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The Chocolate Interview: Impact of Chocolate’s Role

To understand chocolate’s impact on our lives, I interviewed a friend who happens to be a chocolate lover. Her profession is interior design so she likes quality products, therefore it was no surprise that her high-standards extended to the world of chocolate. It was a very insightful conversation, which started off with her weekly consumption habits. I wanted to gage how it compared with the average consumer’s consumption level. Considering she loves chocolate, I was quite taken abackButton Hill Cottage pic when she answered with such precision that she consumes three ounces of chocolate per week, which equates to almost ten pounds of chocolate per year. At first glance, I thought that seemed pretty low. But I recall from Dr. Martin’s lecture, stating that in 2016, consumers in the US ate 12 pounds of chocolate per person on average. So my friend was pretty much in the ballpark!

The chocolate that she tends to gravitate towards is dark chocolate because she says it has a higher cacao content. Interestingly enough, her go-to chocolate is not actual chocolate bars, rather it is baked goods, followed by drinking chocolate and then chocolate bars.

Indulgence Chocolatier picThough when it comes to dark chocolate, she emphasized it must be 70 percent or less in cacao content because beyond that, she does not enjoy it. To the left is a photo of the chocolate she buys when she does buy chocolate bars, though she admits that she isn’t brand-loyal. In keeping with her belief system, she tends to support small local businesses like this one. What struck me the most is when she informed me that she does not pay close attention to the ingredients as a deciding factor when purchasing anything with chocolate. But she had a logical reason, since her purchases are weighted heavier on baked goods, as it relates to chocolate, she tends to buy from local bakeries because she believes they use higher grades of chocolate and ingredients. Below is a video on the popularity of bakeries due to their characteristics of quality.

I proceeded to ask if she perceived organic chocolate to be superior in taste. While she has never done a comparison of either organic versus non-organic, her assumption was that organic must taste better since it’s being produced in a healthier way. In other words, it was pesticide-free, therefore since it was better quality, it should taste better. Though she readily admitted that she did not have a clear understanding of organic, her understanding was mostly that it had less chemicals. This exchange with my friend reminded me of Guthman’s “Fast Food/Organic Food” article in which she talks about California’s organic salad mix craze. After all, it was salad mix that jump-started California’s organic sectorganic sulfuros blog.wordpressor and it helped establish organic food as a precious, niche product (Guthman, 497). The equation of organic with high value brought a rash of new growers into the sector. While pesticides are not used, there are still fertility needs to be met and though the fertilizer may be organic, it may still have an undesirable consequence. In the case of baby greens, some fertilizers are known to destroy micro-organisms and contribute to ground water pollution, as Guthman cites. Though in the case of cacao, micro-organisms go to work, stirring into about four hundred different chemicals and organic substances that transform a bland bean into the raw material that is the essence of what makes chocolate seductive (Off, 3).

So when it comes to cacao farming, organic is also touted as better. Most folks are no different than my friend in their belief that organic chocolate must taste better. Though in reality, it’s a false assurance of quality since something can be organic while simultaneously being of lesser quality. For instance, as we learned in one of Dr. Martin’s lectures, in most instances the best chocolate may be sent abroad, while the lesser quality chocolate may be sold locally. A good example of this is the Cocoa Processing Company (or Golden Tree Ghana) in Ghana, which produce chocolate bars but the lesser quality stays in Ghana, while the best stuff is sent to other countries. Another Ghanaian company known as Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company is actually headquartered in Milwaukee and is mostly sold in the US, but the chocolate is made in Ghana. Since its purpose is to be sold, primarily, in the United States, it is understood the chocolate will be of higher quality.

It is important to keep in mind that just because something is not labeled organic does not mean it is not organic and that it’s of lesser quality. Simply, organic certification can be obstacles for many small independent producers who cannot afford the expense of being certified. Below is a video of an organic chocolate producer that not only describes its process from harvesting of cacao to retail packaging, but it goes so far as to tout its health benefits and its importance to the local community. My friend made it clear to me that she does not buy chocolate on its perceived health benefits, but simply because she loves the taste of chocolate.

Indeed, organic does not equate to fair trade, as the conditions in California’s lettuce industry relied on marginalized immigrant workers. In cacao farming, the conditifair-trade-logoons are no better and in certain parts of the world, they are quite worse by the use of child trafficking and slavery. When I asked my friend to tell me what she knew about fair trade, her response was that “ideally farmers were paid a living wage and did not engage in child labor.” In a nutshell, she was pretty accurate. Products that bear the fair trade certified logo, pictured on the right, come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated.

In 2009, there was a study done by Tulane University and it found that 1 million children in Ghana worked on cocoa-related activities in 2008, and less than 10 percent of them were actually paid. According to Dr. Martin, she stated that in 2013/14, over 2 million children were involved in hazardous work in Ghana and Côte d’lvoire. Unfortunately, Côte d’lvoire has been a haven for violence, particularly in the coveted cocoa groves, where much of the fighting has been over ownership of cocoa-producing land, as conflicting interests vie for control of its agricultural wealth (Off, 4). But the most horrific headlines have been the trafficking of children from Mali into Côte d’lvoire. Young boys were almost worked to death with very little to eat and slept in bunkhouses that were locked during the night. They were also frequently beaten and worked at gunpoint (Off, 121). While there has been some efforts to curtail child labor, not enough has been done considering the amount of cacao that is supplying the five major chocolate companies (Hershey’s, Nestle, Mars, Ferrero, and Cadbury), and hence, they are extremely profitable at the expense of human rights in West Africa.

Though, there is a silver lining for some farmers in West Africa who want to do things differently. The key is a new ecologically-based, natural resource management approach known as agroforestry. This system cuts costs and labor for farmers while promoting the integration of diverse food and timber. To learn more about agroforestry, click here.

I asked my friend where she thought the majority of cacao came from and she replied South/Central America. She was quite stunned when I informed her that almost 75 percent is actually coming from West Africa. She has never visited a region that produces chocolate nor has taken a chocolate tour. But this week, we will be meeting up to do a chocolate tasting and I will be extending some of the knowledge I gained from this class. In the meantime, I sent her on a mission to find the Omanhene chocolate bar that Dr. Martin mentioned during her lecture, since my friend lives in Milwaukee where the company has its headquarters, so that we may taste chocolate that is made in Ghana. She completed her mission in record-time! No sooner than I mentioned it and she had gone to the store and purchased it. Here’s a picture she sent me to prove it. Lol!

Omanhene chocolate back

When asked if chocolate serves as a comfort food for her, she replied, “definitely.” And she’s not alone in this, as David Benton argues, chocolate is by far the most common food item that people crave, especially when they are emotionally distressed. He adds that the attraction of chocolate lies in its taste (Benton, 206). In a study Benton carried out, he discovered some insights into the relationship between negative mood and chocolate craving. Essentially those who craved chocolate displayed a weakness for chocolate when under emotional stress. Some of the reasons he discovered in his study uncovered responses that dealt with being bored, upset, or feeling down. Interestingly enough, Robert Albritton argues that the ideal food ingredient for profit purposes is something that is cheap and that consumers crave (Albritton, 344). He says that sweetness is the most desired taste which makes sense and as a result, it’s what makes chocolate more appealing. Below is a video created by a non-for-profit class that spoofs the lengths that companies will go to, to make us crave their product. It’s actually not far off from what companies do on a regular basis to prey on our senses.

After taking this class, it’s made me more inquisitive in everything relating to chocolate. It takes me much longer to get through the chocolate aisle as I pay particular attention to what labels are on the packaging and what ingredients are in the chocolate. It’s also made me curious on how others perceive chocolate, which is why I asked my friend if the words cacao and cocoa represented the same thing to her. She answered, yes. But in fact, there is a slight difference. Historically, the word cacao has been used to define the raw material from the cacao tree. While the word cocoa is the Anglicization of the word cacao, but it’s most commonly used to refer to the commodity once it has been processed. The use of the word cacao instead of cocoa is symbolically important in the niche, fine-cacao chocolate community, where it’s a point of distinction from bulk commodity cocoa (Dr. Martin lecture).

After interviewing my friend for this project, it was quite clear that she buys chocolate for its taste but is also meticulous in her shopping habits, particularly when it comes to her shopping behavior. She leans heavily towards buying local products and supporting small businesses, which she perceives as higher quality than mass-produced cocoa in bulk. While there wasn’t a difference to her in the words cacao and cocoa, it was apparent that she is more into the niche products which would fit in with the definition of cacao. It was clear that she looks for quality chocolate based on her revelations during our interview. I hope through my brief conversation with her, I was able to impart some newfound knowledge on chocolate and perhaps, moving forward, she will be able to look at it through a different lens, when in the chocolate aisle. I am in anticipation to continue the conversation with her through our chocolate tasting this week, and see her reaction to the various nuances of flavor in chocolate. It will be interesting to see what words she’ll use to describe some of the uniqueness that is inherent by some chocolate producers. If I am allowed to write a follow-up post to this chocolate blog for fun since the class will be over by then, I will happily do so. Until then, happy chocolate tasting to my friend and I!


Works Cited

Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” Food and Culture (Routledge, New York, NY, 2013), pp. 342-352

Benton, David. “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.” Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain (CRC Press LLC, Boca Raton, FL, 2004), pp. 205-218

Guthman, Julie. “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of Yuppie Chow.” Food and Culture (Routledge, New York, NY, 2013), pp. 496-509

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet (The New Press, New York, NY, 2008)

Works Consulted

Geffner, Dana. “Cocoa Farming: The Key to Reversing Deforestation in West Africa.” Huffington Post, (Jan. 2018) Online.

Image and Video Credits

Chocolate Sign image:

Indulgence Chocolate image: friend took photo, 2018

“A Few Great Bakeries.” PBS video, August, 2015

Organic image:

“Cacao Organic Growing and Harvesting.” Navitas video, September, 2010

Fair Trade Certified logo image:

Omanhene chocolate bar image: friend took photo, 2018

Not-for-Profit class video: Nutella Advert, created by Emilie Thoreson on vimeo, 2015







The (R)evolution of Chocolate from Elite to an Everyday Comfort Food

luxury vintage adCacao was seen as an exotic, luxurious product, often being associated with the “luxury-loving” people of the hot lands of the Gulf Coast and the Maya lowlands from where it originated. The drinking of chocolate was limited to the Aztec elite, which consisted of lords, long-distance merchants, and warriors. The folks who led austere lives, such as priests, were not privy to chocolate beverages. The chocolate beverage was either drunk at the close of a meal or intermittently by the ruling class (Coe, 95). The association of drinking chocolate went hand-in-hand with high social standing (Presilla, 25). The Aztec royalty celebrated music, dance, and chocolate, and expressed it through poems. Chocolate was extremely important to them and so revered, that it was an essential part of their expression.

A couple of months ago, National Geographic released a rare Aztec map, known as the Codex Quetzalecatzin from 1500’s Mexico, which was acquired by the Library of Congress. It provides wonderful insight as to the relationship between the Mexican indigenous people and the arrival of the Spanish. It was during the Baroque age that cacao found its way in Baroque palaces and mansions of the wealthy and powerful. Though it had been an elite drink among the Mesoamericans, it continued with the overdressed royalty of Europe (Coe, 125). This included Baroque Spain. In fact, it was the Spanish who first married chocolate and sugar (Presilla, 25). It is no surprise since Spain was extremely wealthy and the production of sugar in the transatlantic slave trade made them even wealthier. This is how the story of cacao and chocolate went from a valuable commodity and an elite drink, respectively, to a relatively cheap product that is consumed by the large masses. Industrialization and the transatlantic slave trade played a pivotal role in chocolate’s evolution.

Chocolate on its own was not palatable but sugar changed that. The increased production of sugar is what fueled the transatlantic slave trade. In the West Indies, sugar was being produced at such a large scale, by the influx of slaves brought to work rigorously on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Central America, even to the detriment of their health. For many of the colonizers, the well-being of the slaves were the least of their concerns since they could just bring in more slaves. The demand for sugar by the Europeans and the money to be made was just too great to care about any human rights since in their eyes, slaves were less than human, they were property. An example of a mill that was used in the production of sugar by the colonizers is still standing to this day in Aguada, Puerto Rico. I visited it in person last year and it is quite a scary site, not just because of its run-down condition but moreover because one can almost feel the horrific conditions that the workers underwent in the mill.


Abandoned Sugar Mill, “Central Coloso”                     Aguada, Puerto Rico


It is not a coincidence that the rise of sugar production and consumption gave rise to the production of cacao and chocolate consumption. Hence, the success of chocolate was the success of sugar (Mintz, 114). The uses of sugar as a sweetener grew, not just for chocolate beverages, but for chocolate food products, such as bars and brownies. New foods and beverages were incorporated into daily life unusually fast, and sugar played an important role (Mintz, 120). Many companies can be attributed to incorporating chocolate into our daily lives as a “must-have” pantry staple. To their credit, they created powerful messages via advertising mediums, which made sure the message they conveyed was loud and clear, even if the ads were not necessarily truthful. Hershey’s had an impeccable way of creating the image of chocolate as a healthy food item that could be used as a meal in itself.  NotHershey meal ad pic (2) only as a meal, but as a health supplement that would lead to great health according to the ad’s claims, by shhershey-s-syrup ad picowing a mom and her two kids using chocolate to keep the family healthy and as stepping stones to even greater health. The ad does not have many words but the artwork itself depicts everything you need to know about chocolate and particularly, Hershey’s chocolate. Simply put, if you wanted better health then you must have Hershey’s chocolate. Part of what moved chocolate into the mainstream, beyond technology and the advancement of sugar production, is smart advertising like the ones shown here.

But we can’t blame Hershey’s for taking the health approach to sell more chocolate. Even today, it is being marketed and branded as a health food. In fact, it is being taken a step further by incorporating “healthy” ingredients. But let’s be clear, it’s still candy. Here is a recent NY Times article celebrating new “healthy” chocolate products on the market currently.

Chocolate–a product that evolved from an elite status to an everyday food–can be attributed to the way technology had helped rev up the manufacturing of it and thus making it more widely available and accessible. Interestingly enough, as with most food products these days, the old way of making chocolate is making a comeback, as more people are craving quality and traceability. So the everyday-comfort-food has been getting a makeover in fine cacao production. Here’s a look at the ancient art of chocolate-making in Guatemala.



On the other side of that equation is the mass-produced version at Cadbury. To portray the image of quality, their chocolate-makers wear white lab coats, which make them appear as expert chocolatiers. Granted Cadbury has years of experience making chocolate but it’s quite a contrast from the above video in ancient chocolate-making.



It’s hard to imagine a world where chocolate was limited to the few especially since it so ubiquitous in our lives now. Whether you visit a coffee shop or a local food mart, you will be hard-pressed not to find chocolate in some form. Though it is easily accessible by the general population and not just by the elite, when it comes to quality, it seems that it is still the wealthy elite that will be able to afford to purchase the best stuff. Yes, society has changed and technology has advanced but human nature still covets the category of limited edition. It seems, some things never change.


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate (Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 2013)

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Penguin Random House LLC, New York, 1985)

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes (Crown Publishing Group, New York, 2009)

Works Consulted

Miller, Greg. “Rare Aztec Map Reveals a Glimpse of Life in 1500s Mexico.” National Geographic, (Dec. 2017) Online Edition.

Molvar, Kari. “The New Healthier Chocolate.” The New York Times, (Feb. 2018) Online Edition.

Image and Video Credits

Cioccolato Appassionato image:

Hershey’s images:

Sugar Mill Aguada, PR image: personal, 2016.

Central Coloso Sugar Mill video. Directed by Julio Pascual, 2016.

“The Ancient Art of Chocolate Making.” National Geographic video, September 11, 2017.

“Chocolate Making at Cadbury World.” YouTube video, June 5, 2017.