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Taza and Theo: An Investigation of Ethical Chocolate Making

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Recent years have shown the chocolate industry to be riddled with alarming socioeconomic and ethical dilemmas spanning from child labor to racial prejudice and sexism (Berlan 1089-1090). The interwoven issues facing the chocolate industry are daunting and suggest that chocolate cannot be divorced from the web of exploitation that often follows in its wake.  While large chocolate companies like Hershey’s and Mars continue to dominate the industry despite suffering harsh comments from critics, some chocolate companies have taken up the challenge to produce and sell chocolate while intentionally pursuing ethical practices. This investigation takes a look at two small chocolate companies: Taza Chocolate and Theo.

The Companies


Taza Chocolate

“We make and share stone ground chocolate that is seriously good and fair for all.” 

Taza Chocolate is located in Somerville, Massachusetts and specializes in stone ground chocolate. Taza was launched in 2005 by founder Alex Whitmore and his wife and brand manager, Kathleen Fulton (Taza Chocolate). Whitmore was inspired to produce stone ground chocolate after traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico where he had his first taste of the delicacy and became the apprentice of a molinero to learn how to master the production technique. Taza describes itself as “a pioneer in ethical cacao sourcing” and hails itself as the “first U.S. chocolate maker to establish a third-party certified Direct Trade Cacao Certification program” (Taza Chocolate).

Theo Chocolate

“As a company rooted in cocoa, our mission is to help create a beautiful, compassionate and enduring world by responsibly making delicious and inspiring products for everyone.”

            The Theo cholocate company is located in Seattle, Washington and was founded in 2006 by Joe Whinney. Theo prides itself in being the first “run of organic chocolate” made in the in the United States (Theo Chocolate). The founding of Theo was the legacy of Joe Whinney’s passion for making a difference in the injustice and exploitation he witnessed as he traveled Central America and Africa during the 1990s. Per Theo, their chocolate is crafted with “only the purest ingredients grown in the most sustainable way possible” to meet the “highest standards for organic, Fair Trade, and Fair for Life, organizations which promote equitable trade practices for small farmers abroad (Theo Chocolate).


Tackling the Dark Past of Chocolate


The Problem: Transparency

Although the grim realities of the chocolate industry have been revealed in recent years, the lucrative field is still shrouded in mystery, as many chocolate companies are not forthcorming with the inner workings of their firms. The issue of transparency extends to many foreign governments which are vague and negligent about the treatment of poor cacao laborers in their countries. Taza Chocolate and Theo endeavor to increase their transparency by providing information on their sourcing, bean to bar technique, and certifications.

Taza Chocolate is open to vistors seven days a week to tours and visits. Taza provides a team of “chocolate guides” who are always savailable to answer questions about the companies process and mission (Taza Chocolate). Taza also hosts community events such as its annual Taza Chocolate Block Party, which features food, music, and art. Taza annually posts a “Transparency Report” on its website, which provides import figures for the years production and features the names of specific farmers the company works with (Taza Chocolate).

Theo Chocolate also offers tours, which provide not only a glimpse into its factory and processes, but teaches visitors about the social and environmental issues relation to cacao and cacao farmers. Theo allows its visitors to witness the company’s chocolate making techniques and provides events ranging from children’s classes to chocolate and tea pairing classes (Theo Chocolate). The welcoming atmosphere advertised by the two companies encourages customers to not only visit but engage with the intricacies of the companies’ chocolate making processes. Theo publicizes its pricing guidelines and claims to strive for “all the cocoa farmers they do business with” to taste the chocolate made from their beans. The transparency of these companies keeps customers informed and holds the companies to their commitment to organic and fair chocolate.


The Problem: Sourcing

            The sources from which chocolate companies obtain their cacao is a hot topic of debate because of issues such as child labor, slavery, and the exploitation of small farmers. Many of these workers receive unfair wages, work in harsh conditions, and cannot send their children to school. The discourse on sourcing has been significant for over a century, featuring key figures such as William Cadbury, founder of Cadbury Chocolate. In the earlier 1900s, Cadbury encountered trouble in of Sao Tome, an island from which his company obtained cacao beans despite the regions use of slave labor (Satre 19). Cadbury grappled with the issue of slave labor throughout his career, and today Cadbury chocolate is still a key player in the chocolate industry. Unlike the early, unethical history of Cadbury, Taza and Theo both claim to ethically source their chocolate and pay fair prices.

Taza Chocolate sources its cacao from its “Grower Partners” in the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Haiti. Taza provides a detailed profile for each of its cacao producers which featues information including the country region, number of farmers, duration of partnership, tasting notes which contribute to the terroire of their chocolate, history of the region, and pictures of the farmers with Taza employees (Taza Chocolate). The through information Taza provides truly puts faces to the names of the farmers and displays Taza’s direct and personal engagement with their cacao producers.

Theo Chocolate currently sources its cacao from Peru and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Theo also publicizes the sources of some of its other ingredients, such as their Hazelnuts from Turkey and coconuts from the Philippines (Theo Chocolate). Like Taza, Theo regularly visits its cacao suppliers. Theo directly negotiates prices with its suppliers and provides training on suitable agricultural practices. With its model, Theo claims that farmers know how much income to expect from their harvests. While Theo provides the names of its two suppliers, the Norandino Cooperative in Peru and Esco-Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Theo does not provide the same detailed supplier profiles as Taza.

From “Bean to Bar”

Both Taza and Theo outline Theo outline their chocolate making process. Taza’s process moves from roasting to stone grinding in molinos, to preparing the final product. Theo’s process spans from sourcing fine cacao beans to, to conching, to wrapping the finished product—a bean to bar endeavor.

The Problem: Certification

Taza utilizes its own fair trade certification, known as Taza Direct Trade Certified Cacao (Taza Chocolate). Per Taza, this certification does away with “predatory middlemen and abusive labor practices” (Taza Chocolate). Taza Direct Trade guarantees face to face relationship with producers who respect the environment and fair labor. Taza claims its producers provide the company with the best organic cacao and that it pays farmers prices significantly higher than Fair Trade, including a 15 to 20 percent premium.

Theo Chocolate operates under the Fair Trade system. Fair Trade is an international system that awards certifications which ensures that producers have paid a price to enable positive economic growth for the individual and their region (Theo Chocolate). Fair trade claims that its farmers are better able to provide their families with sufficient nutrition and access to healthcare and education.

Theo’s operations are covered under the Fair for Life Fair Trade certification. This certification means that a third party analyzes the company’s operations and keeps it accountable to the Theo commitments to labor and working environments. This specific qualification certifies ethical labor conditions along the entire supply chain, in particular no forced child labor (Theo Chocolate).Theo claims to earn high scores and demonstrate improvement each year. In addition to its Fair Trade certification, Theo chocolate is USDA organic, Non GMO Project verified, and kosher.

While the certifications of Taza and Theo represent a huge step towards fair chocolate production, the certification systems are not without faults. Fair Trade has been criticized for the limited reach of funds in the developing world, as many small farmers do not actually receive the extra funds from the premiums paid by companies (Sylla 90-91). This problem is exacerbated by the extra fees farmers must pay to participate in the program, and the collateral issue of other farmers who lose competition by not participating in the program. Direct trade is viewed as an alternative to the Fair Trade system, promoting direct communication and price negotiation between cacao buyers and farmers. However, Direct Trade also receives criticism for its limited reach and the fragile, temporary relationships that often exist between buyers and sellers. However, the advertising of Taza and Theo claims to combat these shortcomings by advertising the close relationships between their companies and their cacao producers.

The Problem: Advertising

            Advertising in the chocolate industry is often rife with gendered and racialized stereotypes and tropes, with are only perpetuated by the widespread industry (Leissle 126). An example of such advertising, is the Dove chocolate commercial pictured below. In the ad, a woman experiences a tantalizing sensual experience as she consumes the dove chocolate. The appears to primarily target women, who will seek to emulate the experience of the women in the commercial, while others, primarily men, with be attracted by the sexualized overtones of the ad.

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Dove Commercial


Taza’s advertisement focuses almost entirely on their chocolate making process. Taza does not exploit the tropes so often relied on by other players in the chocolate industry. Instead, Taza chooses to provide a glimpse into the bean to bar chocolate production process the company boasts so proudly.


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Taza Chocolate Advertisement
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Early Theo Chocolate Advertisement. This video features a message from the company’s founder and describe their commitment to ethical practices.

Today, Theo primarily advertises through its website and the images it features. However, the video above advertises Theo’s win of the title “Heart of Seattle”. The video praises the community values and environmental mindfulness of the company since its founding in 2006. Like Taza, the Theo Chocolate advertisement focuses on the unique qualities of the company, rather than stereotypical advertisement techniques.

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Theo Chocolate Advertisement

Granted one must acknowledge that Taza and Theo are both small companies whose ads are not televised, thus their motives and techniques are slightly different than that of a major company like Dove. Nevertheless, the focus of their websites and publicity are on the good-naturedness of their chocolate and production techniques.


With the prevalence on exploitive and secretive chocolate companies, Taza Chocolate and Theo are a refreshing break from the saddening trends. The two small companies truly engage with the chocolate making process from the bean all the way to the bar, functioning on a primarily local rather than global scale. Theo and Taza exemplify the beginning of ethical practices in the chocolate industry, although the industry still has a long way to go before it is equitable for all.


Works Cited

“About Taza.” Taza Chocolate,

Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on

Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana.” Journal of Development Studies, vol.

     49, no. 8, 2013, pp. 1088–1100., doi:10.1080/00220388.2013.780041.

“Dove Chocolate Commercial – Senses.” YouTube, 6 May 2013,


“Home – Spring 2018.” Theo Chocolate,

Leissle, Kristy. “Cosmopolitan Cocoa Farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate

Advertisements.” Journal of African Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 2012, pp. 121–139.,


“Our Story.” Theo Chocolate,

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

Univ.Press, 2006.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba. The Fair Trade Scandal Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Ohio

University Press, 2014.

Taza Chocolate, director. Taza Chocolate “Bean to Bar.” Vimeo, 8 Dec. 2011,

Theo Chocolate, director. 2018 Heart of Seattle Winner – Theo Chocolate. 18 Apr. 2018,

Theo Chocolate, director. Theo Chocolate. YoutTube, 27 Mar. 2009,



The Legendary Cacao: Ancient Mayan Religion and the “Food of the Gods”

The global importance of cacao today is rooted in a widespread love of chocolate. The chocolate industry is one that is lucrative yet exploitive, enticing but oppressive—yet all based on the versatile fruit cacao. Cacao, named the “food of the gods” (theobroma cacao) by Carl Linnaeus, gleans its importance today from its role in the chocolate industry, but in the ancient Maya civilization cacao’s significance was as much religious as it was dietary (Luna 87). This post will explore artifacts from the classical period of the Mayan civilization (500-800 CE) and evidence of cacao’s influential spiritual significance. The ancient artifacts explored showcase cacao’s intimate relationship with the human origin story of the ancient Maya. These spiritual beliefs laid the foundation for the important role cacao would play in Mayan civilization from a social, religious, and alimentary perspective.

Cacao and the Origin of Life

As  Maya hieroglyphic specialist Gabrielle Vail explains, the role of cacao was grounded in an ancient history that traced back to the creation of humanity.  According to the Popol Vuh, and ancient Mayan epic, cacao is one of the “precious substances”, along with corn, that poured from the “Sustenance Mountain” to ultimately create humanity (Vail 4). Before cacao catalyzed the creation of human beings, it belonged to the realm of the Underworld lords, where it “grew from the body of the sacrificed god of maize, who was defeated by the lords of the Underworld in an earlier era” (Vail 4). Later the god of maize would be resurrected by his sons the Hero Twins, who overcame the gods of the Underworld, ushering in the advent of human life (Vail 4).

 The Maize God in the Sustenance Mountain

The work of historian Simon Martin provides great insight on the role of cacao in Classical Mayan religion. The image below displays a black ware vase and Martin’s sketch of the artifact. Known as the Berlin vase, it depicts what Martin calls the “transubstantiation of man, maize, and cacao” (156). Produced in the Early Classic period, the artifact illustrates the mythological tale of cacao’s divine role. The vase depicts the death and transformation of the maize god, and the new lord who would follow in his footsteps (Martin 157). The lord who continues in the maize god’s steps is represented by the middle tree, which sprouts two cacao pods. The corpse of the maize god, reduced to a skeleton, can be seen at the base of the image.

Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 158.

The Maize God as a Cacao Tree

                  The image below is from a small stone bowl from the Early Classic era of Mayan civilization (250-600 CE). Martin analyzes the relationship between the artistic imagery and hieroglyphic text in this piece. Per Martin, the ripe cacao pods that adorn the man’s limbs and the “wavy wood motifs” which decorate his skin, indicate that this artifact depicts an anthropomorphic cacao tree (155). Although this deity has been dubbed a ‘Cacao God’ Martin argues that references to cacao in the image instead depict the Maize God as “the embodiment of a cacao tree” (155-156). Martin substantiates this conclusion through the translation of the hieroglyphs, which roughly translate to “Maize Tree God” (156). This combination of cacao imagery and maize deity inscription led Martin, like Vail, to the sixteenth-century K’iche’ Maya epic, the Popul Vuh,  a mythological tale in which both the artifact’s text and depiction make sense.


Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 155.


The Maize God as a World Tree

This image below is Simon Martin’s sketch of the lid of a Late Classic period ceramic censer which depicts an arched maize god with a cacao pod in his headdress (Martin 167). The artifact depicts the maize god in an inverted posture bearing a cacao pod. The depiction of the god is reminiscent of the idea of World Trees, which were often depicted with inverted postures (see the inverted crocodilian tree below). The artifact continues in line with the Popul Vuh, with the maize god now appearing as a World Tree. World Trees are a vital concept with ancient Mayan lore. According to the colonial era Chilam Bam documents of Yucutan, world trees helped define the limits of the cosmos and the cardinal directions (Martin 165). The depiction of the maize god as a World Tree followed his death and consequent rebirth as such a tree.

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Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 167.
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Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of
Florida, 2009, p. 159.

The artifacts explored demonstrate the high value attributed to cacao within the religion of the ancient Mayan civilization. Cacao was revered on a cosmic and existential level, central to the organization of the universe and the creation of humanity. Anahi Luna suggests another spiritual connection the Maya had to cacao, by highlighting their affinity for plants with anthropomorphic structures. This idea can explain the sacred nature of both cacao and corn within the culture, both of which possess an orderly arrangement of seeds (Luna 85). The prevalence of cacao within Mayan spirituality would continue, allowing cacao to play an important role cacao in rituals, offerings, wedding ceremonies, and eventually be used as currency (Vail 5-6).


Works Cited

           Grivetti, Louis Evan, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and
Heritage. Wiley, 2009.
            Luna, Anahi. “Chocolate III: Ritual, Art, and Memory.” Artes De Mexico, no. 110,
June 2013, pp. 72–96. JSTOR [JSTOR],
           Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a
Cultural History of Cacao, by Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase, University Press of
Florida, 2009, pp. 154–183.