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Chocolate Lessons: Knowledge Gleaned from Chocolate Bars Sold in the Natural Foods Aisle

On average, Americans consume 12 pounds of chocolate per person each year or a little less than a quarter pound of chocolate per week. A typical chocolate bar ranges from 1.5-3.5 ounces. Therefore, 12 pounds of chocolate equates to enjoying 55-128 chocolate bars (depending on its size) per year! It is safe to say, for better or for worse, chocolate has become an integral part of the American diet.

Historically, chocolate was consumed for medicinal purposes, primarily as a source of nourishment and energy. Today, the developed world struggles with being simultaneously over nourished and malnourished from an imbalanced diet. Nevertheless, chocolate health claims persist, usually in reference to darker chocolates. Beneficial properties of cocoa include antioxidant, cardiovascular, and psychological enhancement, which are linked to its polyphenol, flavanol, and caffeine content (Castell, Pérez-Cano, and Bisson, 2013). These health claims are not present on chocolate bar labels, though.

In the last couple of decades, food packaging has actually become quite informationally dense. How can you sift through all of the information on chocolate labels to know what’s really important? Additionally, what can we learn from a chocolate bar’s packaging, besides its nutritional content? The goal of this blog post is to help decipher the various symbols, certification meanings, and key words that appear on chocolate wrappers.

Ultimately, you, as the consumer, have to decide what is important to you and what you are looking for in your chocolate purchases, not only in terms of taste but also social responsibility. Equipping yourself with the knowledge to know what to look for, and what symbols, certifications, and other words on chocolate packages mean, makes informed chocolate purchases a much smoother process and ensures you have the best chocolate buying experience possible. Before chocolate tasting can become embodied knowledge, it requires repetition in order to pick up on flavor nuances of single origin chocolate or to be able to tell if a chocolate bar was made with over-roasted cacao beans. In the same way, learning the stories and processes behind the chocolate you are eating requires some research, occasionally beyond the label itself.

I studied the chocolate bars in the natural foods aisle of a Stop & Shop grocery store in the greater Boston area to see what information could be gleaned from the chocolate labels within this section. I did not include enrobed chocolate candies within this aisle, “regular” chocolate bars (i.e., Hershey’s) in the main candy aisle or those present in the checkout lanes. I chose to focus on the chocolate bars within the natural foods aisle because, typically, these brands offer more information and stories about cacao procurement, processing, and its impact on people or the environment, whereas chocolate produced by most Big Five brands only provide nutritional information on the back of the wrapper. The Big Five chocolate brands include well-known companies: Hershey, Mars, Cadbury, Nestle, and Ferrero (Allen, 2010).

The type of consumer who shops for chocolate in the natural foods aisle is most likely not just looking for a sugar fix because there are cheaper ways to meet that need. The intended audience includes individuals who may be interested in supporting social or environmental causes, and who are probably health conscious, even though it is still chocolate. Additionally, he or she may have a sophisticated or informed palate, and prefer quality chocolate with nuanced flavors. The natural foods aisle typically offers products that are slightly more expensive than its conventional counterparts, so the consumer is not making his or her choice of chocolate based solely on price point. Rather, the consumer possibly has a higher disposable income and is able to spend two or three times as much money on a chocolate bar from this section than on chocolate from one of the large chocolate corporations previously mentioned.

The natural foods aisle in Stop & Shop offers eight different brands of chocolate bars: Chocolove XOXOX, Green & Black’s, Divine, Theo, TCHO, LILY’s, Endangered Species Chocolate, and Alter Eco. These bars are being sold for $2.50-$3.99, with Chocolove XOXOX being the cheapest because it was on sale. Divine, LILY’s, and Alter Eco lands at the upper end of the options. The TCHO 70% dark chocolate bar usually retails for $4.29, but happened to be on sale. Still, these are moderately priced “good” chocolate bars compared to other specialty chocolate companies and retailers who sell their bars for about double the price. The juxtaposition of these brands, with a $1.00 (or less) Hershey’s chocolate bar, provides an interesting comparison in both price and taste.

The eight brands offer bars in a variety of flavors ranging from 34% milk chocolate to 85% dark chocolate with the option of added fruit or nut pieces. The white chocolate selection was nonexistent in this section at this particular grocery store. However, just for informational purposes, one brand (outside of the eight focused on here) does contribute a white chocolate peanut butter cup.

Just a few of the brands provide chocolate bars made from single origin cacao, which might be a more common provision at specialty retail stores. Both TCHO and Divine use Ghanaian cacao, and Alter Eco sources its cacao beans from Ecuador. Chocolove XOXOX states on the back of the wrapper that their Belgian chocolate bars are crafted with African cocoa beans. This somewhat vague statement only alludes to the fact that their beans do not come from Central or South America, or Southeast Asia but could be sourced from one or more of the cacao producing countries within the large continent of Africa. Additionally, Green & Black’s credits Trinitario cacao beans for giving their chocolate a rich and unique flavor profile. Trinitario cacao beans are thought to embody the best qualities of its genetic parents, the Criollo and Forastero varieties, with the hybrid cacao being both hardy and possessing a nice flavor profile (Prisilla, 2009). Likewise, the purpose of brands specifying single origin or the use of a single cacao variety suggests an increase in quality or flavor characteristics that add value to the end product. Thus, the price of these types of bars is usually slightly higher compared to mixed bean origin or variety, and especially compared to bulk cacao.

There are a few things that stand out upon taking a closer look at the packages. First, Alter Eco is the only brand that uses a cardboard packaging to house its chocolate. All of the other brands wrap their bars in a glossy paper. In both cases, the chocolate is likely sealed in foil before receiving either the glossy paper or cardboard outer wrapper. While the outer cardboard layer looks visually appealing and feels nice to the touch, it also makes the bar appear larger than it actually is. The 2.8 ounce Alter Eco chocolate bar looks bigger than the 3 ounce LILY’S bar sitting next to it on the shelf, as the image shows below. Thus, most consumers probably believe they are purchasing a larger chocolate bar if they do not read the front of the package and realize the chocolate bar is smaller by weight than some other options.

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Alter Eco 2.8 ounce chocolate bar

Like several other brands, Theo includes a brief description about the company and their procurement and processing practices on the back of the package. Here, Theo shares it is a bean to bar chocolate company, which means the company purchases the fermented and dried cacao beans, and then carries out each of the remaining processing steps (about 10) from roasting to packaging, according to their unique preferences. Thus, the company oversees the entire chocolate making process and can tweak each batch according to its needs and the desired outcome, making it a true craft.

Green & Black’s label does not readily offer information about the company’s processing practices other than it uses fair trade and organic ingredients. Interestingly, the backside of the label does say Mondelez Global LLC distributes Green & Black’s chocolate bars. Mondelez is one of the largest global snack food companies and now owns Cadbury, one of the Big Five chocolate companies. Last year, Mondelez even attempted to acquire the Hershey Company, but Hershey declined the offer (Bukhari, 2017). Thus, Mondelez is a significant player within the global food system. This association alone may deter some consumers from purchasing Green & Black’s chocolate.

Another unexpected but perhaps pioneering find is LILY’s, whose chocolate bars are sweetened with the natural sweetener, Stevia, and erythritol, a sugar alcohol. Additionally, LILY’s adds inulin, a fiber commonly used as a bulking agent. These are not traditional chocolate bar ingredients, but perhaps the fewer calories and grams of sugar allow individuals with specific dietary restrictions to still purchase fair trade chocolate. The bar also boasts that it is still “100% indulgent.”

Before dissecting the chocolate bars’ various certifications, I want to look at Divine’s commitment to its producers. In the West, chocolate consumption has long been feminized, associated with temptation and indulgence (Robertson, 2009). Women are important as both chocolate consumers and producers, something Divine has recognized. The two images above depict Divine’s pledge to support the female cacao farmers within Kuapa Kokoo (cocoa co-operative) in Ghana and make sure their voices are heard. In doing so, these female business owners are positioned as powerful actors within the cacao and chocolate industries, rather than being viewed as exploited workers in an underdeveloped country (Leissle, 2012). This has significant implications not only for the female producers, but also culturally, and for future standards within the chocolate industry.

This final section includes a brief discussion on food certifications. Fair trade certification is the most popular certification that the eight brands feature. Other certifications that appear on the chocolate wrappers include USDA Organic, Non-GMO Verified, Certified Gluten-Free, Certified Vegan, Kosher (dairy), Fair for Life, and rBST free. I was surprised I did not find the UTZ Certified symbol on any of the chocolate bars, since UTZ is the most common cacao certification related to sustainable farming practices.

Fair trade certifications can be represented in a variety of ways depending on the party providing the certification. The images above show several different certifications present on the different brands’ packaging that symbolize the employment of fair trade practices. In order for a product to be labeled “fair trade,” all members of the processing chain (including producers) must pay into the fair trade system. As a result, producers are promised better trading conditions including long term relationships with buyers, garner presumably higher wages, have better working conditions, and live overall improved lives. However, many question whether this system is as transformative as it claims to be. The terms “fair trade” and “sustainable” have become ubiquitous, and the commodification of the terms also threatens their legitimacy (Sylla, 2014).

When thinking about food certifications, it is important to remember these certifications are neither all encompassing nor meant to solve all social or environmental issues with one label. Companies are now starting to launch their own certifications rather than going through a third party certification. It will be up to the individual company to define the criteria for “fair” or “sustainable,” or any new term it deems important. Whole Foods already uses its “Whole Trade Certified” label. Consequently, continuing to be an educated consumer will be extremely imperative in order to know what the certifications represent and what the companies stand for. It is unclear whether these self-certifications will be viewed as legitimate certifications or just add to the confusion many consumers feel when reading food labels.

While the objective of self-certification is to offer more affordable fair trade items to consumers, it raises the question of whether that should be the ultimate goal of selling fair trade products, and what the tradeoffs are for making fair trade more affordable and part of the mainstream? If large food conglomerates begin to self-regulate certifications, rather than paying third party companies, who is to say the consumer will actual benefit from the money saved? Historically, when the price of goods has dropped, large corporations scoop up the difference and pocket the extra profits, rather than decreasing the cost for the consumer (Albrittion, 2013). However, consumers still have the power to vote with their dollars.

The next time you peruse the chocolate selection within a store, feel empowered to study the information provided on the packaging (and conduct further research if needed) rather than being overwhelmed by various symbols and industry jargon.

 

**All images were taken by the author

 

Works Cited

Albritton, Robert. 2013. “Between Obesity And Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry”. In Food And Culture: A Reader, 3rd ed., 342-352. New York: Routledge.

Allen, Lawrence L. 2010. Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle For The Hearts, Minds, And Wallets Of China’s Consumers. New York: American Management Association.

Bukhari, Jeff. 2017. “Why Investors Are Bingeing On Snack-Maker Mondelez”. Fortune.Com. http://fortune.com/2017/02/22/why-investors-are-bingeing-on-snack-maker-mondelez/.

Castell, Margarida, Francisco Jose Pérez-Cano, and Jean-François Bisson. 2013. “Clinical Benefits Of Cocoa: A Review”. In Chocolate In Health And Nutrition, 1st ed., 265-276. Humana Press.

Leissle, Kristy. 2012. “Cosmopolitan Cocoa Farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate Advertisements.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 24 (2): 121-139. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13696815.2012.736194

Prisilla, Maricel E. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st ed. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Robertson, Emma. 2009. Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba. 2014. The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty To Benefit The Rich. 1st ed. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

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Why Hasn’t Chocolate Taken Off in China?

This video is a Chinese advertisement of Dove chocolates, focusing on the smooth and sweet taste of chocolate.  Among the Big Five, Dove has been one of the leading chocolate products in China. Since the 1980s, the Big Five have invested massive resources into trying to sell chocolate, with hopes of a lucrative return as China’s consumer class grows. Although some companies such as Ferrero and Mars have had some success, the dream of reaching all Chinese consumers has yet to be fully realized. Why these companies have struggled to successfully penetrate the Chinese market is a question worthy of exploration. Although some literature sources address this puzzle, none of them offer fully convincing arguments for why this might be. Building on Mintz’s consideration of how “sweetness” fits into the cuisine of different cultures, I argue that we must understand how people understand flavors and food in China to fully understand why chocolate may not be as popular.

The Big Five have made concerted efforts to market chocolate to Chinese people, using different concepts to attract the attention of consumers. For example, some have focused on the cultural practice of “gift-giving”–finding that more people may choose to give chocolate rather than buy it for the sake of self-indulgence. To some extent, these efforts seem to be working. This next video is a news report that reports how chocolate in China is becoming more popular. However, as the video points out, the consumption of chocolate in China remains extremely low, and a person in China only eats about 100 grams of chocolate annually.

Interestingly, one of the points made in this video and other news reports also comment on the short history of chocolate in China. Many point to China’s recent industrialization as the start of the country’s interaction with chocolate. As Allen writes in the opening paragraph of his book “Chocolate Fortunes : The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers,”

Until twenty-five years ago, almost none of them had ever eaten a piece of chocolate. They were, to coin a phrase, ‘‘chocolate virgins,’’ their taste for chocolate ready to be shaped by whichever chocolate company came roaring into the country with a winning combination of quality, marketing savvy, and manufacturing and distribution acumen.

Here, Allen’s analyzes China through a highly orientalist and capitalist lens, describing Chinese people as “chocolate virgins” to be “conquered in a war” between chocolate corporations. Allen’s description is highly problematic in the way that it views Chinese people as simply “consumers” who can fulfill the wild dreams of one of the big five chocolate companies. By saying that before 25 years ago, “none of them had ever eaten a piece of chocolate” is a gross exaggeration, and would suggest that chocolate has had a very recent entry into China.  On the contrary, there is evidence that shows chocolate has long been in China, and some sources say its presence dates as far back as the 1600s (Grivetti and Shapiro 2011; Gordon, 2011).  These scholars point to several opportunities in which chocolate could have been introduced into China, including its close proximity to European countries (like Turkey) where chocolate and coffee were extremely popular; England’s colonization of Hong Kong in the mid 1800s, and the outsourcing of Chinese laborers to the Philippines where both cane sugar and chocolate were popular (Clarence-Smith 2003; Grivetti and Shapiro 2011). In searching through a database of Chinese trade and business documents, I also found a journal entry from 1883 where missionaries documented their consumption of chocolate, suggesting that it was not a foreign substance or food to the Chinese (See Picture 1 & 2).

Given that the data suggests chocolate has had a much longer history in China, this makes the puzzle of why chocolate has not been fully taken off even more interesting. Allen posits that many of the challenges that explain why chocolate has not taken off in China are logistical barriers that have gotten in the way. For example, he cites the difficulty in finding places that can keep chocolate at an appropriate temperature to avoid melting. Additionally, Allen even talks about how China is not as developed as the west, therefore their stores simply do not fully expose consumers to chocolate. Although Allen talks briefly about the importance of understanding how food is understood in China (citing the yin and yang concept), he ultimately criticizes China for being too close-minded to chocolate. He writes,

Ironically, in spite of such a wide variety of tastes and textures, chocolate was so foreign to the Chinese palate that the only culinary gateway into the diets of Chinese consumers was as a foreign and exotic curiosity. Therefore, to make their chocolates appealing to Chinese consumers, the Big Five’s marketing approaches and products had to be consistent with this prevailing view.

Despite acknowledging China’s diverse and rich culinary culture, Allen still believes that through thoughtful marketing, the Big Five can make chocolate popular in China. I argue that this is a problematic and limiting understanding of chocolate in the Chinese context. Even if companies face no logistical supply-chain barriers or have perfect marketing campaigns, there are cultural factors to account for that explain why chocolate has not, in its history, been fully accepted into Chinese culture.  In order to understand this, I believe we need to take a more nuanced look at the food system in China. Although there are certain regions, such as eastern China, that may prefer sweet foods, most of the country is not accustomed to eating solely sweets; there is a cultural system in China that dictates what what foods are better than others dependent on the season, weather, or condition of one’s body. To indulge in a sweet confectionary, or many pounds of it, is fundamentally oppositional to the balance of foods that one should consume.

In discussing the minimal role of sugar in French cuisine, Mintz’ cultural explanation provides a compelling framework that can help us understand why something sweet like chocolate may not be as popular in places like China. He writes,  

Sweetness does not seem to ever have been enshrined as a taste to be contrasted with all others in the French taste spectrum–bitter, sour, salt, hot–as it has in England and America.  Though dessert has a firm place in french meals, the position of cheese is even sturdier, often as if it were a spice. This is rather like the Chinese usage, where sweetness occurs somewhat unexpectedly, and also not always as the climax to the meal.

As Mintz points out, both French and Chinese cuisine are different from American and English cuisines in that they do not necessarily treat sweetness as a main or core component of dishes.  Given sweetness’ smaller role in the cuisine of China, confections such as chocolates may therefore not be as attractive to consumers. Acknowledging the way that food is understood culturally is essential to understanding why chocolate companies may find resistance in China; if the Big Five truly want to take a stab at China, then they need to understand that the cuisine and cultural food systems are more important than consumers’ purchasing power or logistical barriers.

Works Cited

Allen, Lawrence. 2010. Chocolate Fortunes: the Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and

Wallets of China’s Consumers. pp. 1-39, 201-224

Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. 2003. Cocoa and Chocolate.

Gordon, Bertram M. 2011. Chapter 44: Chinese Chocolate in the book Chocolate: history, culture, and heritage edited by Grivetti and Shapiro.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern

History. New York: Penguin Books

Multimedia Sources:

Picture 1&2:

The Chinese Recorder: Missionary Journal. 1883. Volume 14, Issue 1. China: Trade, Politics & Culture.

Video 1: Dove Chocolate Advertisement. Extracted from Youtube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhwYbH5n15c

Video 2: Chinese news report on chocolate. Extracted from Youtube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9qRl9Lj818

Great Chocolate, Greater Relationships

“Great chocolate, greater relationships”. That is the slogan for Tabal chocolate, a company that claims it is “chocolate’s power to bring people together” that inspires them to make their best chocolate (“History”). Through a chocolate exchange at the Denver Art Museum in 2014, the CelebrARTE and Journey programs began a partnership to help students create Mayan chocolate-inspired poetry and art and to “grow as artists and teachers” (Salazar). And in 2013, Milka chocolate came up with a fun project that required Argentine workers to link hands and work together to connect a cow statue with a vending machine and receive free chocolate bars (Cullers). In each of these situations, chocolate is seen as something that brings people together and this is not a new concept.

The Olmecs and Mayans

From the origins of cacao, society and people groups have gathered together to consume some form of chocolate. In as early as 1500 B.C., the Olmecs would remove the seeds from the pods by hand and prepare them for fermentation- a process that had to be done only when many people got together. Joel Palka, a director of an archaeological project around Chiapas, Mexico, still encounters people in the area who prepare chocolate as a family tradition and cultural practice. He says in a Smithsonian article, “like coffee in the Arab world, or beer in northern and Eastern Europe, it’s not only something that’s good, but part of their identity” (Garthwaite). There is also a Mayan word chocola’j that literally means “to drink cacao together”. The upper class in Mayan society found great significance in communal consumption and cacao became almost a luxury set aside only for special situations.

The Cistercians

Recipes using cacao beans have been discovered in a 12th century Cistercian monastery where Cistercian communities, even to this day, gather to prepare and enjoy chocolate in a specific room located above the cloister called the “chocolateria”. Drinking chocolate became such a popular beverage for communal events that Catholics often debated over whether it could be considered a food and should not be consumed during fasting.

monks

Monks preparing chocolate together in a Cistercian monastery

The British

Once cacao was brought to Europe, it served a similar purpose. Chocolate was served at “chocolate houses” in England, where members of the elite upper class would gather together to drink their liquid chocolate, gamble, and share opinions on the pressing philosophical and political issues of the day. Soon, these “houses” became associated with one of the Parliamentary parties, and some evolved into a gentlemen’s club, like the “Cocoa Tree Club”, made up of Tories in England.

The Big Five

By observing some of the original advertisements of the Big Five chocolate companies, we can further understand how throughout history, chocolate is seen as something that brings people together. Many of Cadbury’s advertisements have shown families drinking and enjoying chocolate together, such as one (shown below) in which a woman is seen commenting “This is the nicest way to end an evening” (drinking chocolate together).

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A Cadbury advertisement depicting people drinking chocolate together

Another advertisement depicts a family drinking cocoa for breakfast as a “substitute for milk”. Similarly, many older Nestle advertisements depict children playing together, while Mars and Hershey also focus on illustrating couples eating chocolate together.

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A Cadbury advertisement depicting a family drinking chocolate for breakfast

This brings us to today. Chocolate companies are still advertising their products as being something that unites people – from couples to friends to even different social groups or cultures. A few years ago, Divine chocolate came out with a series of ads that portrayed female Ghanaian cacao farmers with different captions like “Just developed an appetite for fighting global poverty?” or “Craving a better world or just another piece?”, as if chocolate plays a role in large global issues (Leissle). Many Hershey ads include the motto “shared goodness”, which suggests that consumers are eating the chocolate with others and enjoying it together.

Divine-print-ad

A Divine chocolate advertisement

Outside of how chocolate companies affect our perception of chocolate, society, in general, still gathers around consuming this sweet. It’s common to see families and friends drinking hot chocolate together on a cold winter night, or couples enjoying chocolate together around Valentine’s Day. To enjoy chocolate with others is to share love and joy. As Audrey Richards once said, the “need for nutrition brings people together and creates social groups”. Although chocolate may not necessarily be seen as a necessary nutrition and more as a luxury, it is evident that throughout history, chocolate has done the same.

Works Cited

Cullers, Rebecca. “For Free Chocolate, Strangers Must Hold Hands in Argentine Vending Stunt”. AdWeek. 3 Oct. 2013. Print.

Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate”. Smithsonian.com. 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.

“History”. Tabal Chocolate. Web. 10 Mar. 2017

Leissle, Kristy. “Cosmopolitan Cocoa Farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate Advertisements”. Journal of African Cultural Studies. (2012): 121-139.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Salazar, Madalena. “Chocolate Brings People Together at CelebrARTE”. Denver Art Museum. 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.