that generally commit to serving a mission like paying higher cacao prices to farmers, working to end child and forced labor, helping develop community infrastructure in Africa and other cacao-growing regions, and many more.  So many organizations with so many different names and goals pose a difficulty to consumers trying to select which certification is best supporting the industry.  To give an example, one of the most popular is Fairtrade, which is overseen by Fairtrade International.  As Kristy Leissle explains, “Fairtrade International is an intermediary between labeling organizations and producer organizations.  Labeling organizations certify that chocolate companies comply with Fairtrade price terms, and that producer organizations comply with Fairtrade producer terms” (Leissle 141).  These terms touch on working conditions, the environment, sustainability, child labor, discrimination, and more.  The producers who meet these the necessary conditions and pay a certification fee receive a Fairtrade Minimum Prize on all cocoa sold in return.  While it sounds good in theory, issues arise in practice like the price floor not rising quickly enough with inflation and other ingredients in bars not being certified yet taking advantage of the Fairtrade premium.  As one author explains “I do not challenge the sincerity and ambition of [the Fairtrade] approach, nor the purity of its motives,” but she continues and emphasizes that Fairtrade is “the most recent example of another sophisticated ‘scam’ by the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market.  This noble endeavor for the salvation of the free market was tamed and domesticated by the very forces it wanted to fight” (Sylla 18).  Nevertheless, however misguided a consumer’s perceptions may be and despite procedural problems like those raised by Sylla, trade certifications like Fairtrade are working towards higher profits for vulnerable members of the cacao supply chain and are a means for brands to demonstrate why to pay more for chocolate bars. 

Another way these luxury companies convince consumers to pay more for chocolate is the quality or type of cacao, and in this case the classification of the plant species it comes from.  In order to understand this specification, some historical context and geography is provided.  First, criollo, forastero, and trinitario are the three main types.  Criollo is most associated with the original Mesoamerican cacao plants, distinguished by “long, pointed, warty soft, and deeply ridged pods which contain seeds with white cotyledons.”  Forastero is most associated with plants that originated in South American and Africa which have “hard, round, melonlike pods, and the seeds have purplish cotyledons” (Coe & Coe 26).  From this description it follows that criollo cacao is harder to produce, and it is with fewer pods and higher disease susceptibility.  However, with this additional work and higher risk comes a greater reward in the form of better flavor and improved aroma.  This is compared to forastero which is hardier but looks, tastes, and smells different.  In fact, forastero is often translated as “strange” or “foreign” (Leissle 164).  The remaining category, trinitario, is a hybrid of these two varieties that balances the “desirable vigor of the forastero plant with the superior quality of the criollo bean” (Coe & Coe 26).  This simple classification system has faced challenges in recent years as scientific studies claim the existence of many more varieties.  Nonetheless, with this still as the predominant classification, criollo is found only Mesoamerican regions, forasteros mainly in South America and Africa, and trinitarios in North America, South America, Africa, India, and the Philippines/Indonesia region.  For the 2016-2017 season, the African countries of Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, and Nigeria were forecast to comprise about 71% of world cacao production (Leissle 42).  In addition, it is commonly estimated that forastero provides more than 80% of the world’s cacao crop (Coe & Coe 26).  With its clear production advantage and preference by large cacao conglomerates, forastero thus comprises most of what is known as bulk cocoa.  With this historical context and geographical positioning, it is easy to see how both producers and consumers would pay a premium for criollo chocolate varieties. 

The third means to add value addressed in this post is in the handling of the cacao, the machinery used in processing, or the recipe used to make the retail product.  Once again, it is important to essential to have background knowledge on the industry, from a comprehensive cacao vocabulary to an intricate understanding of the many important steps that lie between the cacao tree to final chocolate bar.  First, there are several important terms to clarify for this post.  These definitions are largely sourced from the 2019 spring semester of the Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food course at Harvard College.  Cacao pods refer to the large and colorful fruits that grow on the trunks of the cacao trees.  The three major types are described in the above paragraph.  The cacao beans are the seeds inside of this pod, covered by the cotyledon which is a white, often sweet, pulp that connects the beans.  The cacao shell or husk is the outer layer of the bean, while the nib is the internal, dried, and fully fermented portion we associate with chocolate.  Chocolate liquor is the what forms from the ground cacao nib.  This liquor has two parts, cocoa butter which is a waxy ivory-colored fat and the cocoa powder which is what remains.  Finally, Dutch-process cocoa refers to the powder if it undergoes alkali treatment to neutralize the harsh acids found in the original cacao.   Also, to briefly review the process, the first step is to have ripe cacao pods on cacao trees.  This is difficult because cacao trees only grow in a range near the equator and it takes roughly five years for a tree to bear fruit.  These ripe pods must be removed carefully to avoid damaging the trunk.  Next, the cacao beans and pulp are removed so that the fermentation process can begin.  This process takes usually takes about a week and often involves several stages.  Fermentation can also occur in a variety of containers, from a makeshift pile of leaves to coolers to wooden boxes.  After this stage is complete, the beans move on to drying which also lasts about 7 days.  The beans are then sorted and bagged before they are transported to the manufacturing facility.  The first step here is to roast the beans and then a process called winnowing where the bean is deshelled, and the cacao nib is separated from the husk.  This nib is ground to form the chocolate liquor and then a hydraulic press extracts the cocoa butter.  One of the final steps before molding and wrapping the bar is conching which aims to evenly distribute the cocoa butter and improve the texture of the chocolate. 

Specialty producers understand the cacao plant and the process and seek high-quality materials or develop mission-driven processes in making unique bars.  The uniqueness and craft can enter at many, nearly all the stages along this supply chain.  Some companies embrace the bean-to-bar model and begin by choosing select cacao pods or varieties, and proceed to oversee fermentation, drying, roasting, and more, customizing every stage until the finished product.  These slight differences can have large impacts on the final taste and other attributes of the bar.  The video above highlights Phil Landers of Land Chocolate, a bean-to-bar company based in London.  Other companies set standards for the bean variety, type and length of fermentation and drying, etc. and then focus on the recipe or the work in the kitchen.  Craft chocolate makers produce far fewer batches or quantities of chocolate and thus tend to focus on fine details more effectively than the commodity cocoa supply chain and companies.  In short, specialty chocolate confectioners try to extract the natural flavors of the bean and experiment with unique processes and flavor combinations, while large companies order beans in bulk and strip all the cocoa down to a uniform powder that can be combined with traditional ingredients (sugar, milk, and butter) to make a consistent, inexpensive, candy staple.  They are nearly two distinct industries, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, connected by the thread of making chocolate.

An examination of Fairtrade, the three types of cacao, and the chocolate-making process provides a better understanding of the differences between the premium chocolate section and the traditional chocolate section in CVS.  The premium section takes advantage of each of these paths while the conventional selection almost exclusively offers Big Five chocolate brands.  While there is insufficient room to analyze the chocolate selections of other specialized, higher-end grocery stores or even chocolate-exclusive shops in this blog post, the differences and the attributes discussed here are likely to be amplified.  With this new enhanced understanding, consumers can now enter the candy aisle with more confidence of what some products are and what they are associated with.  Sidney Mintz suggests a challenge to the conventional “we are what we eat” mantra; “In understanding the relationship between commodity and person, we unearth anew the history of ourselves” (Mintz 211-214).  Knowledge and money are power, and consumers can make choices that will transform industries as we know them, should they choose to.  Maybe one day the conventional chocolate selection will look more like the premium offering in CVS today and the cacao industry will no longer suffer from the many issues it currently battles.  This transformation can start one consumer at a time.  So, the next time you enter the grocery store realize the influence you have.  If you won’t take my word for it, listen to Bill Gates—”When I walk into a grocery store and look at all the products you can choose, I say ‘My God!’ No king ever had anything like I have in my grocery store today” (Kurtz & Boone 72).

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Kurtz, David L., and Louis E. Boone. Contemporary Business. South-Western Cengage Learning, 2009.

Landers, Phil.  “Bean to Bar – Meet London’s Single Origin Chocolate Pioneer.” YouTube, Design Milk, 22 Jan. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3QjYCZ2-xs.

Leissle, Kristy.  Cocoa.  1st ed., Polity Press, 2018.

Lyza.  The New Fred Meyer on Interstate on Lombard, https://www.flickr.com/photos /lyza/49545547

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.

“Supermarket Facts.” The Voice of Food Retail, Food Marketing Institute, www.fmi.org/our-research/supermarket-facts.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba. Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. 1st ed., Ohio University Press, 2014.

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