On May 2nd, 2019, my two friends and I decided to hold a chocolate tasting in our dorm room, for our big final project. In order to save money, we chose to jointly purchase six chocolate bars from a store in Harvard Square. We collected a group of six acquaintances together to taste the chocolate with us, collecting their comments. While we coordinated in data collection and logistics, we did not coordinate in the creation of our final reports. I am excited to eventually compare our different takeaways from this project.
The six bars we chose are Cote D’ Or’s Lait-Melk bar, Valrhona’s Blond Dulcey bar, Taza Chocolate’s 80% Dark Dominican Republic bar, Taza Chocolate’s 84% Dark Haiti bar, Antidote’s 84% Cacao bar, and Antidote’s 100% Raw Cacao bar. The packages for each of these bars can be seen in the designated pictures below.
We chose these bars for a variety of reasons. The two Taza bars have similar cacao contents and are from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, respectively. One of the Antidote bars also has a similar cacao percentage but is from Ecuador. These three bars allow us to explore the concept of Terroir. According to Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay, “(terroir is) at once the most meaningless and meaningful term in wine, and still has the power to raise hackles and incite debate . . . The term, which was once owned wholly by the French, has now permeated the general vocabulary of wine and food in many other languages.[i]” In short, “Terroir” is the idea that a food is imbued with the essence of the location in which it was produced. Cheese from Wisconsin, wine from France, and raisins from California, are all examples of Terroir-based food marketing.
Our sample size was only six people, but our respondents were pretty consistent in saying that they didn’t notice much of a difference in taste between the three bars; this implies that these laymen did not notice any Terroir-effects. They were sensitive to textural anomalies but felt that the flavor was mostly indistinguishable. None of the group was able to tell the difference between the Taza bars, though their special “stone ground” texture resulted in a clear grainy consistency that each respondent noted. One respondent did mention that the Haiti bar had “a slight something, as if it were sitting next to a crate of raisins for a while.” Another chimed in that the light brush of flavor was not very significant; it reminded him of La Croix. Aside from these two insights, all descriptions of flavor between the bars was consistent.
This is consistent with McNeil and Riello’s discussion of French and Italian products. “Consumers today tend to think that people have always loved (them); this is not the case. In the case of French regional wines, the allure of such products was created only between the end of the nineteenth century and the Vichy years of the Second World War, a period in which the consumption of regional products was linked to a new vision of tourism made possible via the improved roads of the Routes Nationales 6 and 7. This led to a renewed emphasis on ‘regional styles’ and ‘folkloric traditions’ adapted to a completely new luxury market that stressed the importance of terroir and region, rather than just urban gastronomy.[ii]” In short, the concept of “Terroir” was made up to advertise French produce. While I would need more data to officially prove that Terroir doesn’t exist, our small taste-test seemed to lean towards that conclusion.
Taste Test Results
|Brand||Type||Cacao %||Focus Group Adjectives|
|Cote D’ Or||Lait-Melk||> 50% (unspecified)||Boring “Christmas chocolate,” Hershey-like, cheap,|
|Valrhona||Blond Dulcey||32||Toffee-esque, Doesn’t have a taste, delayed taste, creamy,
|Antidote||Cacao Bar (w/ nibs)||84||Salty, Sour, Bitter, Like cooking chocolate, crunchy,|
|Antidote||Raw Cacao Bar (w/ nibs)||100||Not soft, tree bark, earthy/soil, slow to melt, like a coffee bean,
“It tastes like punishment”
|Taza Chocolate||Dark Dominican Republic||80||Crunchy/flaky, aerated, gritty/sandpaper, sandy,|
|Taza Chocolate||Dark Hatian||Same texture as above – Fruity – Raisin adjacent, like a La Croix, Fruit flavor,|
People would be willing to spend $5-$12
They all said they’d pay more for wine than chocolate
They all said they’d be willing to pay more for chocolate than a burrito
Most of the group said they’d prefer a Hershey bar to each of the alternatives, despite those same friends expressing a preference for darker chocolate.
Our one British friend said he didn’t like any of this chocolate. He said he prefers Cadbury.
We chose the Cote D’Or bar and the Valrhona Blond Dulcey bar to compare with the Antidote 100% Cacao bar. I wanted to get a good understanding of how our friends reacted to cocoa butter, sugar, and milk content; their primary observation was that the darker a chocolate bar is, the more they feel it is worth. The members of our focus group told us this explicitly but, more importantly, when we gave them the Cote D’Or Bar, which had the highest cocoa butter content, the first reaction was “this tastes cheap . . . like Christmas chocolate.” The feeling that cacao content is proportional to value held up through the entire tasting among all our participants.
On May 1st, a guest lecturer discussed how Mexican food is underpriced when compared to other alternatives. “If you go to an Italian restaurant, they’ll charge you $20 – 25 for a bowl of pasta . . . Mexican food costs more to make in terms of ingredients and labor but people aren’t willing to pay that much for it.” Keeping this quote in mind, I asked my friends how much they would pay for one of the chocolate bars we tasted. Their responses ranged from $8 – 12. “Would you pay more for this than a burrito,” I asked them. “Absolutely,” one respondent replied. The others quickly agreed.
Luxury and Organic Labeling
Chocolate is seen as a luxury product, both in our focus group and more broadly. Looking at the packages of each of our chosen bars, it’s pretty clear that chocolate companies are leaning into the luxury-angle. The bars we picked were each graced with distinctive fonts, artistic logos, and iconic color schemes. Each design is simple, yet elegant. Tucked away on the back of the bar are labels, logos, and informative blocs of text, each designed to convey information about the company’s values. Values, themselves, can be a luxury in a competitive market.
According to Peter McNeil and Giorgio Riello, “the true achievement of ‘luxury’ in the twenty-first century has been its ability to beguile as many people as possible in much the same way as mass consumption did in the post-war Western world.[iii]” Luxury is used as a marketing scheme. “It plays on our inner feeling of wanting ‘something better,’ and nurtures the rampant individualism of self-fashioning that has come so much to shape our societies since the 1980s.[iv]” Luxurious products are an expression of self-indulgence, a byproduct of an individualist mindset.
Interestingly, while ‘luxury’ is about individualism, international labeling efforts have focused on communal efforts. These labels address deforestation, unfair trade practices, and sustainability issues. They seek to turn a personal indulgence into collective action. Consumers can selfishly indulge while selflessly making a difference; labels allow consumers to, psychologically, have their chocolate bar and eat it too.
The bars we picked for our taste testing each have their own, mostly unique, labels. The Taza Bars have two different “certified organic” labels. The Antidote bars claim to be made with cocoa from “farms that use organic practices,” though their website says that “working with (officially) certified organic farms would limit us in getting the best quality cacao.” This feels somewhat sketchy, as it isn’t explained very well. Personally, I find organic certifications to be unimpressive anyway. For one, there is no commercially available GMO cacao strain, meaning all cacao is technically organic.[v] These labels have more to do with the other products within the chocolate, presumably the milk.
As Julie Guthman would say, this is “Culinary Luddism.[vi]” She explains that many people believe their food has declined in quality; they feel society needs to return to the way we used to grow food, in order to ensure quality. “The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast; artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty.[vii]” Organic food has not been scientifically proven to be any healthier than genetically modified food. In fact, it is generally faster to rot, less efficient, and much less consistent. The organic label exists as a virtue signal to uninformed chocolate consumers. Little do they know that all chocolate is organic. Or at least, the cacao is.
In this sense, the label is a part of the advertisement. It was already a mostly meaningless declaration, designed to invoke the sentiment of doing something, to counteract the selfishness of indulgence. The organic label goes even one step further in that it actually doesn’t mean anything. Cacao farmers aren’t benefitted when their product is mixed with organic milk from a small Midwestern dairy. Organic chocolate doesn’t help them at all. It has not been proven to be any healthier and, in a general sense, there’s no good reason for it to exist. The whole label is a marketing scheme.
None of this is to say that labels can’t do good. With the exception of the Cote D’Or bar, every chocolate we tried was supplied via Direct Trade. Direct Trade is a new concept for our globalist age. It evolved out of a series of complicated political fractures in the “Fair Trade” movement, which tried to ensure that Cacao Farmers were properly compensated for the work they were doing.
This proved to be highly complicated, however. As Ndongo Sylla put it, “Fair Trade is . . . a Western ‘invention’ whose survival depends on its uptake by consumers and political actors of the North. However, Fair Trade is too important an issue to be confined within the borders of developed countries. Other voices need to be heard. The bias in this debate has resulted in the heterogeneous nature of developing countries being downplayed, and a lack of attention to the progressive and distributive nature of this new development tool.[viii]” The various countries along the Ivory Coast are different from each other and they’re definitely different from the Congo, the island of Dominica, Ecuador, and the countless other chocolate producing regions throughout the world. In some sense, Fair Trade became a one size fits all approach to chocolate pricing, that failed to properly accommodate individual cacao producers.
Moreover, Fair Trade was far from standardized. Different labels with different standards sprang up across the world, with some more popular in some countries than others. From a consumer standpoint, each of these labels were basically interchangeable, and from a producer standpoint, it was difficult to know which certifications were worth pursuing. To address this, a number of producers decided to embrace Direct Trade.
Direct Trade means a chocolate company works directly with specific farmers, that they know and trust, to secure a reliable supply of cacao. Most of the bars that we tried in our room came from companies that could easily tell us where their cacao was grown. They know their farmers and have determined that those farmers meet their ethical standards. Taza and Valrhona both file annual transparency reports, showing which farmers they are working with, where they are located, and what kind of labor practices they use. Antidote also claims to file a report; however, their link appears to have expired. Cote D’Or does not appear to use Direct Trade, though it is a part of the Cocoa Life Program, which unites large producers, including Cadbury, in an attempt to improve the lives of cacao farmers.
Each of the bars we consumed in our dorm room appears to be trying to improve the cacao industry. It is unclear how much of this is a legitimate desire to make the world a better place and how much of it is a cynical marketing ploy, though I am generally optimistic. Considering chocolate is normally a luxury product, meant to be a selfish indulgence, I find it impressive that cocoa companies are embracing ethics in the first place.
This cursory exploration of our local chocolate shelf was enjoyable for me; I hope it was enjoyable to you, dear reader. I know my chocolate-hungry friends really appreciated it.
[i] Parr, Rajat and Jordan Mackay. 2018. The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste. pp. 7-21
[ii] McNeil, Peter and Giorgio Riello. 2015. Luxury: A Rich History. pp. 1-10, 225-293
[v] Rupp, Rebecca. 2015. Can GMOs Save Chocolate?
[vi] Guthman, Julie. 2012. “Fast food/organic food: reflexive tastes and the making of ‘yuppie chow.’” pp. 496-509
[viii] Sylla, Ndongo. 2014. The Fair Trade Scandal. chapters, 1-2