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 aback 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.
Though 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 sector 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 conditions 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!
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!
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)
Geffner, Dana. “Cocoa Farming: The Key to Reversing Deforestation in West Africa.” Huffington Post, (Jan. 2018) Online.
Image and Video Credits
Chocolate Sign image: http://www.buttonhillcottage.com
Indulgence Chocolate image: friend took photo, 2018
“A Few Great Bakeries.” PBS video, August, 2015
Organic image: http://www.organicsulfurosblog.wordpress.com
“Cacao Organic Growing and Harvesting.” Navitas video, September, 2010
Fair Trade Certified logo image: http://www.fairtradecertified.org
Omanhene chocolate bar image: friend took photo, 2018
Not-for-Profit class video: Nutella Advert, created by Emilie Thoreson on vimeo, 2015