The history of cacao production involves a complex tale of many different players and factors, mainly economic and societal, from various cultures around the world. As important as the sociopolitical factors about the production of cacao are to the history of chocolate that we are studying in our coursework is, another factor that cannot be ignored is the agricultural history of cacao. I argue that the methods and techniques of cacao farming that have been developed over centuries of growing this crop have played an essential role in the continued global importance of chocolate that has persisted to present day. In the current climate—perhaps more than ever—we see how truly indispensable farmers and growers of food are to society. The hard manual labor, along with the technical skills required to grow cacao is an underappreciated piece in the history of chocolate. The individual and collective efforts of cacao producers who have continued to put in real work in the field to produce cacao are the unsung heroes of the chocolate saga. Without the efforts of these hard-working men and women—whether forced labor or voluntary—has shaped the entire social, political, and economic history of chocolate.
Cacao, like any other crop, has a set of environmental conditions that promotes best growing practices. The economic and political triumphs regarding chocolate are deeply affected by the environment needed to grow cacao. The cacao tree thrives in loose, clay-like soil, surrounded by shade trees, and prefers a hot climate typical of areas within 20 degrees north and south of the equator (Bartelink 7). The limitations of the proper growing conditions for cacao have affected not only where cacao is produced, but who reaps the benefits from its production. The fact that cacao was used as currency in pre-Columbian history further complicates the relationship between agricultural and economy, as cacao serves not only as a commodity, but as capital as well (Sampeck 2). Thus, those who produced cacao in these times, also produced a source of wealth. Even in instances where cacao is not used as a source of currency, but is strictly a commodity, the origin of production plays a role in power structures because of the colonial and imperial implications of controlling regions that produce cacao.
The agriculture of cacao has developed and experienced changes throughout the many centuries that people have been tending to the crop. Like in many arenas, climate change has raised questions of sustainability and continuity in the agricultural practices surrounding cacao production. Though the changing environment will cause stress to cacao plants, researchers believe that the crop is resilient enough to adapt to these stressors, and will employ ways of increasing the resilience of this crop (Bunn 10). The effects of climate change on the production of cacao represents another way in which the agricultural history of cacao has had, and continues to have, direct effects on economic systems of production, as resources need to be funneled into research to improve the growing of this crop in order to ensure that the profitable production of cacao will continue in the future, despite environmental stressors.
The embedded video below shows several parts of the process of farming cacao, and exhibits some of the people who make the production of cacao possible. It is far too easy to forget the incredible amount of labor that is put into things we take for granted each and every day. As consumers of chocolate, and as citizens of a society that has benefitted from the production of cacao, it is the responsibility of each of us to recognize and appreciate the work that is put into a commodity that many of us consume on a daily basis. The agricultural history of cacao and the immeasurable work of the farmers and laborers who grow and cultivate cacao for the world’s consumption have shaped the history of chocolate as we know it. Without the essential work of these people, the political, social, and economic effects that the production and consumption of chocolate products have had for centuries would simply not be possible.
In times of stability as well as times of uncertainty, farmers work every day to provide for a growing society. For centuries, cacao farmers have done their part to meet the growing demand for chocolate, facing environmental, political, and many other struggles. Farmers remain a constant in the story of chocolate—an absolute necessity in the world of chocolate for centuries past and centuries to come.
Bartelink, E.J. The Cacao Planters’ Manual. London: Kirkland Cope 1884.
Bunn, Christian, et al. “Recommendation Domains to Scale out Climate Change Adaptation in Cocoa Production in Ghana.” Climate Services, 2019.
When Spanish conquistadors came to the Caribbean and Latin America to colonize and plunder the land and its people, they didn’t do so with a single ounce of mercy or hesitation, instead they quickly established a blood-thirsty rule plagued by violence, failure, and death. “Colonial relations in Mesoamerica were highly violent from the very start” (Sampeck 546). They first established encomiendas, a system in which the monarchy would give Spanish colonizers, in the form of a soldier or a colonist, a large area of land or a village and all of the indigenous people who were already residing there. These indigenous populations were enslaved and forced to work until they died from exhaustion or disease. Soon many encomiendas evolved from other crops into purely sugar plantations. When indigenous groups weren’t enough to meet the demand for workers, African slaves were brought to the Caribbean islands to toil away on these sugar plantations. The Spanish colonization of the Caribbean and the creation of sugar plantations would cause centuries of lasting effects ranging from population shifts, national cultures, perpetual colonization, and agricultural monocultures.
“Santo Domingo’s pristine sugar industry was worked by enslaved Africans, the first slaves having been imported there soon after the sugar cane. Hence it was Spain that pioneered sugar cane, sugar making, African slave labor, and the plantation form in the Americas”
In the summer after my sophomore year of college, I conducted
research on sustainable development in Costa Rica and Panama. This was one of
the most enriching academic and personal experiences in my life to-date,
especially the week that I spent living on a small-scale cacao farm in
Mastatal, Costa Rica. That magical week involved working and eating alongside
the absolutely lovely family that has owned the land its cacao trees for
Mastatal is a unique agricultural community that lies in the
south west region of the San Jose Province. It is a town that has always relied
on agriculture, usually on a small scale. It has never industrialized and found
a comfortable place in the larger Costa Rica economy, but since the turn of the
century it has revived its economy through agricultural tourism, or agritourism.
Wait… what is agritourism?
Agricultural tourism is a subset of the larger trend toward
ecotourism, a style of travel that involves leaving a small footprint on the
environment, while connecting on a deeper level with it. Agritourism involves staying
and working on a farm with the goal of getting closer to the source of the food
you eat. This trend is generally being driven by global changes in food and dining,
climate and energy conservation, health and wellness, and heritage conservation
(Ciglovska, 278). Four farms in Mastatal, all focusing on different products, use
agritourism as a source of additional income, hosting visitors, giving tours, making
local dishes, and putting the travelers to work. Where I was staying, La Iguana
Chocolate, was the main attraction, because everybody loves chocolate.
The group of students that I was a part of worked alongside
the family that owned the cacao operation, while conducting field research on
the budding agritourism industry in the small town as a whole. The work was
hard but rewarding and gave me closer insight into the process of harvesting cacao
and making chocolate, as well as the struggles of a small scale producer. Chocolate
is made from the beans inside a fruit that grows from a tree, something that I
was unaware of before my time on the farm. Upon arriving we were given a full
tasting, one of the services that is offered to travelers each day. The couple
that operates the farm greeted us with an interesting looking fruit that
reminded me of a squash, and when they broke it open it was filled with small
white fuzzy pods. They encouraged us to take one of the pods and eat the white
fuzzy material off of it, and that was the moment that I found my favorite
fruit. Yes, cacao is my favorite fruit. It sounds crazy… most people have no
idea where the cocoa powder and butter that makes their favorite treat comes from,
or that the raw fruity product could be so delicious. For those of you struggling
to believe me, I have attached a video of a tasting. That first sight of the
cacao pods was only the beginning of my time spent with them over the course of
my time at La Iguana.
The most rewarding part of the whole week was the time spent in the fields harvesting the cacao pods. The work is eye-opening in its difficulty. We started our day with a quick breakfast at around seven o’clock in the morning before packing lunch and all the necessary tools onto the back of a single horse. We then set off through the back of the immediate property, down a dirt, and then mud, road for about a mile until we came to a river. Shoes were removed and the river was crossed, the small dog accompanying us was carried, of course. After we scaled a large hill we finally reached the edge of a forest, situated in higher altitude than we were previously. The walk alone was enough to exhaust the group, but it is highly necessary that the cacao trees are in the perfect environment to grow effectively. Cacao trees need to be in an area with high moisture but good draining, usually shaded by other trees and surrounded by a heavy underbrush of leaves. This is knowledge that has been passed down for generations, since the first cacao tree was brought to Mastatal. These very particular conditions were perfect in this hillside forest, and the journey to reach the trees is absolutely worth it when the trees are highly productive. This is especially true when your livelihood depends on it.
Once we got to the vast area of cacao trees there was important
training that needed to take place. There were several strains of cacao growing
in the field. This meant that the ideal color and shape of the pods that were
ready for harvest could differ from tree to tree. Green pods turn a deep
yellow, but yellow pods turn a bright red. Clearly there is room for confusion. Beyond
that, any pod that has black spots on it must be taken down despite its level
of ripeness. The black spots are a disease that can ruin an entire harvest, Moniliophthora
roreri, but more on
that later. We also had to learn how to properly use the sharp tools to cut the
pods from the trunks of the cacao trees. It seemed like at every step in the
process of growing and harvesting cacao there was only one very specific way of
doing things. While we may have been a bit unprepared, we were set off into the
forest, machete and large hemp bag in hand.
Aside from the
cliff of mud and rushing river that had to be passed to reach the crop, the work
itself was awfully dangerous as well. Costa Rica is home to the Fer-de-Lance,
an incredibly venomous viper who likes to live in underbrush… underbrush much
like that required to grow cacao. Some of the pods are also out of reach,
making climbing a tree with a machete in hand necessary. Once our bags were
full with pods, we hauled them to the center of the forest and all dumped them
out to extract the beans. While working on the pods, we chatted with the family
about how they got started in cacao, and what the biggest challenges have been
in making a living from the crop.
While roughly two thirds of the worlds cacao production happens in West Africa, the plant is indigenous to Central and South America, an area that produces only five percent of the worlds cacao today (Leissle, 16). This is due to the colonial exportation of the production means to an area that was understood as having cheap and abundant labor that could support the booming chocolate industry. La Iguana is one of the few farms still producing cacao in the Mastatal area. We were told that cacao trees were brought to the area in the middle of the twentieth century because the Costa Rican Ministry of Agriculture saw it as an opportunity to breathe life into the economy of the area. In essence, small scale subsistence and fruit farmers were forced to change their production techniques and land use to cater to cacao. Encouraging shaded agro-ecosystems like cacao also “provide a promising means of addressing the challenges of creating a forest‐like habitat for tropical biodiversity in a rapidly deforested landscape, while simultaneously providing a lucrative crop for local agricultural communities” (Phillips‐Mora et al.).
However, many of the farmers that were planting cacao in Mastatal had to stop in the mid-90s when Monilio, the fungal disease discussed above, was spread through the area. We were told that there was no concrete understanding of how the disease came to the area, perhaps on the clothes of a traveler studying cacao. It was clear that this disease could cause hardship that seemed unsurmountable. It was well known that Monilio could be destroy long-term economic viability if even one yield was infected (Evans et al.). After the disease initially hit the La Iguana farm, they could not get enough pure cacao pods and had to revert to selling only fruit from their smaller fruit farm for a living. A highlight is that even in pods with black spots covering most of the fruit, it is possible that the fungus has not yet reached the beans on the inside, and the cacao is still useable.
While La Iguana has implemented a few techniques to diminish the impact of the Monilia on their crop that has allowed them to maintain good harvests, there have been other struggles for the small farm in establishing a sustainable business model. The largest struggle for them, as well as the other farms shifting towards an agritourism model, was attracting the right crowds of people. The research that I ultimately produced from my time there looked at the marketing techniques of each of these farms, and how they are perceived by the surrounding community. I found that the initial launch of these farms as tourist destinations brought the wrong kind of people to the town, creating a tension between the farms and other locals. Jarkko Saarinen is a scholar who has done extensive research in the field, and he made a similar generalization that “high development goals of rural tourism may separate rural communities and tourism actors, which can cause economic and social conflicts, insecurity and locally unwanted changes in rural landscapes.” However, once La Iguana was able to control the crowds they were attracting, and their ability to bring new people to the area started having a positive impact on the greater community, they reached a new level of stability and social sustainability.
However, both the control of tourists coming to eat chocolate from the source, and the control of Monilio are ongoing battles for La Iguana Chocolate as well as other small scale cacao farmers in the region. I am infinitely grateful for the time I was able to spend there, and the friends I made in Mastatal. The knowledge that I gained from living and working in a small agricultural town going through a beautiful economic transformation will allow me to better navigate these communities in the future and work with them on their long term development and sustainability: environmental, economic, and social.
C., et al. “What’s in a Name: Crinipellis, the Final Resting Place for the
Frosty Pod Rot Pathogen of Cocoa?” Mycologist, vol. 16, no. 4, Nov.
2002, pp. 148–52. Cambridge Core, doi:10.1017/S0269915X02004093.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity, 2018.
Phillips‐Mora, W., et al. “Biodiversity and Biogeography of the Cacao
(Theobroma Cacao) Pathogen Moniliophthora Roreri in Tropical America.” Plant
Pathology, vol. 56, no. 6, 2007, pp. 911–22. Wiley Online Library,
Saarinen, Jarkko. “Traditions of Sustainability in Tourism Studies.” Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 33, no. 4, Oct. 2006, pp. 1121–40. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.annals.2006.06.007.
In 2018, a bottle of 1945 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru wine was sold for over five hundred and fifty thousand dollars – an amount that the vast majority of us would be reluctant to spend on a house, let alone one consumer good. Similarly, the most expensive chocolates in the world are not only masterfully crafted but also unique collectors’ items – the To’ak Chocolate 2014-harvest bar, of which only 571 were made; DeLafée of Switzerland’s Gold Chocolate Box, with edible 24-carat gold flakes built-in; and Debauve & Gallais’s Le Livre, arranged in a gold-embossed leather box crafted to resemble a book. However, by stark contrast, the most expensive among these is sold for 440 pounds – nowhere near the incredible value of one bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. By taking a comparative look at the supply chains of both the chocolate and fine wine industries, and the systems of race which govern them, this paper explores how quality and monetary value are created in chocolate and wine, and seeks to understand how this enormous disparity of perceived value may arise.
Creating Craftsmanship in Winemaking
Craftsmanship and quality in wine are determined by a myriad
of factors along the supply chain. From characteristics such as the minutiae of
the production of grapes in vineyards, to the history of a given winemaker, and
even to something as simple as the price of a bottle, wine is eagerly judged by
Western audiences for its quality and thus its cultural importance. Wine has
the potential to represent sophistication and class, and to hold astounding
monetary value; the best-known winemakers capitalize on each of these
characteristics to maintain their reputations for the highest quality wines.
The production of wine grapes depends heavily on a tightly controlled agricultural regimen: their quality can be influenced by temperatures throughout the growing season, the amount of precipitation received by the vines, and even the time of ripening and thus of harvest; such information has been painstakingly recorded by vintners across years to catalogue the quality of grapes in each vintage (Chevet et al.). For example, vines are susceptible to water stress – a result of an insufficient water supply – which is intimately connected to the concentration of anthocyanins and phenolics in red wine, the acidity of the fruit, and the incidence of the disease (Goodwin). Each of these features impact not only the flavor and quality of the wine, but also the yield of a given harvest. Then, after the actual production of the grapes the wine must be processed for production and distribution by crushing the grapes and fermenting the must, a process that is labor-intensive and often done by hand (or foot). Additionally, as seen in the case study of the Chilean wine industry, wine distribution requires bottles, barrels, and corks, as well as less tangible input as marketing, advertisement, and label design (Ceroni and Alfaro).
Wines vary vastly in terms of price and quality; bloggers have expounded upon their preferences between boxed wines, which are low-quality, highly standardized in terms of flavor, and apparently excellent for entertaining, with the added enticement of costing as little as fifty-nine cents per glass (Kaminski). From there, wines become more expensive, with price affected by factors such as vintage, age, and rarity. Famous vintners produce classic and traditional wines made from hand-crushed grapes; craft wine makers have established estates in specific locations to lend their wines a complex flavor borne from the ground they were grown in, a concept known as terroir. Interestingly, in a study on Oregon vineyards, it was found that terroir and place of origin of a given wine did not impact its taste as experienced by consumers, nor could it be used as a metric of the agricultural characteristics of a region. However, consumers did valueterroir, associating the area in which a wine was grown with the quality of that wine, not due to inherent agricultural disparities between vineyards, but rather due to the association of a higher price and more valuable experience with certain regions (Cross et al.).
Terroir and the intensely controlled agriculture it requires are two distinctly important qualities affecting the wine supply chain, both of which are capitalized upon by well-known winemakers. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti cites “respect for the soil” and a Pinot Noir with “incomparable genetic heritage” among their tenets for maintaining quality; additionally, the supply of their already-famous wines are restricted by the small size of their estate, located in an area carefully selected for optimum climactic conditions (“Profession of Faith”). Their wines are thus perceived as high-quality due to both their rarity and the inherent advantages of their location. In “A Taste That’s Eternal,” Sotheby’s Serena Sutcliffe speaks with the Drouhin family, one of the sole distributors of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, about the vintages they own (“A Taste That’s Eternal — The Legendary Wines of Robert Drouhin”).
Sutcliffe’s reverence as she speaks about the various
vintages and the history of these wines lends significant weight to monetary assertions
of their quality, as she states that one bottle generally sells for between twenty
and thirty thousand dollars. Additionally, the branding on these bottles – from
the elaborately calligraphied logo to the homogeneity of design between the
wine labels, bottles, barrels, and cases – are indicative of a strict standard that
can be perceived visually as well as through taste. This estate thus represents
a microcosm of the method by which winemakers strive from quality, and reinforces
the idea that this quality comes from the ground up.
Creating Craftsmanship in Artisan Chocolate
The creation of quality chocolate is, similarly, a question
of a quality supply line; yet, the chocolate industry is dominated by two
vastly different approaches to fine chocolate: craft bean-to-bar chocolate
companies and fine chocolatiers. The similarities and disparities between these
two, with regard to sourcing beans, refining them, and ultimately presenting a
finished product, reveal significant parallels between the ways in which wine
and chocolate are judged for quality.
Cacao has three primary varieties: criollo, trinitario, and
forastero. Criollo cacao is the variety grown by the Maya and Aztec, while
forastero cacao was sourced originally from South America; trinitario is used
to refer to a hybrid of these two (Leissle). While these categorizations
are genetically meaningless, they are steeped in historical and modern judgments
of quality: criollo as the most prized, and forastero as the more plebeian variety.
Modern cacao is sourced primarily from the equatorial regions of South America
and Africa, particularly from Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Brazil, and Ecuador. Both
the genetic origins of modern cacao and the agricultural conditions in which it
is grown has a significant impact on taste and flavor of the cacao; for
example, heirloom South American cacao has lower tannin levels than most West
African cacao, while beans grown at high altitudes show greater fat content;
both characteristics significantly impact the flavor of the bean (Stout). Thus, like that of wine
grapes, cacao’s environment is strictly controlled in an effort to produce a
quality product. Once the bean is grown, it undergoes a long processing chain
to become a bar of chocolate. Processes of fermenting, roasting, winnowing, and
grinding are dictated by specially designed equipment such as roll mills and
longitudinal conches to produce quality chocolate liquor; this liquor is then shaped
into bars for distribution (Stout).
At this point in the supply chain, the fine chocolate
industry diverges somewhat from that of fine wines. Bean-to-bar craft chocolate
makers assert the quality of their chocolate with evidence used by many wine
makers – impeccable genetic sourcing, single-origin cacao, and the importance
of bringing the flavor of the earth to the product. However, another, more
public perception of fine chocolate, with roots in both history and fancy, lies
not in such craft chocolate makers but with fine, often European chocolatiers,
who have worked to create a culture of artisanal chocolate-based sweets – what we
call chocolates or bonbons.
This video by L’Ecole Valrhona, a pastry and chocolate
school located in Brooklyn, tagged #finechocolate on Instagram, demonstrates how
technique and culinary skill can govern the quality of chocolate: the chef’s
mastery of the chablon, a difficult-to-make
thin chocolate shell, lends value to the chocolate he produces. Importantly, these
characteristics of chocolate’s production, which are based on the maker and not
the bean, in some cases also determine its price. Bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers,
such as Valrhona, Scharffen Berger, and Godiva, are ranked among the best on the
international market (Lande and Lande). However, fine chocolate
makers such as Teuscher, Vosges Haut-Chocolat, and Richart produce not only
chocolates but chocolate-based products, whose price is justified by their use
of chocolate rather than by the chocolate itself (Lande and Lande). For example, Richart sells a
wooden chocolate vault with seven drawers and climate gauges for 850 pounds, and
Valentine gourmet chocolates (containing only a thin shell of dark chocolate) which
sell for 61 pounds per box (Browne). Thus in contrast to the fine
wine industry, what can be done with chocolate is just as important as the
production of the chocolate itself.
Race in the Wine and Chocolate Industries
There are a number of interesting implications of the
differences between wine and chocolate which can and should be tied to the
inherent racial dynamics within both industries. First and foremost; vineyards
are a white industry while cacao growing is not. The top wine producing nations
are Italy, Spain, and France; these nations also produce few grapes overall, an
indication that nearly all of the grapes grown in these nations are used for
wine (Karlsson). This in turn implies that
the majority of wine grapes are grown in these regions, where vineyards are
economically able to produce a limited number of grapes for the express purpose
of winemaking. By contrast, the top cacao producers are Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana,
and Indonesia, nations all made up of people of color. To add some additional
perspective: while fine wine-producing and grape growing regions consist of the
same set of nations, the finest chocolate makers are housed in Switzerland,
France, Belgium, and the United States.
The types of labor abuses in both industries reveal that
they exist within a system of production which ultimately uses the labor of
black and brown people at the stages of production which do not create either
monetary value or quality, and white labor at the stages which do. A good case
study are the agrimafias of Italian vineyards, which employ and then exploit
undocumented immigrant labor; an estimated third of all agricultural employment
in Italy is thus illegal (Seifert and Valente). The majority of these
immigrants are refugees of color from the fallout of the Arab Spring, while these
agrimafias are owned and employed by white, natively Italian winemakers; the
industry shows a clear systemic employment of underpaid workers of color at the
agricultural stage of production –the stage at which the profit margins are
lowest (Marcus). Similarly, cocoa has a long
history of slave labor and forced labor supplied by displaced African slaves;
even today, illegal systems of sharecropping and tax evasion in cacao-growing
regions such as Brazil mean that worker exploitation and child labor are prevalent
in cocoa production (Leissle; Picolotto et al.).
While both industries show a racial disparity between the
workers in agricultural production and those further down the supply chain
where quality is created, the branch of the chocolate industry focused on
culinary excellence with chocolate exacerbates that disparity in particular. The
very image of fine chocolate in the public eye involves extensive tempering and
specialization; chocolate is not a fine food alone but must be incorporated
into pralines, ganaches, and truffles – all recipes created by white cooks (Terrio). Holding a food which is historically
Central and South American to standards of quality invented by white Europeans is
a racist and colonial ideal; it invalidates the value of chocolate itself and
instead instills value through its modification by whiteness. By contrast, wine,
already a white product, is valued only for its terroir and vintage – both factors associated intrinsically with the
Western European regions in which it is produced.
This principle can be noted in the ways in which chocolate
and wine are advertised. Compare the following two advertisements:
Both of these advertisements play on the idea of the displacement of taste – that a taste can belong to a region, and be exported from that region to the consumer. Yet, the original taste of a French wine is implied to be diluted, to lose its gravity, when exported to an American consumer; however, the “exotic” flavors behind chocolate are implied to be packaged and enhanced for the express purpose of pleasing a similar consumer. This is not an isolated case; from the Conguitos of Spain to the Italian Nougatine, chocolate in advertising is linked closely with blackness and caricatures of blackness; chocolate thus becomes a colonial commodity despite the post-colonial world in which we live (Hackenesch).
By comparing the salient features of the fine wine and fine chocolate industries, the systems of race which govern both become clear. Chocolate, as a fundamentally black and brown good, is disproportionately affected within these systems; its exoticism is packaged for white audiences, and subject to white improvement to create quality and to appeal to the white palate. While these systemic factors of race may not be the only ones to explain why one bottle of wine can be sold at a standard of twenty thousand dollars, while equally fine and more difficult-to-grow chocolate can be sold for just 1% of the same value after added white refinement, they present a strong case by which we may examine how Western customers perceive value in the goods they consume.
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The chocolate industry is afflicted by a number of issues ranging from child labor, low standards of living for cocoa farmers, and environmental degradation. In recent years, consumer dialogue around choosing a brand of chocolate on merits other than price has gained momentum. Now more than ever before, consumers want to know how ethical the chocolate they are purchasing is. Many smaller chocolate companies believe in careful sourcing of beans and labor as a way of assuring their customers that their chocolate is indeed ethical. A company that seeks to eliminate questionable practices while promoting economic growth and prosperity for the farmers and workers is Madécasse. In this article, I will briefly elaborate on the prevalent issues that plague the chocolate industry, then closely examine the operations of Madécasse and discuss how this company is tackling such issues. Lastly, I will elaborate on responses from a survey study done among students asking about their opinions on the Madécasse brand.
Prevalent Problems in the Chocolate Industry
Child labor is a major problem in the chocolate industry. It is common across West Africa and other cocoa growing regions to have children working on plantations. A large portion of child labor is rooted in family and socioeconomic pressures. This personal connection makes it harder to tackle the problem. Regardless, many large corporations look past the issue and benefit from low labor costs. Despite international efforts to end such practices, it is a reality that child labor is a prevailing problem in cocoa plantations (Berlan, 1091).
Standards of living for cocoa farmers are low as a result of their minimal and volatile incomes. In 2016, the chocolate market sold an estimated $100 billion, yet only $12 billion was allocated to the value of the raw cacao (Leissle, 30). This serves to show how little of the value extracted from chocolate in the global market is given to farmers. Cocoa farmers are subject to price fluctuations as well as oligopolistic power in cocoa purchasing. This leaves farmers powerless and suffering from price instability.
Environmental degradation is prevalent in cocoa growing regions. Farmers seeking to maximize profits to earn livable wages, commonly employ practices that contribute to environmental problems. For example, excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides or clearing cocoa fields to begin growing other cash crops (Marshall, R. Scott, et al., 7). These practices also affect endemic species that have to adjust to changing landscapes.
How does Madécasse approach these problems?
The founders of Madécasse are Brett Beach and Tim McCollum. They spent two years in Madagascar while they were volunteering for the Peace Corps and fell in love with the country’s culture, people and landscape. Years after returning to the U.S they decided that they wanted to give back to Madagascar by fueling economic growth for its people. They landed on the idea of creating a chocolate company entirely run in Madagascar to provide jobs and fair wages. They sought to leverage the high quality cocoa already in the region to produce high quality chocolate. They wanted to create chocolate entirely made in Madagascar that could be sold in global markets, but whose profits would be more evenly distributed along the supply chain.
The founders of Madécasse call their business model the Direct Trade model. This model seeks to maximize the value added to the final product in Madagascar. Essentially deliver four times the value as other companies would. This business model is composed of four main parts: 1. Building strong relationship with cocoa farmers; 2. Collaborating with a chocolate factory in Madagascar; 3. Sourcing ingredients and materials from Madagascar; 4. Exporting the finished product to global markets. It is through this holistic four fold system that the founders of Madécasse were able to create a model that delivers four times the social and economic benefit than the standard Fair Trade system (Marshall, R. Scott, et al., 15). The video below summarizes what the brand is about and their business model. It shows the artisanal values that the company holds and how closely they work with the people from Madagascar.
Step 1: Relationship with Cocoa Farmers
Madécasse partners with 70 cocoa farmers in the Sambirano Valley of Madagascar. The founders had to invest time and money when determining which farmers to partner with, as they were looking for farmers committed to fostering long-term relationships. Madécasse provides training to farmers on fermentation and drying of cocoa beans. By introducing these farmers to new techniques, equipment and training, Madécasse helps them substantially increase the value of the beans they are selling. It is estimated that on average, Madécasse offers farmers a price that is 20% higher than the market price for cured beans. It is worth nothing that farmers are allowed to sell to other buyers, however they rarely choose to. The partnership in turn provides farmers with financial stability through higher income streams to help cover costs and provide for their families.
Step 2: Collaboration with Chocolate Factory
Madécasse partners with a chocolate factory in Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar to process the high quality beans they sourced from local farmers. This factory employs 20 Malagasy men and 20 Malagasy women, in addition to a full-time manager. The process of making chocolate begins with trucks that bring the beans into the factory, where they are roasted in large batches. Ingredients are then added to create a wide range of flavors in the Madécasse product line. The chocolate is conched on site. It is then wrapped in foil and inserted into the wrapper and placed in 12 count display boxes. All the processing steps are done by hand in the factory.
Step 3: Sourcing from Madagascar
As mentioned previously, all of the beans and materials for making the chocolate and processing it are obtained from Madagascar. The only material that is imported is the French wrapper paper but otherwise all color printing is done on site. It is important to highlight that Madécasse’s production chocolate has resulted in the establishment of secondary industries in Madagascar. These secondary industries include utilities and packaging. In this way, along with the direct benefits to the farmers, Madécasse generates much greater social impact than exporting Fair trade cocoa alone.
Step 4: Exporting the finished product to global markets
The finished boxes of chocolates are transported in trucks owned by the chocolate factory. Madécasse chocolates are shipped to international markets, mostly to the United States and Europe. In terms of the U.S, the chocolates are shipped overseas and they arrive in Brooklyn where they are then distributed to stores all over the country. As of July 2012, there were more than 1,250 stores in the U.S carrying Madécasse chocolate, including 300 Whole Foods stores (Marshall, R. Scott, et al., 17)
Social and Environmental Impact
Madécasse’s measure of social and environmental impact is measured in “bars.” For example, the company estimates that it takes about 18 minutes to produce a bar. Of those minutes, farm labor accounts for 8 minutes of 43%. This shows that the labor in Madagascar is almost doubled due to Madécasse’s business model. This additional labor is met in the form of utilities or packaging and it essentially increases the number of people employed in the country. Additionally, $0.88 per bar is kept in country as opposed to $0.13 per bar kept when using the fair trade system. This means that seven times more profits are staying in Madagascar (Marshall, R. Scott, et al., 19). In terms of environmental impact, Madécasse is committed to preserving the natural environment. It is common in Madagascar for farmers to turn cocoa plantations into plantations of other more profitable cash crops. This damages the ecosystem of the area by eliminating the biodiversity that exists. To prevent this, Madécasse trains farmers on how to increase crop yields and use techniques that will allow them to get more money for the cocoa they grow. Additionally, the company started to collaborate with Conservation International organization and the Bristol Zoological Society to monitor species like lemurs that live in cocoa plantations in Madagascar. These efforts help protect endemic species in the area (Mironska and Steuwe, 89).
In an effort to increase transparency and objectivity in measuring social impact, Madécasse entered into a partnership with Wildlife Returns organization. This third party entity helps in tracking the environmental and social impact of the company’s activities. The company published the first iteration of their analysis in 2017. The report outlines specific economic benefits as well as interviews with farmers who work with Madécasse. These farmers cite how much the company has done to train them and allow them to obtain higher crop yields and subsequently how much more they pay them for their cocoa (Madécasse Impact Report, 5-9).
The market for ethical chocolate is growing rapidly. This makes it ever more pressing for Madécasse to project to customers what makes their model for producing chocolate unique. In an effort to test if the story Madécasse is selling to customers is working, I interviewed two students to gauge their response to the brand. I first showed them the bar of chocolate and had them look at the wrapping that had the certifications listed and comment. Next I had them taste it and comment on the flavor. Lastly, I had them read “Direct Trade” tab on the website that explains what makes them better than the conventional “Fair Trade” system and comment (“Madécasse Direct Trade”, 1). Part of it is reproduced below.
Fair trade is a label. It’s used by large companies, to verify that farmers who live thousands of miles away from where the chocolate is made are paid a fair price for their cocoa … We go way beyond fair trade. We know the farmers we work with on a daily basis. And they know us. We share meals in their homes and we share a vision for prosperity.
The first student commented on the lemur on the wrapper and wondered if it was endemic to Madagascar. The student commented on the direct trade certification but did not know how it differed from fair trade. In terms of flavor, they liked the taste and said it tasted much more bold than regular dark chocolate. Lastly, after reading the website the student said he would be more willing to buy the bar because he saw the value of a direct trade system as opposed to the traditional fair trade certification. The second student had similar initial thoughts about the wrapper and the flavor. However, this student’s ending conclusion was distinct. The student felt that the direct trade website was not convincing enough. He felt that the fact that it was their “direct trade” certification instead of an institutional certification took away from their credibility. These varying conclusions speak to the fact that the company should consider doing more to explain the validity of their system.
Madécasse has a unique business model that strives to produce the maximum economic and social benefit for the people in Madagascar. Through their Direct Trade model they are able to educate farmers, provide higher cocoa prices to them, and create new jobs for locals in Madagascar. However, the small survey shows that Madécasse should strive to tell their story to attract customers as to why their brand is unique. As a whole, it is encouraging to see brands like Madécasse who are making an effort to tackle the issues that prevail in the chocolate industry.
Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana.” pp. 1088-1100
Marshall, R. Scott, et al. “Case 3. Madécasse: Competing with a ‘4x Fair Trade’ Business Model.” Case Studies in Social Entrepreneurship: The Oikos Collection Vol. 4, pp. 54–86., doi:10.9774/gleaf.978-1-78353-049-6_5.
The ordinary consumer does not usually pause to reflect on the origins of the chocolate he/she consumes. Yet, the ingredients of chocolate undergo a lot of processing before they are ultimately turned into a final good. And, before all human-induced processing can ever happen, a growth and reproduction cycle of cacao is absolutely necessary. However, cacao’s future may be under question. Though humans may continue supplying the arduous hand labor required for cacao tree cultivation, cacao diseases prove to be at cross purposes to a threatening level. Plus, with the looming advent of climate change, these diseases may potentially gain more traction, and put at risk global, and not just local, cacao production. Hence, it is an opportune moment for humanity to pool resources into the research and development of barriers to cacao diseases. That is, if it is still in the best interest of society to help cocoa trees survive.
At the heart of this problem is the botanical and natural history of cacao. Theobroma Cacao (theobroma translating to “Food of the Gods”) is the scientific name the naturalist Linnaeus gave to the cacao tree, which bears the fruit essential to the production of chocolate.[efn_note] 1) Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, (Thames & Hudson Inc: 2013), 18. [/efn_note] Cacao’s origin is very likely to have been the northwest Amazon basin.[efn_note] 2) Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 37. [/efn_note] Though there is no consensus on the roots of cultivated Theobroma cacao, the oldest known traces of domesticated cacao date back to 1800 BC, and the Olmec civilization is thought to have been the first to either domesticate the plant or discover the process of using cacao beans to make chocolate. [efn_note] 3) Ibid, 35. [/efn_note]
Theobroma cacao species are very similar regarding their fundamental reproductive cycles. Along the trunk of a cacao tree, small flowers bloom. The lucky ones – those which end up pollinated only by midges – end up giving birth to cacao pods: these contain a sweet, white pulp, which engulfs so-called “beans” (actually seeds), and these beans are the parts which ultimately are used to produce chocolate as we know it today. Wild animals actually seek the sweet, white pulp (which humans remove via fermentation in the chocolate production), and inadvertently end up distributing the beans, aiding the natural cycle. But, the “food of the gods” is quite particular about its preferences: A cacao tree loves the shade, will demand year-round moisture, will not tolerate temperatures below 16o C, and will typically not yield its fruit unless it is within the band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator.[efn_note] 4) Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 19. [/efn_note] If cacao pods are in the right conditions to grow, they will take between four to five months to reach maximum size, plus one more month to fully ripen.[efn_note] 5) Ibid, 21. [/efn_note] Cacao’s diffusion across the globe and human selection have together resulted in an understanding of two main subspecies of Theobroma cacao which may interbreed and form fertile hybrids (e.g. the trinitario hybrid): criollo and forastero.[efn_note] 6) Ibid, 26. [/efn_note] While criollo cacao is considered to have a more superior quality, with more flavor and aroma, the forastero cacao is more prolific and accounts for more than 80% of the world’s cacao crop.[efn_note] 7) Ibid. [/efn_note]
This burdening list of demands does not diminish the historical, standing desire for the food of the gods. Indeed, these demands might as well add to the value of cacao. A cacao bean mostly consists of fat, while less than 10 percent of its weight is protein and starch.[efn_note] 8) Ibid, The True History of Chocolate, 28. [/efn_note] Regarding chemical composition, cacao contains two alkaloids (methylxanthines), theobromine and caffeine. Caffeine is addictive, as is sugar, a relatively recent addition tied to European chocolate consumption. Cacao is known for containing hundreds of compounds, among which stands out the antioxidant flavonoid compound, quercetin, “known to have not only antioxidant but also anti-inflammatory activity.”[efn_note] 9) Ibid, The True History of Chocolate, 31. [/efn_note] Given the chemical complexity of cacao, it is perhaps less surprising that it has been associated with numerous different purposes, such as a unit of currency, medicine, sacred symbol, supposed aphrodisiac, congregational drink, and even source of energy and strength. But, the array of diseases cacao is prone to, including “witches’ brooms,” pod rots, and wilts, puts the entire world supply at risk, especially given the small diversity of species.
The Witches’ Broom Disease is caused by the fungus Moniliophthora perniciosa, and prevents cacao trees from reproducing. In Brazil for example, the “Witches’ Brooms ” cocoa disease – spread as part of a malicious political campaign in a late 1980s sabotage against landowners – resulted in a dramatic downfall of national cocoa production, changing Brazil’s role as an exporter of cacao into an importer. In Ventania, a 900-person village in the northeast of Bahia which once flourished with cacao plantations, tragic consequences were visible, and remain evident to this day. Unemployment rose as cattle jobs were far fewer than cocoa jobs. Crime escalated and adolescents were, and continue to be, drawn to drugs and prostitution. Surely, the world has since seen more security checks in airports to help prevent transport and contamination of agricultural crops. Yet, if any disease like witches’ broom disease somehow were contracted in a major cacao-producing country, such as the Ivory Coast, that would provoke disastrous ripple effects.
Many of the technologies taken for granted today are in some way or another a consequence of the homo sapiens’ control over fire and ignition.[efn_note] 10) Harari, Yuval N., Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, (New York Harper: 2015) [/efn_note] To draw an analogy, in the same way that fire plays a critical role in the cooking of a raw meat to be eaten, most of the technology in the business of cacao is concentrated on the processing of cacao into a consumable, desirable chocolate. But, fire is also employable in the defense of a tribe’s piece of meat from a hungry lion, and so must be technology in the face of disease. Extrapolating from this analogy, technological advances have helped civilizations make the most of cacao as a resource for consumer’s demands, but now should ideally begin to shift towards the priority of protecting cacao in its raw form. As Kristy Leissle puts it, accounts for “the world is running out of chocolate” are generally published to increase the supply of cacao and drive down prices for the largest chocolate producers.[efn_note] 11) Leissle, Kristy, (Polity Press: 2018), 178. [/efn_note] Yet, this is not a debate of merely increasing supply, it is about diversifying to diminish risk, and increasing cacao’s immunity to diseases.
That is where genetic modification comes in with a promising future. In September 2018, “the 35 billion dollar corporation [Mars] pledged $1 billion as part of a plan to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by 60 percent or more by 2050.”[efn_note] 12) Vandette, Kate. 2018. “Genetically Modified Cacao Could Stop Chocolate from Running out,” Earth.Com (blog). January 3, 2018. [/efn_note] In the face of climate change, Mars and UC Berkeley are using CRISPR technology to begin exploring gene editing. This information is also supported by Erin Brodwin’s account in the World Economic Forum.[efn_note] 13) Brodwin, Erin. n.d. “Chocolate Could Be Extinct by 2040.” [/efn_note] Human intervention may prove to be essential to the survival of cacao as well as the efficiency of its production.
Benefits of GMOs are already apparent in the cultivation of “gold rice” and potatoes. But, media is a challenge: the wave of non-GMO pressure must be confronted with rational, data-driven evidence along with more personal stories and appeals pathos with which consumers will more sentimentally connect. For example, one way of framing the argument follows:
Harmful pesticides in potato fields are avoidable when gene edited potatoes are immune to pests. In turn, this prevents workers on the field from getting brain damage from the toxic pesticides they spread.
The example above demonstrates an underlying truth: Propaganda and public interaction have a tremendous power to influence people. Seemingly aware of this notion, and with the purpose of diminishing the negative image of GMOs, “an advocacy group for genetic crop modification is giving away 4,000 pro-GMO chocolates for free in the run-up to Valentine’s Day,” reported Jeremy Hill on February 13, 2019.[efn_note] 14) Hill, Jeremy. 2019. “Genetically-Modified Love? Free Chocolate Pushed as Climate Boon,” February 13, 2019. [/efn_note] Yet, because there are still uncertain long-term effects of GMO plants, and some GMOs have negatively impacted butterfly populations, cacao producers should invest in the research and development of GMOs, albeit with caution for unexpected effects.[efn_note] 15) Glass, Emily. n.d. “The Environmental Impact of GMOs – One Green PlanetOne Green Planet,” Accessed in 2019. [/efn_note] Ideally, it would be best if the flora and fauna where GMOs are put in place could be replicated into a sample environment for experimentation. This way, unintended effects may be mitigated, and the public perception of much-needed GMOs may ameliorate. Ultimately, genetic modification may serve humankind as a wall of fire. But, it must simultaneously be supervised, as an unwatched fire may get out of control and cause serious damage.
Chocolate, and what it means to people, differs across time and space. From its inception as the seeds of a fruit tree to the myriad ways in which it is transformed and eventually consumed by humans, chocolate’s potential variety seems limitless. The history of chocolate merits this variety; it is a fascinating story across multiple continents and cultures. What becomes ever more apparent when studying chocolate’s history as a food, and potentially as a healthy food, is that human obsession with food – in general, but more pertinent to this paper as a source of health – is no new phenomenon. The Western diet has undergone huge transformation since the industrial revolution, chocolate was transformed along with it, and both have not slowed in their development. When chocolate was first encountered by Europeans, the scientific reasoning behind food knowledge was based on a 1500-year-old system developed in Ancient Greece and Rome. Today, modern science allows us to measure the nutritional content of anything and everything we can think of ingesting. But, alas, this technological exactitude has not led to uniform consensus when it comes to which foods are healthy and which are not. Diversity, in both our options of foods and the opinions on which of them we should choose to consume, still reigns supreme. This paper will track chocolate, from its birth place to the continents where it is now most widely and voluminously consumed, and attempt to appraise its value as a beneficial dietary supplement. It will also discuss what effect the perception of chocolate as a health food might have on the industry today. What becomes apparent is that, while Galen’s humours may no longer hold sway in the scientific realm, the Hellenic wisdom from Apollo’s temple that prescribes, “Everything in Moderation,” is as true today as it was two thousand years ago.
According to Michael and Sophie Coe, in their exhaustively well-researched book, The True History of Chocolate, feelings have been mixed about the legitimacy of chocolate as a health food for a long time. The Aztecs, who did not discover or invent the cacao seed and its most valued product, but were controlling the product across its empire with an iron fist, did not view chocolate as a panacea like some Europeans came to do. For the Aztecs, the chocolate drink, as it was consumed then, was taken chiefly as a preferable option to wine – drunkenness being hugely frowned upon (Coe: 75). There were some supposed benefits, that were reported by the Spanish mendicant friars, including increased “success with women” (Coe: 96), and as a cooling drink that could be taken before hard labour to avoid overheating (Coe: 123). But there were also warnings against chocolate, with a myth purporting that chocolate had made Aztecs fat and weak, distancing them from their superior forebears (Coe: 77). In Europe, chocolate arrived as a medicine (but Coe notes, “it soon became a medicine that was appreciated for its taste, its filling nature, and its stimulation, 126). However, the guise under which it came, the now utterly refuted Galenic humoral system, makes its supposed benefits interesting but not pertinent to this discussion. To sum up briefly, chocolate was claimed to benefit a host of ailments including: angina, constipation, dysentery, dyspepsia, kidney disease, liver disease, breast and stomach illness, asthenia, indigestion, fatigue, gout, haemorrhoids, erectile dysfunction, and the list goes on.1 It was not until modern medical research took root in the 19th century that false claims started to become harder to make (though they have never been completely extinguished).
So what claims can be made about chocolate? Unfortunately, because chocolate in the United States only has to be 10% or more made from cacao, very little can be said uniformly about chocolate.2 So it is important to clarify that the only chocolates that can be said to have possible health benefits (at least benefits that derive from the cacao) must be those produced with a significant cacao content. Much has been said recently about the health benefits of dark chocolate, some of it true, some of it exaggerated, and some of it quite misleading. If one googles, “dark chocolate health,” the vast majority of articles one will find will boast of the “superfood” qualities of high cacao content chocolate or of the benefits of adding raw powdered cacao as a supplement to one’s diet.3 The nutritional properties of cacao most touted are its antioxidants – polyphenols and flavonoids – with claims that they are good for cardiovascular health, protection from disease, anticancer properties, lower cholesterol, cognitive health, and lower blood pressure.4 Antioxidants has become a “buzzword” in the health community, especially the health selling community, and so anything that can be provably claimed to contain antioxidants and can also be produced and sold will appear in advertising before long. However, scientific research results have not proved as exciting as the claims of fitness and holistic-living “experts.” The antioxidant immunity boost from chocolate has showed to be extremely short-lived in humans5 and studies have revealed, like that of red wine’s supposed health benefits, that the amount of chocolate (or wine) that would need to be consumed to enjoy the rewards from the antioxidants contained would be such an enormous amount that the damage caused by the fat and sugar (or alcohol) would far outweigh the goodness done.6 Thus, the health benefits of chocolate, if any, must be attainable from a small amount, as its fat content is so high.
So if the antioxidants in chocolate are too small in number, are there any other benefits to eating dark chocolate? In short, yes. Small amounts of very dark chocolate, approximately 85% cocoa content, do boast three important nutrients that, while less glamorous than immortality-inducing antioxidants, are incredibly important to human health. High cacao content chocolate boasts impressive amounts of fibre, iron, and magnesium. While the numbers are not uniform brand to brand, a comparison of eight brands at a Somerville, Massachusetts convenience store (Perugina, Green and Blacks, Jelina, Scharffen Berger, Newman’s Own, Lindt, Chocolove, and Divine) showed enough correlation to warrant discussion. The average fibre content from the eight brands darkest products (ranging from 72%-85%) was 19% of a person’s recommended daily amount; for iron it was 27.5%. Magnesium is generally not listed on FDA required packaging and so product to product this number is hard to acquire. However, Humana Press’s comprehensive compendium, Chocolate in Health and Nutrition, is not vague when it comes to chocolates magnesium content claiming, “Chocolate has one of the highest magnesium levels reported of all foods.” (Watson 430) Are these facts about chocolate’s nutritional profile important? Possibly. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service claims that 57% of Americans do not have enough magnesium in their diet; it also claims, more dramatically, that 92% of Americans do not get sufficient fibre in their diet.7 Magnesium deficiency is not trivial. The American National Institutes of Health claims:
“Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body. It has been recognised as a cofactor for more than 300 enzymatic reactions, where it is crucial for adenosine triphosphate (ATP) metabolism. Magnesium is required for DNA and RNA synthesis, reproduction, and protein synthesis. Moreover, magnesium is essential for the regulation of muscular contraction, blood pressure, insulin metabolism, cardiac excitability, vasomotor tone, nerve transmission and neuromuscular conduction. Imbalances in magnesium status—primarily hypomagnesemia as it is seen more common than hypermagnesemia—might result in unwanted neuromuscular, cardiac or nervous disorders. Based on magnesium’s many functions within the human body, it plays an important role in prevention and treatment of many diseases. Low levels of magnesium have been associated with a number of chronic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, cardiovascular disease (e.g., stroke), migraine headaches, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”8
For anyone living in America, sadly, these diseases and afflictions are not unfamiliar. Fiber deficiency too poses health risk with the Harvard School of Public Health claiming, “Fiber appears to reduce the risk of developing various conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, diverticular disease, and constipation.”9 Iron deficiency is not, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, a seriously prevalent issue among Americans with 89.5% getting enough in their diet. Although the risks associated with iron deficiency, for one in ten Americans,
“can delay normal infant motor function (normal activity and movement) or mental function (normal thinking and processing skills… can increase risk for small or early (preterm) babies.Small or early babies are more likely to have health problems or die in the first year of life than infants who are born full term and are not small, … cause fatigue that impairs the ability to do physical work in adults. Iron deficiency may also affect memory or other mental function in teens.”10
Iron deficiency is not a huge issue at the moment, but with the amount of meat being consumed in the American diet coming under attack, alternative sources of iron might be important to a new generation of health and environmentally conscious consumers looking to eat considerably less meat, and with it the iron it provides.
The number not yet mentioned, but most important when discussing the possible benefits or dangers of high cacao content chocolate is that of the fat, and especially saturated fat, content. The average saturated fat content from a single serving of one the eight brands mentioned previously is 58% of the recommended daily amount, according to the FDA packaging. This number is astronomically high. The dangers of saturated have been widely reported for many decades10 but recently there has been contention within the medical community. The British Medical Journal posted a controversial article in 2017 claiming “Saturated fat does not clog the arteries… Despite popular belief among doctors and the public, the conceptual model of dietary saturated fat clogging a pipe is just plain wrong.”13 The article came under fire, not for necessarily being outright wrong, but for being misleading.14 Fat is still something that should be monitored, whatever the type is being consumed. So, unlike a food source like a kiwi, which boasts enormous health benefits and can be added to any diet with no known drawbacks (unless one is allergic), chocolate can only be effectively employed as a source of nutrients to a diet low in fat. For many this is bad news. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service reports that only 40% of Americans are staying within the guidelines of consuming 10% or less of their calories from saturated fat.15 Ultimately, this means for a large section of society the only way to employ dark chocolate as a health food is if they restructure their diet to include significantly less saturated fats.
So, if it can be argued that a small amount of high quality dark chocolate can be employed as a nutritious source of food to an already health conscious individual, what could this man for the industry today? One positive effect that has started to occur is that people’s dissatisfaction with the amount of sugar in their diet has caused producers to start making chocolate with much higher cacao content. With cacao content coming under focus, the origin, quality, and ethical standards in production of the cacao have come out of the shadows for mainstream consumers to take a better appreciation of the politics behind what they put in their bodies. Chocolate has a dark past that unfortunately it has not completely shed. But with cacao becoming the star of the show for many selective buyers, attention is increasing, albeit too slowly, to cacaos often third-world origins and the ethics of production in countries like Ghana and The Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, healthy (or at least healthier) chocolate does not mean ethical chocolate. Lindt is a brand that has not exonerated itself with total transparency after accusations of turning a blind eye to the unethical means of production of its chocolate. Yet its 85% bar is a favourite among fitness enthusiasts for its nutritional content and great flavour.16
What is exciting is the recent explosion of craft chocolate in the United States and beyond. Craft chocolatiers are typically willing to pay more for their beans, and as Dr Martin of Harvard University has written, “buyers must pay more for cacao, uncertified and certified. Both practically and morally, consistent cacao farmer poverty in an industry replete with wealth is unacceptable.”17 Craft chocolate is also inherently made from higher quality ingredients, and with an emphasis on a robust amount of cacao per bar. An often reliably healthier option than mass-produced chocolate. The craft chocolate market is still small and producers have for the most part stayed clear of buying beans from West Africa, where the bulk of ethical concerns lie. However, increase in chocolate consumption is rising rapidly according to an article publish recently in Vox, “Chocolate retail sales in the US have risen from $14.2 billion in 2007 to $18.9 billion in 2017, the market research group Euromonitor International found, at a time when candy sales overall have been waning.”18 If demand for craft chocolate increases, perhaps a future where farmers are able to choose to sell their beans to craft chocolatiers over mass-producing corporations is possible.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Watson, RR, Preedy, VR & Zibadi, S 2013, Chocolate in health and nutrition. Humana Press Inc. DOI: 10.1007/978-1-61779-803-0
1. Martin, Carla D. “Health, Nutrition, and the Politics of Food.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 4/11/18, Class Lecture
2. Martin, Carla D. “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3/7/18, Class Lecture
The Arab-Islamic Civilization spread the cultivation and consumption of sugar, changing worldwide habits and trends in food culture and creations to the modern day. Straddling three continents, Islamic empires in the medieval era allowed an intermingling of cultures and traditions, from East to West. “The Arab expansion westward marked a turning point in the European experience of sugar…the Arabs introduced sugar cane, its cultivation, the art of sugar making, and a taste for this different kind of sweetness.” (Mintz, 23) It would change the course of history and affect lands and peoples much far away; laying the foundations of large scale plantations that would eventually be established in the Americas and Caribbean Islands.
In a few centuries, sugar went from being a scarce spice and medicine, to a widely consumed, daily staple product of people of all economic standing, all over the world. The crystallization of sugar first started in India and was used in Persia by the sixth century. After the rise of Islam, the Arabs entered Persia and were introduced to the age-old process of sugar produced from cane, adopting and further developing these techniques. They planted sugar-cane in plantations across their empires, in Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, Al-Andalus (Spain and Portugal), and by the tenth century the Arabs were growing the crop in Sicily, all the while perfecting the process of refining it in sugar mills. (Salloum, 4)
Picture 1: Map Showing Sugar Cultivation by Muslims
In the lands of the Mediterranean, Arabs developed agriculture and introduced new crops to the land, such as, orange, lemon, banana, saffron, fig, date trees, and most importantly, sugar cane. Wherever the Arabs went, they brought sugar, the product and technology of its production with them, to the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Crete and Malta. (Mintz, 25) During the Muslim rule in Spain, there was numerous contributions of irrigation, soil management, and scholarly efforts in farming innovation. (Hughes, 68) These plants were used not only in agriculture, but for pharmacy, gardens, luxury trade, and arts.
For nearly eight centuries, under her (Muslim) rulers, Spain set to all of Europe a shining example of a civilized and enlightened State. Her fertile provinces, rendered doubly prolific by the industry and engineering skill of her conquerors, bore fruit an hundredfold. Cities innumerable sprang up in the rich valleys of the Guadalquivir and the Guadiana, whose names, and names only, still commemorate the vanished glories of their past. (Lane-Poole, vii)
Irrigation and agricultural practices established then has had a lasting impact. “The knowledge, handwork, commodities, and luxuries of the East were brought by caravans to the farther East, and came by shipping from the Levant to the Mediterranean ports of Spain. Seeds and plants were thus transported; thus, came rice and cotton and the sugar-cane”. (Coppee, 397) Sugar was cultivated as far north as Castellon, which is probably the most northerly point of its commercial cultivation. To the south, it was grown in Arabia Felix, Abyssinia, and the islands and the mainland of East Africa from the ninth century. From Arabia Felix, or directly from Oman, the plant was brought to Zanzibar, where it was reported the finest sugar came. From Zanzibar, the plant could have been taken to Madagascar. (Watson, 30)
Sugar was at first regarded an important spice and medicinal component and was consumed in large quantities in the Middle East. It was used by physicians from India to Spain, slowly entering European medical practice via Arab Pharmacology. (Mintz, 80) As early as the eleventh century a treatise on sugar was written by a Baghdadi doctor. (Watson, 27) In addition to the medicinal component, Arabs had a rich development of recipes and cuisine that strongly featured sugar at the time of its movement to Europe. In the Medieval Islamic world, sugar enriched many dishes: sour foods, fish, meats, and stews. Of course, pastries and jams especially were a “paradise of sugar”, using syrups made of white sugar and crystals of colored sugar. Specific sweets using sugar such as stuffed cannoli, squash jam, caramelized semolina, jelly, among others. In Europe, the names of a number of several medieval dishes reveal their Arab origin. (Zaouali, 44)
“The decades that followed the Moors’ conquest of the Iberian Peninsula brought in a dominant Arab influence—in culture, food, and drink, but especially in the introduction of sugarcane-based sweet treats… And there the foundation was laid for sugar-cane based sweet treats of the world as well…In the history of sweet treats, few “events” had the impact on Western civilizations as did the near-800-year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Muslim peoples. Their main sweet treat legacy—sugarcane” (Roufs, 304)
There was a further East to West transmission of food culture as well. Figures such as Ziryab, credited with the renewal of the culinary arts in Spain and Europe. In the ninth century, he moved from Abbasid Baghdad to the ruler’s court in Cordoba. He led a renewal of culinary understanding and elegance, introducing low tables, tablecloths, cups made from glass, and the succession of courses in a definite order, ending with a sweet dessert. (Zaouali, 41).
Picture 2: Fourteenth century manuscript document from Ibn al-Bitar’s “Book of Simples” depicting sugar cane.
The dispersal of Arab inspired sweets left a mark especially on Southern Europe, Spain, Portugal, and Sicily; also transmitted to the Americas with later conquests of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Sweet dishes found in Mexico and Latin America such Bunuelos, Alfajores, and Arroz con Leche, were inherited from the medieval Arab chefs in Damascus and Baghdad. (Salloum, 8) The Arab legacy on sweet foods remains in modern day commodities, many deriving their name directly from the Arabic language. The word ‘Candy’ comes from the Arabic qandi, stemming from the Sanskrit khanda (piece of sugar). Sherbet, Syrup and Sorbet derive from the Arabic word shariba or sharab (to drink). The ubiquitous drinks Soda Suwwad (saltwort), Coffee (qahwa), and Alcohol are all derived from Arabic. Other food term that originate from Arabic, include fruits and vegetables such as Lemon, Lime, Orange, Shaddock, Apricot, Artichoke, Spinach, as well as spices such as Sumac, Saffron, Carob, Caraway, and Tamarind. Rice and pasta were also transmitted to Europe via the Arabs (Watson, 23). Marzipan and sugar decorations were documented in the Middle East centuries before its appearance in Europe, especially in festive times such as Ramadan. (Mintz, 88).
When it comes to bean-to-bar chocolate companies, Hotel Chocolat is certainly one of the most distinguished. The Hotel Chocolat website offers a plethora of information about the brand, but what seems to stand out the most is that this company is not simply a maker of fine chocolate. This company is an architect of experiences, and these experiences are all founded in the company’s commitment to growing its own cocoa on the island of St. Lucia. Even the logo on the website reads “Hotel Chocolat British Cocoa Grower”. The experiences that this carefully grown cocoa sponsors range from entry to the Hotel Chocolat “Club”, a subscription chocolate service starting at about 10 British pounds per month, to private parties and reservations at their restaurants and “cocoa bar cafes”, to a stay at their resort in Saint Lucia. These amenities are extensions of the original craft confections of Hotel Chocolat, bringing the idea of chocolate tourism into a quite literal sense. Loyal customers of Hotel Chocolat might choose to follow the company across the globe for an incredible, one-of-a-kind experience, all aimed at an experience in which you can “experience cocoa like never before” (Hotel Chocolat, 2017).
While this company seems to have an incredibly nuanced grasp of the importance of changing the agricultural traditions surrounding the production of chocolate, elite model of quality assurance, and thorough commitment to customer accountability, it appears to be perpetrating certain chronic illnesses of the chocolate industry as well. Certain aspects of the Hotel Chocolat’s agricultural model are troublesome, namely in certain decisions that the company made in regards to their ethics policy, as well as the very location where they decided to set up shop. Additionally, Hotel Chocolat seems to cater to an elite, establishing a binary of fine chocolate consumers and cocoa producers that unfortunately does little to update the status quo of cacao that has been established over centuries. In the following post, I will first examine the rise of Hotel Chocolat in historical context, examine the strengths and weaknesses of the company, and recommend certain changes that might bring Hotel Chocolat closer to what they describe their goals to be.
First of all, it is crucial to begin with a thorough understanding of the historical trajectory of Hotel Chocolat. While the company began selling chocolates online in 1993, the first storefront opened in 2004, founded by Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris, two entrepreneurs set on “making chocolate exciting again” (Hotel Chocolat, 2017). Taking a step back, it is crucial to ask what was happening with chocolate at this point in time, and what had gotten it there. Why was there a need to make chocolate exciting again? In colonial Europe, when chocolate was first brought to the Europeans, it was an expensive and special luxury, one that only the ruling class could afford. As Coe and Coe describe it, “it had been an elite drink among the Mesoamericans, and it would stay that way among the white-skinned, perfumed, bewigged, overdressed royalty and nobility of Europe” (Chapter 5). England, uniquely, was a more entrepreneurial society, and therefore shopkeepers and businessmen were able to pedal their wares to the larger population, although it was still the mostly upper class and well to do that could afford chocolate in the beginning (Coe and Coe, Chapter 5). Thus, even in its earliest stages, chocolate in England was diverging from its traditional role as sumptuous luxury. As Professor Martin and her colleague Sempak explain, by the 1800s, chocolate was for everyone, due to a plethora of revamped factors which had maximized efficiency of the treat for mass production (49). One of these newly cheapened factors was of course, sugar, which by 1900 provided “1/5 of calories in an English diet”(Mintz 6). While the price of sugar has certainly fluctuated over time, as exemplified by Figure 1, in 2004, the year of Hotel Chocolat’s birth, the price of sugar was extremely low, and this was not a fact that was wasted on the company’s founders.
In their story, the company explains that “as sugar prices have dropped, British chocolate has focused increasingly on sweetness… Today sugar is 20 times cheaper than cocoa”, and later they even explain that their motto is “More Cocoa, Less Sugar.” With this in mind, it seems that perhaps Hotel Chocolat, in its founding, was not only intent on creating a high quality brand, but also moving back to the original vision of chocolate as a food for the elite. In it’s mission statement, Hotel Chocolat describes sugar as “cheap”, citing its qualities of being “sweet”, and “flavor-dulling”, and contrast this image with their abundant use of cocoa, which they describe as “nuanced”, and “fine”. This distinction between simple and complex, basic and fine, seems to be creating a strict binary. There is mass-produced chocolate for the masses, and then there is Hotel Chocolat, for the higher class individual, in need of an elevated experience.
Additionally, as mentioned before, the company’s commitment to growing its’ own cocoa for its chocolate, restaurants, cafes, and hotel is the backbone of what makes Hotel Chocolat unique. The company owns a plantation in St. Lucia, and is proud of a nuanced “Ethical Engagement” program by which they procure all of their cocoa—their answer to an inability to participate in Direct Trade, which they explain on their website that they are ineligible for (Hotel Chocolate 2017). The company bought the Rabot Plantation is St. Lucia in 2006, and has been growing their own cacao and working with farmers on the island ever since then (Hotel Chocolat 2017). In historical context, this was an incredibly business savvy method. As Martin and Sempak explain, the 1990s were wrought with revelations of the worst forms of child labor, and individuals searching for ways to get their chocolate fix without exploiting vulnerable populations (51). Therefore, by taking production into their own hands, Hotel Chocolate was able to make certain that certain exploitations were not occurring, and offer their clientele a clear conscience in consumption.
Since the purchase of this plantation, the company has continued to thrive. Along with the hotel, the company has 92 cafes, 2 restaurants, and a seemingly endless selection of unique, handcrafted chocolates. As the Telegraph reported last year, Hotel Chocolat went public on the London stock exchange at a value of 150 million pounds (Yeomans and Chan).
With this in mind, it is now possible to take a look at the ethical implications of the company. One thing that is truly incredible is Hotel Chocolat’s “Engaged Ethics” model (EE). The ultimate goal of EE is to “make life as a cocoa farmer truly sustainable”. Thus, this is a many-layered initiative. One of the staples of EE is the Hotel Chocolate Cocoa Growers Programme of Engaged Ethics (HCCAPEE). Within it, farmers are guaranteed a premium price all of a farmers harvested “wet” cocoa, which the company specifically prefers over the dry, fermented product, preferring to complete that step themselves in-house. Hotel Chocolat explains that prior to this program, St. Lucian farmers were subjected to exploitive prices from middlemen and untrustworthy vendors. Under HCCAPEE, a fixed price above fair trade, which is $.75 kg/wet and $1.88/kg dry, which is 28 cents hire than the world trade price. Other perks of the program are access to Hotel Chocolat’s fine quality seedlings, quick turnaround for payday, easy drop off sites, fair measurements, and a local consultant who helps with the process. Membership is free to all cocoa farmers on the island. What is one of the most striking aspects of this program is the fact that the company guarantees to pay a fixed price for all cocoa produced by a farmer, giving the farmer security in income even if there is an issue with the season’s harvest. Additionally, in its business model, Hotel Chocolat cites an even greater goal, which is positively impacting the entire agricultural sector of St. Lucia. Hotel Chocolat explains a greater goal “to use knowledge and skills to help formulate sound agricultural policies and laws; to challenge and correct untrue statements about the agricultural industry and to foster dialogue among agriculturists, other professionals, landowners, and the public regarding agricultural policies” (Hotel Chocolat 2017). With nearly 168 cocoa farmers now taking part in the program, it seems that Hotel Chocolat is indeed working towards a more ethical future for the agricultural future of St. Lucia (Hotel Chocolat 2017).
However, some distinctly important issues emerge on closer analysis of the Hotel Chocolat model. First of all, as mentioned previously, the company does place a premium on using trope that separates low quality chocolate from high quality, implying a social class divide along with it. Words like “luxury,” “private,” “distinctive,” “fine,” and more dominate the language on the company website, making it clear that this chocolate is of the highest caliber. As Robertson explains, chocolate companies have historically focused marketing to a “refined” taste palette, suggesting that a high quality of chocolate is meant for a high class individual (26). For example, in a Rowntree marketing campaign, advertisements for Black Magic were utilized high-class women, emphasizing luxury and expense. When Rowntree advertised their lower cocoa content chocolate, the Dairy Box, they used words that emphasized cheapness and accessibility (27). This is practically identical to the binary set up by Hotel Chocolat in its description of their product. Thus, it seems that Hotel Chocolat is perpetuating a chocolate class distinction, one of the more serious issues that the chocolate industry faces today.
Additionally, while the HCCAPEE program is undoubtedly doing some fantastic things, there are certain critiques to be found there as well. One of the most glaring issues to me comes from the fact that the company asks its farmers to sell their cocoa to them “wet” rather than “dry”. This means that the farmers are not being trained by Hotel Chocolat in the artisanship of fermentation, and are thus kept at a level of crude labor, with little opportunity for growth. Hotel Chocolat defends itself, stating that buying it wet allows the farmers to do less work and receive the same payday, and even claims that if a farmer is interested in fermentation, Hotel Chocolat will send an inspector to their facility. However, there is no evidence that any farmers partake in this option. Therefore, farmers in the Hotel Chocolat system stay at just that- farmers. Something that immediately comes to mind is Berlan’s concept of “unfree” labor. Berlan explains that in Ghana, farmers and their children have “varying degrees of agency over their lives,” and that this is what sometimes results in individuals having no other choice but to seek out labor on cocoa farms (1094-1095). Hotel Chocolat themselves explains that St. Lucia’s cocoa industry was riddled with poverty, and this historical context makes it difficult to believe that farmers on the island had options besides participating in the HCCAPPEE program.
The last critique I offer looks at HCCAPEE’s policy of only allowing cocoa farmer’s to experience the benefits of the program. As the CIA’s world fact book presents, St. Lucia’s agricultural industry is largely based off of bananas, with this commodity making up 41% of the country’s exports (CIA 2017). If Hotel Chocolat were truly committed, as they claim to be, to improving the agricultural situation of St. Lucia, then they would be hard pressed to find a better medium than by including the banana farmer’s in their program.
After studying the company, I feel that in order to truly meet its goals, several key changes should be put into action. First of all, the distinction between cheap and expensive should be diminished. By perpetuating an elitist mindset with chocolate, they take away from their commitment to incredible chocolate, and instead, create a vision that lacks diversity. As chocolate connoisseur Chloe explains, “chocolate is like music or friends, each person must make his own opinion and those opinion evolve” (Williams and Eber 146). With this in mind, I think that Hotel Chocolat should focus more on taste preferences between the individual, rather than the exclusivity of the chocolate itself. An integration of testimonials from their own workers in St. Lucia would go a long way to show that Hotel Chocolat is not about where you come from, or what you do, but rather, the kind of chocolate you love. Second, I would be thrilled to see some sort of chocolate academy launched on the Rabot Plantation. If Hotel Chocolat committed itself to providing farmers with unique, valuable skills, then farmers may have more autonomy over their own lives, which would be a fabulous improvement from the current situation. Lastly, I think that Hotel Chocolat needs to actively recruit banana farmers to diversify their farms with the company’s cocoa seedlings. This would provide support to the St. Lucian agricultural sector, and give Hotel Chocolat an even greater opportunity to make an impact, all while crafting delicious chocolate.
In ending, Hotel Chocolat’s Engaged Ethics program is a fabulous step in the right direction for the future of ethical chocolate making, and certain tweaks could make it an even more efficient initiative.
Armstrong, Ashley. “Hotel Chocolat Enjoys a Sweet Start after IPO.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 12 July 2016. Web. 05 May 2017.
Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana.” The Journal of Development Studies 49.8 (2013): 1088-100. Print.
“Chocolate Gifts & Luxury Presents.” Hotel Chocolat – Luxury Chocolates and Gifts. Hotel Chocolat, 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.
CIA. “The World Factbook St. Lucia.” Central Intelligence Agency. Central Intelligence Agency, 01 Apr. 2016. Web. 05 May 2017.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
Martin, Carla D and Sampeck, Kathryn E (2015) The bitter and sweet of chocolate in Europe. SOCIO.HU, 2015 (No. 3). pp. 37-60.
Robertson, Emma. (2009) Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press.
Williams, Pamela Sue., and Jim Eber. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver, BC: Wilmor Corporation, 2012. Print.
There is no doubt that cacao was highly valued in Mayan culture, intertwined with economics, culture, religion, and ritual. Cacao was abundant and valuable, and the numerous cacao-producing regions on the coast were hubs for trade. The Yucatán, on the other hand, does not have an environment suitable for cacao trees. Yet despite this, the Yucatec Maya revered cacao so much that they found a way to overcome their climate’s cacao-growing challenges and cultivate it in sinkholes called cenotes (Coe and Coe 46). These sinkholes could sustain a small number of trees, but not nearly as many as the large plantations to the south, which suggests that profit was not a motivating factor. The motivation for cultivation of cacao in cenotes in the Yucatán stems from prestige and status as well as the sacred importance of cacao.
There were a number of rich cacao growing region in the pre-Conquest era, including the Chontalpa, the Pacific coastal plain of Chiapas and Guatemala, and Boca Costa (Coe and Coe 45). The regions had sufficient rainfall and nutrient rich soil, enabling them to sustain significant cacao plantations. The Yucatán, on the other hand, has a dry climate and rocky soils, and as a limestone plain with virtually no rivers, it has typically not been deemed suitable for cacao cultivation (Gomez-Pompa 250). However, scattered in this region are humid cenotes which the Maya put to their chocolate-growing benefit. Cenotes are sinkholes filled with water and soil, which create a humid ecosystem where cacao can grow naturally. Because they are saturated, the typical challenges of the lack of rainfall and the dry season can be overcome (Gomez-Pompa 250-251). Though these cenotes had the right environment, they were not on the size scale to run plantations. To put things in perspective, a Kuyul sinkhole where cacao was found has a depth of 40m and a diameter of 240m, which can be visualized in the image below (Gomez-Pompa 251-252). According to Spanish sources, they were the private property of wealthy lineages (Coe and Coe 46). Cultivation of these small groves of cacao only produced a little fruit, unlike large plantations, so monetary gain was likely not the motivating factor for this small-scale cultivation.
The cultivation of cacao in cenotes was motivated by the its representation as a status symbol for the wealthy class. Cacao had a long history of ties to economics and high social status, given its use as a currency, a noble drink, and a ritualistic offering. Cacao has been discovered in the tombs of prominent rulers, accompanying other luxurious items in funerary tradition (Coe and Coe 35). The cacao tree was also used to depict a Mayan ruler’s mother, Lady Zac-Kuk, at the ruler’s burial site, associating the royal lineage with the cacao tree (Lecture 2/1). Given this history, it makes sense that cacao itself was an important indicator of wealth and power for the Maya. For the families that owned the cenotes, the cultivation of cacao in their groves represented their upper socioeconomic status. The prestige that is associated with cacao justifies its use in the cenotes of the Yucatán.
Beyond being a status symbol, cultivation of cacao in cenotes also evidences the spiritual importance of cacao. A painted capstone from the Temple of the Owls in Chichen Itza, which is shown below, depicts the spiritual significance of cacao and the cenote. In this artifact, the Maya god Kauil, who is the lord of sustenance and of royal descent (Coe and Coe 46), stands on the mouth of a serpent while carrying a plate with offerings. The presence of the god Kauil, given his connection to royal descent, points to the association between the cacao and cenote and the noble and powerful lineages (Gomez-Pompa 253), supporting the notion that the cenotes were a symbol of wealth and power. In the capstone, as Simon Martin describes, Kauil emerges from the underworld, which is depicted as a cenote, in pursuit of the heavens above (174). Cacao pods hang as if naturally growing from both the heavens and the underworld. The god’s expression of “rescuing” the seeds from the cenote and their “gifting to heaven and earth” in this scene depict the significance of the spiritual value of cacao (Martin 175). Beyond being a status symbol, cultivation of cacao in cenotes also indicates the spiritual importance of cacao, which is demonstrated by the capstone from the Temple of the Owls.
The motivation for cultivation of cacao in cenotes in the Yucatán stems from prestige and status as well as the sacred importance of cacao. Cacao is deeply intertwined with wealth and social status in Maya culture, and the use of cenotes is no exception. Despite the dry and rocky conditions in the Yucatán, the Maya discovered and practiced a cultivation of cacao in cenotes to demonstrate their wealth and to uphold the sacred importance of cacao. The effects of these practices are still with us today, as wild cacao trees continue to grow in cenotes, and chocolate beverages are consumed during contemporary celebrations.
Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Gómez-Pompa, Arturo, José Salvador Flores, and Mario Aliphat Fernández. “The sacred cacao groves of the Maya.” Latin american antiquity (1990): 247-257.
Martin, Carla. “Lecture 2/1: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. 1 February 2017. Lecture.
Martin, Simon. “Cacao in ancient Maya religion: first fruit from the maize tree and other tales from the underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a cultural history of cacao (2006): 154-183.