Chocolate is a favorite treat for many in modern times, but it was also a favorite for the people in ancient Mesoamerica. Today, in the U.S.A., we can easily purchase chocolate from establishments ranging from grocery stores to gas stations, and chocolate is a popular ingredient in foods such as candy and many beverages. We are able to easily purchase our chocolate treats, in all forms, without ever seeing, touching, processing, or preparing our treats from the plant itself. In ancient times the fruit of Theobroma spp. was collected and processed by the inhabitants of many ancient civilizations. When scholars investigate the origins of the use of Theobroma spp. many questions arise such as, “How was this plant used by ancient cultures?” and “Which parts of the plant were consumed?” These questions are answered through the use of many scientific facets such as analyses of ancient writings and the examination of ancient artifacts through chemical analyses. Through these efforts, scientists are able to piece together a timeline detailing the earliest known use of this plant by ancient societies. This post will examine how the discovery of ancient pottery demonstrated that ancient civilizations used the fruits of Theobroma spp. to produce alcoholic beverages, and how this discovery allowed for the incorporation of chocolate into a modern day beer “Theobroma” developed and produced by the company Dogfish Head.
What is Theobroma spp? The genus Theobroma is located in the family Malvaceae and contains ~20 species (“Theobroma” n.d.). The most familiar species within the genus is Theobroma cacao which translates to “food of the gods”. The seeds from this plant are used to make chocolate. This evergreen, shade grown, amazing tree is unique in that the flowers and fruit grow directly on the trunk (cauliflory). The fruit, once ripe, contains the prized seeds which are used for the modern day production of chocolate. It is truly a beautiful plant which has had a tremendous impact on human culture as described by many researchers who have searched for, recorded, and shared their finding detailing the use of this plant ancient times.
When researchers uncovered shards of pottery at the northern Honduran site of Puerto Escondido they were about to redefine the history of chocolate and inspire the creation of a “new to the modern world” chocolate drink. Archeologist identified these vessel shards at the site as having a “long neck” (think “long neck” beer bottles). The presence of the “neck” was an indicator that foam was not a component of the liquid stored within this container (Henderson 3). The process of pouring the cacao mixture between two containers to create foam was previously believed to be the way in which cacao drinks were first consumed (Henderson 3). The sample of a spouted (“long neck”) vessel (4DK-136 – Type name: Barraca Brown), based on radiocarbon dating, showed that the process of consumption involved fermentation to produce an alcoholic beverage (beer). This would now be the earliest known use of cacao from anywhere in the world, and via radiocarbon dating, scientists could now date this vessel to the Ocotillo phase (1400-1100 B.C.) (Henderson 2). Further chemical analysis of this vessel, using chromatographic and mass spectrometric analyses showed the presence if theobromine and caffeine (Henderson 3). These two compounds are found in Theobroma spp. and proved that these vessels once held a drink made from the plant Theobroma. The research conducted by John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick McGovern not only shifted the date for first cacao consumption (by humans) back 500 years, but they also established that, in all likelihood, that the method for the consumption of cacao began with the fermentation of the pulp to create an alcoholic beverage, and that the use of the cacao seeds, and the method for producing “foam”, did not occur until hundreds of years later.
The invention of a new “ancient beer” could not have happened without the collaboration between Dr. Patrick McGovern (the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology) and the folks from Dogfish Head Brewery. Dr. McGovern is not only an incredible archeologist, but he is also reproducing drinks of the past for modern day consumption. The collaboration between Dr. McGovern and the brewers from Dogfish Head demonstrates how science and intuition, blended together, can have amazing results.
“Since it proved impossible to transport the fresh fruit without spoilage from Honduras, we did the next best thing. We were able to obtain chocolate nibs and powder from the premier area of Aztec chocolate production, Soconusco, the first such dark chocolate to be imported into the States in centuries (Askinosie Chocolate in Missouri). As you drink this luscious beverage–almost like a fine Scotch or Port–you will pick up the aroma of the cacao and hints of the ancho chili in the aftertaste. Any bitterness of the chocolate is offset by the honey and corn. Achiote colors it red. It was fermented with an American ale yeast.” (Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, “Theobroma”).
Do we now have in our possession the ancient recipe used to brew beer with cacao? The recipe used to create “Theobroma” beer uses the wealth of knowledge gained by understanding and studying ancient artifacts, writings, and through chemical analyses conducted on the pottery uncovered during archeological excavations and historical studies, but even with this wealth of knowledge, we will never know for sure how the drinks prepared by the ancients tasted or the precise measurements and ingredients used to create them. However, with the use of science and craftsmanship we can certainly come close to tasting these “ancient brews”.
Theobroma was a limited release from Dogfish Head, but please enjoy the following video in which Dogfish Head brewer Sam Calagione describes how lovely this ancient brew tastes.
Video 1: Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione on the brewery’s Ancient Ale Theobroma.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Acad Sciences, 16 Nov. 2007 http://www.pnas.org/content/104/48/18937 Accessed on 8 March 2017
The indulgence that we know as chocolate has its roots in a South American tree that can not exist without a symbiotic partner. Originating in the upper Amazonian River basin, as an understory tree of the rainforest, Theobroma cacao is a fascinating plant. Pollinated by a single type of insect, colorful melon like pods are full of sweet pulp and bitter seeds–which we refer to today as “beans.” These hefty pods have to attract the assistance of a hungry monkey, Toucan, or human to release the beans and the next generation of trees. Monkeys and birds like the sweet pulp, but when it comes to humans, we became addicted to the bean.
T.cacao migrated northward along the Pacific coast to take hold in a place that is now Central America. Although the details of the journey between continents is a mystery, the first evidence in the historical record that cacao was used as a food source is found in the Rio Ceniza Valley of modern El Salvador. (Martin)
Chemical analysis of pottery shows the Olmec culture made cacao pulp into an intoxicating beer-type drink at least 1000 years before the current era. Eventually the cacao bean byproduct fermented into its own food source and began to resemble chocolate–at least in its crudest liquid form. (Henderson) In the rural communities of the region today you can still find sweet pulpy drinks as well as meal-replacing beverages made from ground cacao beans and maize. These traditional ground bean beverages are bitter, filling, and stimulating enough to provide a morning or afternoon energy boost which keeps the drink popular despite being labor intensive to prepare. The stimulating caffeine and theobromine compounds that the Olmec people unlocked from the cacao bean became a driving force for the political relations and trade between nations until Cortez arrives in the modern era–usurping the entire region and economy for the Spanish crown.
The Classic Maya Civilization (250-900 CE) raised the imbibing of the rustic, gritty, cacao bean drink to a godly level. The artwork they left behind tells the story of how cacao was literally considered to be the food of their pantheon and used in rituals for pivotal moments in society and life. In The New Taste of Chocolate, Presilla points out that “from both the glyphs and actual pictured scenes on Maya posts we have been able to learn that chocolate made using particular recipes was drunk by kings and nobles. There is also evidence that it was used by people of all classes, particularly during rites of passage…” (12)
The gourds that most people used for drinking have not withstood the impacts of time but some ceramic vessels of the wealthy remain intact. These colorful jewels of Western Hemisphere art document the details about ritual life by describing events, attendees, and even the ingredients. Many of these vessels can be seen in art collections today; the Mayan drinking vase on display in the permanent collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is a fine example of storytelling. Slightly larger than a modern quart jar, the drinking vase has a wrap-around visual narrative that details a ritual, specifically noting out that kakaw (cacao) was one of the stimulating substances used in this event.
Although the Mayan people still live in the same region today, they mysteriously abandoned their cities around 900 CE and were eventually conquered by the Aztec civilization. Cacao beans not only survived the invasion from the north, they could well have been the cause. The Aztecs so valued the stimulating substance that they used dried beans as coinage to exchange for produce, meat, and other locally available consumables.
Unfortunately for the Aztecs, though their money grew on trees, those trees did not grow on the arid plateau that was the center of their empire. They solved this dilemma by strategically conquering trade routes into regions where cacao was cultivated. The wealth of these conquered regions was then extracted by political tribute–much of which was paid in the form of fermented cacao beans. This cacao wealth was then added into the Aztec economy both by putting it onto the consumable market and by stockpiling it as currency in treasuries. Used throughout their empire as form of payment and a beverage of celebration, cacao was also milled into portable nuggets to use as traveling rations for instant energy. The earliest documents of the Spanish settlers refer to how the native culture prepared cacao with maize into a cold frothy beverage that was used as a meal replacement in the extreme heat of the subtropical afternoons. (Presilla 17-24) Cacao literally fueled both the people of the working class and the general economy well into the Spanish colonial period.
Recently have we discovered the literal lengths that native peoples went to in acquiring this stimulating beverage. Modern gas chromatography analysis on Native American pottery has increased our understanding of which cultures had access to the only source of theobromine in the hemisphere. Testing of North American artifacts has shown that long before the Aztecs usurped the market on cacao, the trade routes of the Mayans had extended northward to the Anasazi nation of modern New Mexico. This 1200-mile path between where the vessels were found (in the Pueblo Bonito of Chaco Canyon) and the nearest source of cacao would have required 600 hours of backpacking through rough country and sweltering heat. As one researcher phrased it “That’s a long way to go for something that you don’t need for survival”, [something] that’s more of a delicacy…” Whether the Anasazi acquired this cacao through dedicated treks south–which would have taken weeks–or their pueblo was the endpoint of an even slower hand-to-hand, village-to-village trade route, acquiring the ingredients for a cacao beverage came at great cost. (Mozdy) Such an expenditure indicates how intensely desired this addictive substance was.
The historical record may not tell us how the first cacao trees made their way to a new continent, but we do know that once here, it helped fuel people, economies and trade for centuries. The stimulant properties that the seed contains spurred the native cultures of a continent to covet, acquire, distribute and control access to the plant itself. By affecting and connecting with humans in this way, the plant forged a symbiotic partnership with the indigenous peoples which ensured its survival and success throughout pre-Columbian era.
Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Acad Sciences, 16 Nov. 2007, www.pnas.org/content/104/48/18937.full. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Revised ed., Berkeley, NY, Ten Speed Press, 2009.
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.” 8 Feb. 2017, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.
Theobroma Cacao is the botanical name for the Cacao tree and cocoa tree. The genus TheobromaCacao was named by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, famed for formalizing the binomial nomenclature, in 1753. The Theobroma genus is native to the tropics of Central and South America, going as far North as the lower regions of Mexico. Theobroma encompasses 22 different cocoa species, and typically range from 4 to 8 meters in height. Interestingly, Theobroma are actually classified as evergreens, being related to the Malvaceae family, or mallows.
Cacao producing regions of Colonial Mesoamerica
The most important part of the Cacao tree is Cacao or cocoa. We can distinguish:
Cacao pods – the large colorful fruits of the Cacao These pods vary by type and origin. Cacao pods tend to change colors between stages of development; usually starting in deep hues of red, purple, or green, before maturing into shades of orange or yellow.
Cacao beans – the seeds of the Cacao pod.
Cacao and cocoa are both commonly used to describe the raw material from Cacao tree. The origin of the word Cacao comes from Central and South America. The cocoa is an Anglicization of the Spanish form – cacao. The Olmec (1500 BCE- 400 BCE ), predecessors to the Maya and first major civilization in Central America, are the first farmers of the Cacao pods, and the first plantations for the Cacao appeared in Guatemala and Southern Mexico around 400B.C.
Theobroma means Food of the Gods in the Mayan language. Of their myths, Mayans believed that the Plumed Serpent gave Cacao to them, after people were created from maize by the divine grandparent deity Xmucane. The Mayans to this time celebrate Cacao because they think that this is a gift from the God. The Aztecs also believe that the Plumed Serpent– Quetzalcoatl – discovered cacao.
In 250 AD the Mayans started to painting Cacao in hieroglyphic. In Dresden and Madrid Mayan wrote the codex in hieroglyphics, but since this time saved only 15 texts. In these images, Cacao was presented like food or drink consumed by the Gods. Mayans also named Cacao on the hieroglyphics Kakaw.
The Mayan and Aztec people used to prepare Cacao in many different ways as a food or drink. One such use was to turn Cacao into drinks for celebrations, and was imbibed by both the civilizations during the marriage ceremonies or religious rituals.
One important sacred document for the Maya is Popol Vuh or, “Book of Counsel”. Within this story of the creation of the universe, the Cacao is mentioned few times like a godly plant worthy of reverence. People believed that Cacao – as well as tobacco – is an essential to their social, spiritual and physical prosperity. Cacao also was presented in rites of death. Part of their beliefs was that the seeds could help the soul in travel to the underworld.
Cacao tree was also perceived like a connection between earth, underworld and sky, royal bloodline. Mayans thought that plant is integral to keeping cycles of death, life, and rebirth. Cacao was thought to boost energy and made the imbiber stronger.
Cacao for Mayan and Aztec population was something what they could exchange for the goods. For example fish wrapped in maize husks was worth 3 Cacao beans.
The Mayans and Aztecs used to make some Cacao or chocolate beverages which were stored in ceramic vessel. Archeologists found vessels dating to between 1900-900 BC. Vessels were labor-intensive arts & crafts; among the most important valuables a Mesoamerican owned, stamped with their personal insignia. The chocolate contained in this way used to be served like a liquid and mixed with spices or wine. A commonly held belief was that this drink could work like an aphrodisiac. Today, this beverage is known as Chilate.
Christopher Columbus in 1502 was the first person from Europe who came into contact with Cacao during his journey to Guanaja. He sent the Cacao to the King Ferdinand. While cocoa was rare for some time, around 20 years after Columbus’ first sample, Prince Philip of Spain received the cocoa drink from a Dominican friar. The reception to this was so positive that France and Portugal didn’t trade cocoa to the rest of Europe for 1000 years.
Cocoa consists of around 700 compounds. Apart from the taste, the most important benefit are antioxidants who helps us to avoid diseases, reduce cholesterol, lower the blood pressure, and is even believed to be a preventative of cancer. Cacao is rich in protein, fat, fiber, iron, magnesium and calcium. Mayan and Aztecs were treating Cacao like a good medicine. They believed that this is a gift from the god who helps them to stay healthy. They also treated Cacao as currency because very often they got something in exchange of cacao. As we can see, Cacao has been known for centuries. Cacao and chocolates are famous on the all world. We can eat and drink it. I think for people this product can be a connection of something really tasty and healthy. It’s good for our heart, mind and mood.
Gockowski & S. Oduwole (2003). Labor practices in the cocoa sector of southwest Nigeria with a focus on the role of children. International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. pp. 11–15. ISBN 978-131-215-7
Olivia Abenyega & James Gockowski (2003). Labor practices in the cocoa sector of Ghana with a special focus on the role of children. International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. pp. 10–11. ISBN 978-131-218-1
Terry G. Powis; W. Jeffrey Hurst; María del Carmen Rodríguez; Ponciano Ortíz C.; Michael Blake; David Cheetham; Michael D. Coe; John G. Hodgson (December 2007). “Oldest chocolate in the New World”. 81 (314). ISSN 0003-598X. Retrieved 2011-02-15.
Watson, Traci (22 January 2013). “Earliest E SPONGEBOBca”. Science. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
Chocolate is truly a gift from the Gods. It’s rich succulent flavor melts on your tongue and forces you to take another bite. The moment it was discovered it has been cherished by all who have consumed it. Therefore, it seemed only fitting to ask someone who hadn’t learned about cacao and find out what role chocolate has played in their life.
People have been consumed with chocolate for centuries and it has become part of many people’s daily lives. I asked a friend of mine of what chocolate has signified and played in her life, she claimed; “It makes me happy and feel better. I have a major sweet tooth but it’s something I crave everyday, I may even be addicted.” In today’s world, chocolate is available to everyone. It’s also in a variety of different things like protein bars or shakes and desserts. It’s so prevalent that most don’t even know where it originated or how it’s even grown which is something everyone should consider learning about. Chocolate is grown on a cacao tree also known as Theobroma cacao. It’s a fastidious plant that can only grow in warm climates no more than twenty degrees north or south of the equator; such as South America and Africa. It prefers to grow under a canopy of other trees with the air still easily breezing threw. Cacao trees are cauliflory meaning that the flower or fruit grows from the main stem or trunk therefore, the cacao pod grows directly on the trunk not from its branches. The trunk of the tree is so fragile that it cannot be damaged when the pod is being removed or it will not be able to grow a pod there again. Midges are tiny flies that help flower the tree, which only happens twice a year, and creates the pods (The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael D. Coe). Once a pod is cut down from the tree it then undergoes a variety of processes. The first is usually fermentation where the little beans are set out to dry in either trays or banana leaves, cleaned, then stored. They then are roasted to kill off any bacteria or contaminants. Finally, they are winnowed where the shell is separated from the bean removing any last remaining germs. At this point you would be left with a raw cacao nib that would be very bitter with a dirt texture if you attempted to taste it. However, the next step would be to process that cacao nib into the chocolate we’ve grown to love. As anyone can see, chocolate isn’t simply plucked off a plant and melted into chocolate, it takes many different and precise processes to get the taste just right.
Chocolate has a competitive side. Originally, Hershey’s was in its very own ball park creating the Hershey Chocolate bar and Kiss and being one of the first to market to the general public. Other individuals saw this opportunity and began creating their own companies such as Henri Nestle with cocoa powder, Mars and the Snicker bar. Again, I asked my friend what her favorite chocolate was, she explained; “Cadbury and Lindor Lindt chocolate are very refined. Cadbury has a unique taste that’s different from other brands with a much thicker candy coating compared to M&M’s. Lindt truffles are fancy with a remarkable soft, melted inside that is so satisfying.” So what makes all of these brands so unique to allow people to have such a preference? Of course every person has specific taste buds and anyone can argue that it’s all personal opinion but there are specific reasons as to why different brands taste differently. Milton Hershey founded his company in 1903, he had a vision to not only create chocolate but to make a better working environment that provided education and extra-curricular activities. His idea to create such a wonderful working environment was inspired by Cadbury who was the first to create a town dedicated to creating a utopian work space, known as Bournville. Hershey’s goal was to find a way to make milk chocolate with actual liquid milk. This proved difficult because others had been attempting to make it with powdered milk but it wasn’t sweet and liquid milk was spoiling too quickly. Eventually, he succeeded by creating a different process during pasteurization that heats the milk to 282 degrees Fahrenheit, also known as Ultra High Temperature milk, instead of the typical 161 degrees Fahrenheit. From there they store the milk in specially packaged bottles that allows it to last until after its been used in the chocolate and the package is opened (Hershey’s Shelf Stable Milk). Cadbury is very precise when creating their traditional taste. Through may years of practice they’ve perfected their milk and chocolate ratio so that when sugar is absorbed in the condensed milk, then added into the cocoa mass, it creates a chocolate liquid with the most authentic Cadbury palate. They use fresh milk instead of powdered milk mixed with why powder that many other European chocolate companies use. (Cadbury.co.au). Both Hershey’s and Cadbury take the utmost care in their chocolate and value fresh, liquid milk in their products. However, both taste very differently from one another because of slight differences in their manufacturing, traditions, and chocolate-to-milk ratios.
Another possible question people may have is when did chocolate become so popular? For as long as most of our ancestors can remember its been available for generations, possibly centuries. This is true because chocolate has been apart of civilizations like the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztecs dating back to 1000 BCE. It was discovered through hieroglyphics that a word kakawa was prevalent and participated in traditional and ceremonial events. All of these cultures believed cacao trees to be sacred, possibly the First Tree, and linked to royal blood lines. It wasn’t until the age of exploration that cacao beans made its first appearance in Europe. Christopher Columbus, in the 16th century, was one of the first to have traded with these fine beans on his fourth voyage when encountering a Mayan trading canoe however, he only knew that they were considered valuable but hadn’t known why. (Sophie and Michael D. Coe). Slowly, they became more prevalent as more explorers were trading them and soon they discovered the sweet, wonderful flavor they possess. Since it was so rare it was only available to Kings and Queens. Eventually nobles and the elite were consuming chocolate and many even created separate kitchens within their homes for the creation of chocolate. Within this time period chocolate was only every consumed as a liquid, it wasn’t until 1847 that the first chocolate bar was created by Joseph Fry that was meant for consumption. Again, my friend had no knowledge of when chocolate was brought to Europe but she did know that the first consumers were the wealthy because of its delectable qualities. Europe during the the medieval years had a very strict class system that consisted of the wealthy versus the poor. It wasn’t until the rise of the middle class, in the 19th century, that chocolate became available to the general public. Cadbury was created in this time, developing its chocolate and advertising it to the masses. From there the rest is history, chocolate has flourished unlike any other food item becoming one of the most consumed sweets with hundreds of billions of dollars spent on chocolate a year. I guess you could thank Columbus for introducing us to what we love.
As many people say, “you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy chocolate”. Has anyone ever realized what they’re buying into completely? Unfortunately, as happy as chocolate makes us it has also been linked with many social concerns such as child labor and slavery. These topics are not publicized as they should be and are quickly swept under the rug or forgotten about. I asked my friend if she had known much about the social concerns and if they would hinder her consumption of chocolate. She stressed that she knew it had been associated with slavery in the past and that if she knew what companies were possibly still using this she would refrain from buying their products. Slavery has long been associated with with chocolate. This is in part because it originally was for the wealthy who had slaves and believed in lavish lifestyles which slavery slowly came to symbolize. These people were then dehumanized and treated as property to justify their lack of respect for their lives. in the 16th to 20th centuries slavery was very popular especially because the triangular trade emerged that brought many people from Africa, against their will, to the America’s and Europe. This was because sugar, cotton, tobacco, and other commodity crops started to become very popular. They were grown on large plantations that required massive amounts of labor. Of course plantation owners didn’t want to spend actual money on salaries for these hard working men so instead treated them like animals.Sadly, they were overworked, had contracted diseases due to their travel and introduction to foreign lands, and were living under harsh conditions and heat that once arriving to the fields they only lived for another 7 to 8 years. Luckily, by the late 18th century those enslaved in Haiti had a revolution that proved successful. It got the attention of Napoleon, who was the leader of France at the time, and allowed them to declare independence and close the slave trade in 1807. (Sweetness and Power by Sidney W. Mintz). Slowly, many other people began to realize their own power and more revolutions came. Child labor has been another social concern with chocolate. As we know, chocolate is grown in many African and South American countries. Often times these are third would countries where poverty is very high. In order to help support their families, children have begun to work on sugar farms or harvesting chocolate. These jobs are very labor intensive and unfit for a child. Yet, some companies have allowed this so that they could pay them less and over work them (foodispower.org). Although it has been brought up in recent years by the media it hasn’t been closely monitored as it should be. Learning where our food comes from and it’s history is important because it teaches us more about our own world. Everything on this earth comes from somewhere and we should take the time occassionaly to find out where that is and what makes it so great. I encourage everyone to find some of their favorite foods and educate themselves on the primary reasons that make it so great. Who would have known that chocolate has been at the threshold of much of our history throughout the world.
“Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry.” Child Labor and Slavery. Food Empowerment Project, n.d. Web. 12 May 2016.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
As I ponder the selections of chocolate available in my local Trader Joe’s , it is important to understand a bit of the history of chocolate that is included in The True the History of Chocolate by Coe & Coe .Cacao, Chocolate originated in Meso-America and is referred to as the “Food of the Gods” consumed by the elite and used in sacrifices to please the gods.
Did you know that unlike money cacao really does grow on the pods and barks of trees.The chocolate trees were scientifically named Theobroma cacao in 1753 by the “great Swedish Naturalist” Linnaeus (1707-78).
Raw Cacao beans don’t taste anything like the chocolate bars we consume. After the cacao beans are harvested the cacao and pulp are fermented once fermentation is complete the beans are laid out to dry in the sun. Once dried the beans are then sorted and roasted. After the beans are roasted they are winnowed and finally the cacao nibs that are used to make chocolate reveal themselves. The cacao nibs are naturally bitter therefore sugar and other ingredients are added when making chocolate to reduce the acidity and bitterness and increase the sweetness.
Sidney Mintz in his book Sweetness and Power reminds us that sugar and sweetness is introduced to us at a very young age , “the first non milk food that a baby is likely to receive in North American hospital is a 5% glucose and water solution used to evaluate its postpartum functioning because newborns tolerate glucose better than water.”(Mintz, 1985) The fondness for sugar influences the chocolate that we consume as “most Americans instinctively go for blends with a high West African cacao content – this is a dominant cacao in some mass-produced brands that most American have eaten since childhood that is naturally identified with full chocolate flavor. Americans gravitate towards very light chocolate.” ( The New Taste of Chocolate, p. 136) Sweetness is a preferred taste from a very young age Cacao and sugar go together sort of like peanut butter and jelly. Alone each tastes okay but together they taste wonderful.
Chocolate has always evoked pleasant happy memories for me. From my childhood I can remember the heavenly aroma of chocolate from the Lowney Chocolate Factory wafting through the air as we walked to school, the anticipation of devouring my grocery store chocolate Easter bunny after Mass and the way the chocolate icing on a Honey Dew Donuts éclair melts in your mouth in an explosion of chocolate mixed with Bavarian cream.
As I matured my love of chocolate did not waver and I stayed loyal to brands like Hersey and Nestle and for special occasions Godiva was the go to brand. Then one day in 1987 a local chocolate shop called Puopolo’s Candies opened nearby. As a big believer in supporting local business I felt that it was my duty to check out the new chocolate shop. It was heaven! The aroma and the wide assortment of chocolate confections was astounding. There wasn’t a Snickers, Milky Way or Kit Kat in the place and it didn’t matter because these chocolates didn’t require brand recognition as one could see, smell and anticipate the chocolate truffles melting smoothly on your tongue while the milk chocolate flavors come to life. I never knew exactly why I came to prefer the chocolate sold at Puopolo’s over Hersey, Nestle or even Godiva, until now.
The big chocolate manufactures like Hershey, Nestle and Godiva appeal to the masses for both taste and price of their products. The chocolate is made in huge factories using industrial equipment. Each batch of chocolate is made to taste exactly the same as the other so that there is no variation of taste, color or texture in the thousands of candy bars that are made each day. Chocolate manufactured in this manner is referred to as industrial chocolate.
Shops like Puopolo’s are known as chocolatiers’ that appeal to people who appreciate and will pay for high quality chocolate . Chocolatiers’ produce chocolate creations on a much smaller scale and create confections in small batches by melting large bars of chocolate.
Another player has come on the scene and companies like Taza chocolate are part of a growing movement of small companies that produce bean to bar products.
The bean to bar companies are conscious of the long history of exploitation in the chocolate industry including children being used as forced labor on cacao plantations. (Off, 2006) The bean to bar companies produce an ethical and sustainable product by controlling all stages of their chocolate making including choosing and grinding their own cacao beans.
The advantage of industrial chocolate for the consumer is that whether you purchase a Hershey bar in Alaska or Massachusetts the wrapper texture, color and taste of the chocolate will be the same. Whereas the smaller manufacturers including chocolatiers and bean to bar, aim to produce small unique batches of products. Cacao beans alone are bitter thus sugar and sometimes other flavorings like vanilla and milk are added to cocoa beans to make the chocolate bars more palatable. The more cacao content in a product the more intense the chocolate flavor which to many tastes bitter.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a local chocolatiers nearby so I set out to my local Trader Joe’s to utilize my new-found knowledge and analyze their chocolate section.
Mintz states ” food choices and eating habits reveal distinctions of age, sex, status , culture and even occupation.” (Sweetness and Power). Trader Joe’s is a slighty upscale, funky progressive full service grocery store who cater to their customers food and need to shop at a socially responsible store. Customers that shop here generally care about where and how the ingredients in their food come from . Trader Joe’s listened to their customers and according to the timeline listed on their website in 1997 they “made a commitment to eliminate artificial trans fats from all private label products (along with artificial flavors, artificial preservatives & GMO ingredients… but that’s old news by now).”
Trader Joe’s shoppers are diverse and span the socio economic scale. They want to feel as if they are being socially and environmentally responsible without spending a lot of cash. They will however spend a bit more for a product if it makes them feel like they are achieving the goals of being a responsible consumer. One such chocolate bar checks all those boxes the Fair Trade Organic Belgium Chocolate Bar is included in the wide selection of chocolate products that are displayed throughout the store. These bars were included in the chocolate bar section located at the back of the store at the end of an aisle near the milk. The majority of the chocolate bars were 3.5 ounces with price points between $1.99 for the Fair Trade Organic Belgium Chocolate bars , $2.99 for a Valrhona dark chocolate bar and for $4.99 you could purchase a milk and almond pound plus bar. There were quite a few chocolate products located in the impulse buy zone at the front of the store including dark chocolate peanut butter cups and chocolate covered almonds for $4.99 each.
As I strolled the isles I noticed some chocolate bars above the seafood section that had pretty and exotic looking labels. Upon closer inspection it is revealed that these are dark chocolate bars made with 70% cacao and delicious fillings like coconut caramel and toffee and walnuts. Along side these bars there was a 65% Dark Cacao bar that is made from single origin fairly traded beans from Ecuador. These chocolate bars highlight the cacao content to entice those that believe the claim that chocolate is good for your heart . However, James Howe advises that the claim that chocolate is heart healthy is not scientifically proven that chocolate consumption alone is the primary element in increasing cardiovascular health. ( Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health, 2012) The artwork depicts nature scenes to enhance the natural allure of these chocolate bars that are priced at just $1.89.
In spite From the lovely artwork and detailed descriptions highlighting the cacao content and country of origin of the beans it is clear from the price points of $1.89 that these are mass marketed industrial made chocolate bars covered in cleverly designed Trader Joe’s wrappers. The wrappers contain all the buzz words and images the consumer wants to see so they feel like they are purchasing socially responsible products. When I questioned the store manager about the private label chocolate bars he did not know what company Trader Joe’s bought the chocolate bars from however he assured me that they were made from the finest organic ingredients yet… only a few chocolate bars are labeled organic or Fair Trade.
The Trader Joe’s Chocolate truffles look decadent on the shiny red background of the package. They even provide directions on how to”taste these delicate truffles”. Trader Joe’s selections so far were on target for their consumers, good cacao content, some organic selections. therefore I was very surprised when the first ingredient listed in the Cocoa Truffles was vegetable oil , the second sugar and finally cocoa powder appears as the third ingredient. This was disappointing as it is not as high quality chocolate product as it appears and not consistent with the prior products viewed.
After reviewing the chocolate bar and other chocolate products at Trader Joe’s I’ve concluded that Trader Joe’s should expand their chocolate selections to include more Fair Trade chocolate products and add a few Bean to Bar and local chocolatiers products to the inventory. It would be a clear statement to Trader Joe’s customers and the chocolate industry that Trader Joe’s cares about ethics and is committed to providing their customers with more Fair Trade, organic and local chocolate products. While the typical Trader Joe’s customer appreciates a bargain , many would be willing to pay more for chocolate if they know that their purchase directly benefits the cacao farmer or the small business person. Trader Joe’s has the opportunity to make a difference in the chocolate industry if they go beyond selling private label chocolate bars and include bean to bar and local chocolate makers.
If you want to make an effort to consume Fair Trade organic chocolate the key is read the labels or find your local chocolate shop , either bean to bar or chocolatiers you won’t be disappointed.
Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
“Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12.1 (2012): 43-52. Web.
The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ed. Maricel E. Presilla. New York: Ten Speed, 2009. 61-94. Print.
Carol Off, Bitter Chocolate: the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet.2006. The New Press. print.
Hundreds of years before Cadbury, Hershey and the like transformed chocolate into a mass-produced and affordable dietary staple, chocolate was a royal indulgence. Reserved for the most prestigious social classes in Mesoamerica, sumptuary laws in New World governed who was able to consume it and, according to some accounts, consumption of chocolate without sanction by commoners was punishable by death (Presilla, 18). The value and reverence the Aztecs had for chocolate made a strong impression on early travelers, who readily shared the frothed-beverage with their commissioners in the Old World, making the ruling elite of the 16th century among the first Europeans to regularly imbibe.
Elite Origins in Mesoamerica
Chemical analysis has allowed researchers to place chocolate over 38 centuries back, although not much is known about the drinking habits of early cultures such as the Olmecs and Mayans (Coe, location 464-578). The only surviving written evidence for classic Mayan use of cacao has been found on elegantly painted and carved cylindrical vases and vessels in the tombs and graves of the elite (Coe, location 578). Some of these excavated vases are externally marked with Mayan hieroglyphs denoting cacao, and internally bear chemical traces of alkaloids found in cacao and dark rims on the interior that suggest the contents were once liquid (Coe, location 625). There is not enough evidence to concretely conclude that chocolate was chiefly drunken by the ruling class, but the inclusion of chocolate provisions for the afterlife of the elite suggests Mayans placed a high level importance on the drink.
Much more is known of the chocolate consumption habits of the Aztecs than the Mayans. Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (c. 1398-1469 AD) issued a series of laws stating that “he who does not go to war, be he son of a king, may not wear cotton, feathers or flowers, nor may he smoke, or drink cacao” (Coe, location 1372). Only members of the royal house, the lords and nobility, long-distance merchants who endured dangerous lands and battles with foreign groups, and warriors were allowed to drink chocolate in Aztec society (Coe, location 1324). In Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, Sahagún describes how stringently this hierarchical framework for chocolate consumption was followed by the Aztecs; cacao was very valuable and rare, and was proverbially referred to as “Yollotli eztli”, or the “price of blood and of heart”, because if people of the working class drank it without permit, it would cost them their life (“si alguno de los populares lo bebía, costábale la vide si sin licencia lo bebían”) (Moreno, 500).
Chocolate’s link to luxury and power in Aztec culture is further enforced with the cacao bean’s role in the economy. The Aztecs used cacao beans as currency: a rabbit cost about ten beans (Coe, location 832). When the elite drank chocolate, they were quite literally drinking money. This did not go unacknowledged by the Europeans, who quickly realized that cacao was as valuable to this group of people as gold and gems (Presilla, 18). Watch this video to learn a little more about cacao beans in Aztec culture and the introduction of chocolate to Europeans (Youtube).
Royal Introductions in Europe
In 1544, chocolate made its first documented European appearance in Spain. Dominican friars brought Mayan nobles to the courts of Prince Philip, who presented some of the wonders of the New World to the king: quetzal feathers, painted gourds, and containers of beaten chocolate (Presilla, 24). Forty years later in 1585, the first official cacao bean shipment reached Seville from Veracruz (Coe, location 1848).
The Spanish altered the chocolate recipe slightly – preferring it hot as opposed to cold, as the Aztecs had taken it. The Aztecs would add ingredients they were familiar with such as vanilla, herbs, flower petals, and honey, and the Spanish did the same with sugar, cinnamon, hazelnut, anise, and almonds (Presilla). The Spanish sipped it out of mancerinas, a plate or saucer with a ring in the middle to hold a small cup and prevent it from slipping, rather than jícaras. One thing that didn’t change, however, was the elite ties of chocolate; making and drinking chocolate “involved special pains and paraphernalia” (Presilla, 25).
During the 17th century, chocolate spread throughout Europe. It was highly valued as an exotic, tasty alternative as well as a health-promoting drug and was treated differently than other foods. During the reign of Charles III of Spain, chocolate was sent directly to the “royal keeper of jewels” rather than the kitchen (Presilla, 32). France mimicked Spain’s royal consumption of chocolate, reserving it strictly for the aristocracy while England allowed it to hit the free market (Coe, location 2412). Any Englishman or woman was able to consume it so long as they had enough money to pay for it.
Castriocto, Alessandro. “File:João V – Duque de Lafões.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. 1720. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Kindle edition.
Mayan civilisation. “File:Mayan People and Chocolate.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.
Moreno, Wigberto Jiménez and Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España: Libros I, II, III, y IV. Linkgua digital, 1938. Online.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.
Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta. “File:Raimundo Madrazo – Hot Chocolate.jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.
Throughout Mesoamerica cacao was held in high esteem and revered for its many uses. Not only was cacao used as food and drink but also it was used as a form of currency in Aztec and Mayan civilizations. Although consuming cacao was generally only found within the elite class, the use of cacao as money was a widely found practice. Found within cacao pods are cacao seeds covered in mucilaginous pulp. Once dried of the pulp, these seeds, called cacao beans, were processed and made into chocolate or used as money. Cacao as currency was a tradition that continued into the Colonial era.
Image: Pictured here are dried cacao beans that have come from inside the cacao pods. Dried cacao beans like these were used as currency in Mesoamerica.
During the Aztec and Mayan Eras, cacao beans were used as currency or ready cash used in daily trades to pay for small items (Coe 60). This currency system was based on cacao bean count, not on the weight of the beans. In an early account of the Aztec civilization during the Spanish conquest, Hernan Cortes writes to Emperor Charles V describing this peculiar use of cacao:
“This fruit they sell ground, and esteem so highly, that it is used instead of money all over the country, and with it everything can be bought in the market place and elsewhere” (Million 150).
Image: Here is an image of a traditional market where cacao beans are being used as currency. In these markets goods would be traded for cacao beans.
The Spanish appreciated the use of cacao as currency and during the Colonial era transactions continued to be conducted with cacao beans (Coe 98). An example of commodity prices taken from a document dated back to 1545 were as follows: a turkey hen was worth 100 cacao beans, a hare was worth 100 cacao beans, a small rabbit was worth 30 cacao beans, a large tomato was worth a single cacao bean, an avocado was worth 3 cacao beans (Coe 98). Cacao beans were also used to pay wages to laborers. Most of these laborers were porters – these were the people relied upon to transport goods and supplies from place to place.
Image: Pictured above is an image taken from the Codex Mendoza of porters carrying goods. The daily wage of a porter was 100 beans, equivalent to the cost of a good turkey hen (Coe 98).
Accounts of cacao beans being used as currency were found even in the 19th century. The States of Central America written by the American Traveler Ephraim Squier in 1858 goes to say, “[cacao is] still used as a medium of exchange in the markets of all the principal towns of Central America, where the absence of a coin of less value than three cents makes it useful in effecting small purchases.” (Coe 181). Cacao still remained a vital part of commerce. Hundreds of years past and yet the cacao beans continued to be used as currency within an economy. Cacao being used as currency is an example of the early use of cacao and how it provided value to the people of present day Central America.
Fair trade is a system in which companies pay fair prices to producers in developing countries. As the nonprofit organization Fair Trade USA explains: “Fair Trade goods are just that. Fair. From far-away farms to your shopping cart, products that bear our logo come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated. We help farmers in developing countries build sustainable businesses that positively influence their communities. We’re a nonprofit, but we don’t do charity. Instead, we teach disadvantaged communities how to use the free market to their advantage. With Fair Trade USA, the money you spend on day-to-day goods can improve an entire community’s day-to-day lives.”[i] Fair Trade USA makes some huge promises. First, the organization claims to deliver fair prices and wages, to value long-term direct trading relationships with farmers, and to help farmers build sustainable businesses. It promises to help create a workplace free from child exploitation and gender discrimination. In addition to traceable and transparent financial transactions farmers should receive higher premiums on their products. Overall, Fair Trade USA claims to teach farmers how to operate more efficiently within the supply chain. They also believe community development projects and environmental sustainability are worth an investment. The hope is that consumers will feel magnanimous by purchasing fair trade products. Unfortunately, despite magnanimous intentions, fair trade does not fulfill all of these promises.[ii]
Often fair trade makes promises that it cannot fulfill. First, little money from fair trade actually reaches the developing world.[iii] Farmers are required to shoulder the high recurring cost of certification. As a result, the system benefits independently wealthy farmers and harms non-certified farmers, who are often poor. Second, quality is a concern since there are no incentives to produce high quality beans. A fair trade certified cooperative may produce poor quality cacao and still be paid similarly to high quality certified cocoa. In addition, standards may go unmonitored. Third, marketing may be inefficient or unethical. For example, a company that is not Fair Trade USA certified could print, “This is a fairly traded product” to appeal to consumer interest. Such inaccurate techniques may mislead consumers who often cannot tell the difference between legitimate and dishonest certification. Fair trade intentions are positive, yet the chocolate industry needs more compelling and practical alternatives to fair trade.
Direct Trade is seen as an alternative to some of the fair trade certification problems that exist. Whereas Fair Trade is typified by farmer cooperatives, complicated and expensive certification, and a minor $200 premium per ton of cacao over commodity bulk price, direct trade is an alternative that removes the middleman, reduces certification bureaucracy, and pays a higher premium over commodity bulk price.[iv] Unlike fair trade, individual farms are not required to be part of a cooperative to gain certification; direct trade allows manufacturers to work directly with farmers without excess fees, dues, and surcharges. For example, Taza Chocolate, which is seen as a pioneer of direct trade, produces an annual cacao sourcing transparency report that details its values and practices. For example, Taza builds long-term sustainable relationships by physically visiting each cacao farmer at least once a year; this circumvents any middlemen. Second, Taza pays a premium of at least 500 US dollars per metric ton above the New York International Commodities Exchange price directly to farmers.[v] This is more than double the typical fair trade premium of 200 USD. Lastly, Taza only buys cacao from farmers that ensure fair and humane work practices and never engage in child or slave labor. In general, direct trade is a valuable alternative because it promotes price negotiation, incentivizes quality, and encourages direct communication between buyer and farmer.[vi]
Askinosie is a small batch bean-to-bar chocolate factory located in Springfield, Missouri that focuses on direct trade and community development. The company’s founder Shawn Askinosie sources their cocoa beans directly from farmers around the world, has them shipped to the United States, and then makes and sells that chocolate around the world.[vii] Beans are central to the product, so “dealing directly with these farmers, and paying them directly, and having some influence how they harvest the beans is very important to our process and to our mission.”[viii] As Askinosie explains in the company mission statement, “We at Askinosie Chocolate exist to craft exceptional chocolate while serving our farmers, our customers, our neighborhood, and one another, striving in all we do to leave whatever part of the world we touch better for the encounter.”[ix] As a former criminal defense attorney, Shawn says that he finds directly trading and importing beans and sharing profits with farmers to be his biggest yet most rewarding challenge yet.[x] Overall, a commitment to community lies at the heart of Askinosie’s mission statement.
Direct trade practices can eliminate the complicated and costly elements of fair trade certification. Fair trade requires farmers to organize themselves into a cooperative, to pay a fee to the fair trade certifying body to conduct a survey, and to complete paperwork and pay a large fee to become fair trade certified. Farmer cooperatives shoulder the cost of certification, which often costs from $30,000 to $50,000.[xi] In the end, what fair trade delivers to a farmer cooperative is only a $200 premium above the typical $3,000 for a commodity ton of cacao.[xii] When farmers only receive $200 more per ton the cost of getting certified quickly eats into the profits brought by Fair Trade certification.[xiii] Since cooperatives often negotiate certification, which is a recurring cost, the incomes of individual farm workers rarely increase as a result of fair trade certification. Sometimes money flows back into education or medical facilities but rarely do individual farmers’ incomes increase. Thus, there is a gap between the promises made and the promises kept by fair trade. Askinosie hopes to close this gap. As the “Direct Trade” section of their website explains, Askinosie pays cocoa farmers significantly above the per-ton Fair Trade market price for their cocoa beans and also profit shares with farmers.[xiv] “On top of that, we also profit share with these farmers. At the end of the selling cycle, which also happens to be the time to inspect the new crop, we visit the farmers and pay them directly. Because we also do not use a broker, this is just another example of removing layers of middlemen. With our model, it’s just us and the farmers. This way, we both have more control and the farmers make more money.”[xv] Shawn personally interacts with suppliers like an Uwate cocoa farmers group in Tenende, Tanzania.[xvi] For Askinosie farmers are an essential “piece of the puzzle” that should be honored as “experts and craftsmen” and partners in their business.[xvii]
Askinosie focuses on high quality beans in order to produce award-winning chocolate that people love and recognize as a superior product. “Cocoa bean quality must be perfect and meet our standards for sourcing. The farmers adhere to our very detailed specifications, not those of a broker.”[xviii] Since only two ingredients go into their chocolate—organic cocoa beans and organic sugar—high quality beans are paramount. Askinosie is selective and takes the opportunity to reject defective beans at the farm. Conscious cultivation is also important, since their farmers sign a contract that asserts they are committed to “healthful and responsible cultivation method.”[xix] Their chocolate is 100% traceable, which means the company knows the name of every farmer they work with and can trace beans directly back to those suppliers.[xx] They are a helpful, hands-on company that endeavors to help identify and solve problems before they become unmanageable. Askinosie controls the actual importation of their beans, which is almost unheard of in the chocolate world.[xxi] By sharing a percentage of their profits based on the sales of products made with beans from a specific selling cycle, farmers are incentivized to produce the highest quality cocoa beans.[xxii] In short, higher quality beans leads to more sales, which leads to a higher profit share.
As an adherent of Direct Trade, Shawn not only knows the regions from which its beans come but, more significantly, he builds “long-term and mutually supportive relationships with the farmers.”[xxiii] In his “Cocoa Origin Travelogue” Shawn Askinosie records his travels to farmer sites and comments on poverty, local community council meetings, and company projects. In Davao, Philippines he visited the Malagos Elementary School where his company initiated the Sustainable Lunch Program. In his post on San Jose Del Tambo, Ecuador, Shawn wrote that Direct Trade gave him “a perspective that buying beans from brokers would not allow.”[xxiv] Many companies market single origin chocolate, but Shawn takes the single origin concept a step further and creates bars sourced from individual farms. Askinosie chocolate bar wrappers feature the faces of individual farmers so customers realize Peter from Davao or Vitaliano from San Jose Del Tambo farmed the beans.[xxv] Fostering such close connections between grower, manufacturer, and consumer is something not all companies are willing or able to do—Askinosie is truly a direct trade innovator.
Askinosie wants their farmer partners’ communities to thrive and they aim to do this by profit sharing as well as by asking what communities need and working with them to fulfill those needs. Shawn tries to solve problems through fully sustainable community development programs in his own neighborhood in Springfield, Missouri and in impoverished communities where he buys cocoa beans. For example, in Davao, Philippines, and Kyela, Tanzania, Askinosie’s desire for community development led them to collaborate with school administrations to develop a Sustainable Lunch Program for the students, many of whom suffer from malnutrition. And the results are substantial; Askinosie has provided more than 315,000 meals sustainably since 2011.[xxvi] Shawn also personally participated in building wells to bring a village clean water.[xxvii] Clearly Askinosie is a trailblazer in direct trade and community development because, as Shawn explains, “My business is not just about making chocolate. The ‘why’ of why we’re in business is because of our participation in the neighborhood. And our chance to impact the lives of people 10,000 miles away and 100 yards away.”[xxviii] Shawn pours his heart and soul into his business. As he explains, “I don’t know what would fit so perfectly, make people happy, and would also engage young people and engage communities.”[xxix] Askinosie goes above and beyond business connections to foster personal ties with farming communities.
Askinosie connects communities through their hands-on learning program Chocolate University, which allows American students to connect with children in cocoa farming communities to experience firsthand Askinosie’s promise to Direct Trade and to community service. Shawn engages high school students from Springfield, Missouri in the Direct Trade process by offering active exercises in entrepreneurship. Students travel with Askinosie employees to meet cocoa producers and to directly participate in community projects. The American kids involved in Chocolate University are not tourists they are workers; they work to power classroom laptops, to bag rice, to form relationships with local students. Participants provided younger students in a farming community with a library filled with math, science, and English books.[xxx] Askinosie also focuses on children’s education at home; the company built a study room for homeless children at the local Hotel Missouri shelter in Springfield. These projects prove Askinosie is able to identify and fulfill community needs at home and abroad. As Martha Scott Burton, a Chocolate University Student explained, “Chocolate University has refined my perception of a truly global community.”[xxxi] Shawn agrees that the Chocolate University trip transforms, impacts, and “helps” American and African students alike.[xxxii] Through his company Shawn is able to identify and fulfill community needs both at home and abroad and to educate the next generation about direct trade practices.
Askinosie markets its product, values, and projects to consumers in a straightforward, detailed, and transparent manner. The majority of Askinosie chocolate bars go beyond sourcing from one country or region. Bars are comprised of beans sourced from one specific town and packaging often features an individual farmer. For example, the single origin 62% dark milk chocolate bar made of beans sourced directly from farmers in Davao, Philippines features Peter the farmer on its packaging. In a blog post on his Cocoa Origin Travelogue, Shawn wrote he is “honored to call Peter our farmer partner” after working together for eight years.[xxxiii] The 77% Davao Philippines bar also assures consumers that the bar is Certified Kosher product with single origin beans that eliminates the middleman and profit shares with farmers.[xxxiv] In September 2014 Shawn also discussed a profit share meeting with Vitaliano, a farmer featured on the 70% San Jose Del Tambo, Ecuador bar; they have worked together for eight years as well. The main video featured on Askinosie’s website titled “Ozark Mountain Chocolate Makers” shows close-up images of machinery, employees, and chocolate in a way that presents their process and product as meticulous, thoughtful, and excellent.[xxxv] Individual employees finish chocolate bars by hand in one facility is Springfield, Missouri. The video’s message is that the company is homegrown, unique, and luxurious yet unpretentious. Like Askinosie, Chocolatiers George Soriano and Julio Fernandez of Sibú Chocolates in Costa Rica know the story of a product is important. As George says, “We found we could really engage people by telling them we harvested and made the final product and bonbons here… You give them that and have them taste it, and then tell the story that’s attached to it—the story that’s wrapped up in that piece of chocolate.”[xxxvi] By printing the farmer’s portrait on packaging Askinosie puts the farmer’s story, town, and product front and center and offers consumers the epitome of specific, transparent marketing.
Like Askinosie, many small American manufacturers are opening their doors to packed tours of people excited to learn about where chocolate comes from, how it is made, and how to taste it. While many small manufacturers in the United States rely on gourmet shops to promote their chocolate, some are also building their success by appealing to local communities at farmers’ markets, public events, and their own stores, as well as providing factory tours.[xxxvii] Askinosie promises their tour provides a “concise education on how we make our bean-to-bar chocolate, including our ingredients and the type of equipment utilized” as well as background information concerning their Direct Trade practices, community involvement, and bean origins.[xxxviii] Theo Chocolate performs a similar factory tour in which they “entertain you with the story of cocoa” and “touch on the social and environmental issues related to cocoa and cocoa farmers.”[xxxix] Each guest leaves with a specially wrapped Theo chocolate bar as a memento, which encourages visitors to discuss the tour experience long after they leave the factory. Of course, tastings, tours, and other events are limited in how many people they reach and how much they communicate.
To complement factory tours and tastings, manufacturers of bean to bar products offer a great deal of information to consumers about their chocolate; the company website is often a valuable forum for consumer education. Manufacturers like Chocolates El Rey in Venezuela provide details on the flavor components and potential uses of their chocolates.[xl] John Kehoe of TCHO created a Flavor Wheel featuring tastes such as nutty, earthy, and floral to “help consumers understand” chocolate.[xli] Askinosie lists various recipes so consumers can learn and appreciate chocolate beyond its bar form.[xlii] As Richard Callebaut of the Swiss company Barry Callebaut said, “We put a premium on the importance of education so consumers can make the best decisions.”[xliii] In order to make thoughtful purchases, consumers should be able to understand not only a bean-to-bar company’s social responsibility efforts, but also to appreciate its superior product.
Marketing is driving many of the decisions consumers make, so “the importance of truth in marketing is paramount,” as Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate asserts.[xliv] Unfortunately, some marketing is inaccurate or misleading. As Christian Aschwanden, CEO of Felchlin says, “Marketing is sometimes more important than the flavor and quality of a product because the consumer is not in a position or doesn’t take the time to distinguish quality chocolate.”[xlv] As Steve De Vries explains, “The explosion of small manufacturers means a dizzying array” of options.[xlvi] The large selection is made more confusing because manufacturers offer a vast amount of information concerning the bean origins and their chocolate for both marketing and education purposes. This overflow of information makes it more difficult for consumers to select and differentiate between brands.[xlvii] As Joe Whinney of Theo Chocolate explains, “I can’t really think of one major brand that hasn’t made some sort of enhanced claim. So that’s also why I think transparency is important. Products have to be three-dimensional in terms of the product quality, its price, and value proposition, and the impact that it is having on the community and the rest of the world. That’s where the future is.”[xlviii] Transparency is important because companies have a responsibility to educate their consumer, who relies on company marketing to inform purchasing decisions. Although Askinosie does not publish a detailed transparency report like Taza, Askinosie fulfills its responsibility to consumers by providing other marketing information in their online shop such as tasting notes, awards and accolades, and product certification. Although companies are responsible for providing correct information, it is ultimately up to the consumer to educate himself to accurately interpret product labels.
I argue that chocolate is a product consumers should actively—not passively—consume. Postconsumers.com, a “national brand without profit” that endeavors to help society move beyond addictive consumerism, claims to “advocate mindful consumption based on each person’s core values, rather than an endless quest for stuff.”[xlix] In a detailed 2015 post that explained Fair Trade Chocolate Postconsumers.com educated readers on how to recognize Fair Trade chocolate.[l] Although one may rely on a for-profit labeling and certification process like FLO-CERT (the certification and labeling division of Fair Trade International) to promise socially and environmentally sustainable practices, Postconsumers.com urges consumers to assertively go beyond certifications and conduct “a little extra research on your part.”[li] They recommend consumers scan products with the Buycott smartphone app to see the social and environmental rankings of a manufacturer and to get suggestions for alternatives.[lii] Since Direct Trade is a hugely varied system upheld by individual companies and not regulated by an overarching organization like Fair Trade International, it is especially important that consumers take time to research a company’s history and current practices. Ultimately it is the consumers’ responsibility to research a chocolate manufacturer to truly understand the manufacturer’s farming, harvesting, purchasing and manufacturing processes.
Direct trade is a positive arrangement for both manufacturer and farmer, yet direct trade is not particularly scalable. For example, Taza manages a small number of direct trade relationships but they are a small company so they cannot handle that many more. If Taza were to go out of business the farmers with whom they are trading would be left suspended and unsupported. Although the farmers could find another company there is still a lot of risk built into that relationship. Direct trade hasn’t received an overall standardization yet, which means it is practiced irregularly and it can be potentially corrupt. Askinosie appears to fulfill all of its promises regarding fair trade; the company pays above market prices for beans and supports its farming communities in new, creative ways. Still, it would be positive for Shawn Askinosie to produce a detailed Transparency Report similar to the document Taza publishes annually. Although Shawn’s blog is a user-friendly forum, an official document would be an appropriate vehicle in which to list how many tons Askinosie purchased from a farmer cooperative, how much they paid, and how farmers feel about the transaction. Despite varying standards between producers, direct trade practices promote direct communication, encourage price negotiation, and encourage and incentivize quality. Although direct trade is not particularly scalable it allows Askinosie to fulfill many of its promises to improve the financial and social development of communities.
Askinosie has served as a leader of direct and transparent trade in the chocolate industry by paying top dollar for the best beans, investing in education, spearheading community development projects, fostering personal relationships with farmers, and making high quality chocolate. Direct trade is not a cheaper, easier, or simpler way to conduct business and it carries financial risk. Askinosie looks beyond the chocolate when very few chocolate makers do and when few make an effort to be involved every step of the way. Shawn Askinosie personally opts to practice direct trade because he feels it is a moral way to conduct his business. Dealing direct “impacts the flavor of chocolate, and it brings the consumers closer to the producers,” Askinosie says.[liii] At the end of the day, Askinosie recognizes what chocolate is all about: connection. A commitment to community is at the heart of all Askinosie transactions whether financial or social. Perhaps most admirable is how Shawn uses his company to educate communities both at home and abroad. I believe consumer education is key to a thriving bean to bar chocolate trade. The conscientious consumer should be aware of all aspects of a product including the production process, the bean origin story, and flavor notes.
Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik. New York and London: Routledge, 2013.
Healy, Kevin. “Cacao Bean Farmers Make a Chocolate-Covered Development Climb.” In Llamas, Weavings, and Organic Chocolate: Multicultural Grassroots Development in the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.
Williams, Pam, and Jim Eber. “To Market, To Market: Craftsmanship, Customer Education, and Flavor.” In Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver, BC: Wilmor Publishing Corporation, 2012.
[vi] Carla D. Martin, “Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization/Globalization,” Class lecture, Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 8 April 2015, PowerPoint slide 15.
[xxxv] “Ozark Mountain Chocolate Makers,” YouTube video, 1:21, posted by Askinosie Chocolate, June 30, 2014.
[xxxvi] Pam Williams and Jim Eber, “To Market, To Market: Craftsmanship, Customer Education, and Flavor,” In Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate (Vancouver, BC: Wilmor Publishing Corporation, 2012), 155.
Branding, perhaps, is the most critical part of advertising and is the crutch to every corporation’s success. It’s everything. Branding determines which consumers you reach out to, what image you want your product to have, and what you want your consumers to remember about your product. Furthermore, branding as a whole, whether good or bad, plays a large part in your consumer base (how many customers you have), your company’s identity (how iconic you are/become), and your profits. The leading players in the world of chocolate, Hershey’s, Cadbury, Nestle, Mars, and Ferrero Rocher are no strangers to this (Martin). Each have carefully calculated, analyzed, and determined what branding their chocolate will take, with not a single detail going to waste. And what they do does matter, considering Hershey, Mars, and Nestle make up 99.4% of the world’s snack sized chocolate market (Martin). After asking fellow classmates about chocolate and cacao I found out an astonishing fact: while all students acknowledged to some extent the role South America has to play in cacao and chocolate history, very few students acknowledged the role Africa has in chocolate production, and every student gave credit to either the United States or a European nation for having the best chocolate.
Why would such a phenomenon occur, especially when most of the largest players dominating the market have their cacao come from African nations like Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, and Nigeria? The secret behind this lies in the branding. Upon examining chocolate bars, one finds that the location of the beans is rarely advertised. Instead, what dominates the bars appearance is the company’s name and logo. In addition, when taking a closer look at chocolate history Africa as a whole has largely been left out of the common and general narrative. From this, it can be deduced that the world’s largest chocolate makers take advantage of the dominant and nearly exclusive European narrative of chocolate to place consumer focus and loyalty on their own individual corporations rather than the origin of the cacao beans used to make their chocolate, in order to ensure better success, recognition, and protection.
(Data table generated from survey responses of seven subjects)
Interested in what general knowledge my classmates had, I interviewed a handful of students in my year, asking general questions such as “Which nations do you associate chocolate with?” and “Where is the most cacao grown?” The main distinction I made in my questions was for simplicity in which chocolate referred to the finished, packaged product and cacao referred to the cacao beans of the tree. Although their overall chocolate knowledge was not extensive or accurate, one trend in particular caught my mind. My classmates consistently associated the “best chocolate” with European nations, cacao and its history with Latin America, and largely left out Africa out of the picture. What was even more interesting was that my classmates identified the nations that had the best chocolate mainly through their own taste—general opinion having minimal influence—citing their favorite brands such as Cadbury, Nestle, Hershey, etc. as the reason for their answer. The results of this survey perplexed me. If my classmates were more associated with and cognizant of larger chocolate brands whose main source of cacao is bulk cacao grown in West Africa, why did they leave West Africa out of the narrative?
One of the answers lies in the general narrative of chocolate. Unfortunately, more often then not, the European narrative of chocolate is the dominant narrative. Few people have been able to experience the voices of Mesoamerica, specifically of those of the Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Among scholars is the false running idea that the Spaniards found chocolate’s taste so appalling and unappetizing they attempted to fix the bad flavor through means of sweetening with spices like vanilla and sweeteners like sugar (Norton, 660). However, this idea is problematic as it portrays the image of sophisticated Spaniards coming down from Europe and taking chocolate, originally a simple, distasteful food of the locals, and making it “better,” more edible, and delicious. This feeds into the superiority complex of Europe in which everything it comes to touch or own is automatically better and greater than the prior product of the natives. Norton sets to correct this idea, stating, “The Spanish did not alter chocolate to fit the predilections of their palate. Instead, Europeans unwittingly developed a state for Indian chocolate, and they sought to re-create the indigenous chocolate experience in America and in Europe…[leading] to a cross-cultural transmission of taste” (660). Norton argues that colonialism and the transfer of food is not one sided, nor is it “something done to someone else”; instead he argues that it is an exchange with the “struggles and endeavors in the periphery change[ing] the society and culture, as well as the economy, of the metrople” (661). So while it should be seen as Mesoamerica playing a huge role in both cacao and chocolate, it is currently seen as Mesoamerica harvesting cacao (the most basic task) and Europe controlling manufacturing and processing the chocolate—the part where chocolate becomes “good”. Because of the prevailing European narrative that saturates the history of chocolate and seeks to promote Europe’s sophistication, power, and superiority, Mesoamerica’s equal role in developing and making chocolate, not just cacao, has been left out.
The same argument can be extended to explain why my classmates did not include African nations in the chocolate narrative. Africa, as a result of the large European narrative, has been left out of the history and story regarding cacao, its cultivation, and its process to becoming the chocolate we know today, even more so than Meso and Latin America due to the emergence of racism and prejudice against Africa, Africans, African Americans, and Blacks to justify slavery and discrimination. As Eric Williams said “slavery was not born of racism; racism was the consequence of slavery” (7). Although the indigenous people of Mesoamerica did originally serve as the first slave labor, due to “their inefficiency and weakness,” deaths from disease, and limited numbers (Williams, 9), African slaves were chosen over them and the poor, white colonists of the region, to become the labor of choice—not because of their skin color but “because [they] were the cheapest and the best,” with “superior endurance, docility, and labor capacity” (Williams, 20). Racial differences observed through “hair, color, and dentifrice and “subhuman characteristics” (Williams, 20) “made it easier to justify and rationalize Negro slavery, to enact the mechanical obedience of a plough-ox or a cart-horse, to demand resignation and that complete moral and intellectual subjugation which alone make slave labor possible” (Williams, 19). Slavery is much easier to condone and perpetuate when viewing the enslaved as immoral, dark, evil, brutish, animal-like, and overall less human, “warranting” degradation, destruction of human rights and liberties, paternalistic oversight/control, and cruel, life-long servitude. Through this racial justification of slavery was the African narrative intentionally left out. The lack of an African narrative plays perfectly into the hands of the large chocolate corporations of the twentieth and twenty first century who Leissle notes “were more interested in selling the flavors of particular candy bars than bean lineage.” This effectively cuts off the link between the cacao growers in Ghana, Cameroon, and Cote D’Ivoire and the consumer, as “most wrappers give no indication that, with a few exceptions, the cocoa in those candies came from West Africa” (Leissle, 22). By making Africa “largely invisible” in regard to chocolate production (Leissle) and separating consumer from bean origin, large chocolate corporations can turn consumer attention to their own specific brands and flavors, which can be easily seen on their bars as most of the space and writing goes to describing and promoting those items, with the company name always being the largest font (observe image 4).
Bill Nesto further explores this occurrence through a direct comparison in the preservation of terroir between the chocolate industry and wine industry. Terroir, according to Nesto, “is the web that connects and unifies raw materials, their growing conditions, production process, and the moment of product appreciation” (131). The terroir regarding chocolate is severely broken and in many cases nonexistent. The consumer knows very little about the source of the raw materials and/or the conditions in which they are grown. And even when they possess knowledge of both they cannot connect the two as the concepts have become distinct and dissociated. The only thing a chocolate consumer of Hershey’s or Cadbury has to hold on to is the name Hershey or Cadbury, not the bean origin, harvest, or processing. Thus the consumer’s terroir and chocolate experience is dominated by company name. Nesto also makes this observation noting “the key circumstance that obstructs the expression of terroir in chocolate is the distance, both real and conceptual, between the farmer growing cacao and the factory that transforms the cacao into chocolate” (132). This is so vastly different from wine where the vineyards are very close to the wineries and the labeling is much more “accurate and advanced” (Nesto, 134). In fact, one could argue that people know and crave wine more by the vineyard and the harvesting process rather than the producer, as the producer is defined by their vineyard and harvesting process. For example, the bottle of wine located above explicitly tells us not just the winery, but also the vineyard (Firepeak) the grapes were grown on and the region the wine is from (Edna Valley). If the consumer so desires, they could explore more wines that come from that vineyard or from that region to further develop their wine terroir and palate. Unlike wine makers, Mars isn’t defined by its cacao plantations or chocolate making process; it is defined by its name .
The current and only bridge between the consumer and cacao beans lies in single source origin bars. Single source origin bars are “chocolate made with beans from a single country, region, or plantation” with the cacao producing distinct, unexpected, and irregular flavors (Leissle, 23). The producers of said bars are also very specific about the process the beans go through and need to know every step of production and processing in order to ensure the product’s quality, authenticity, and taste. All this is revealed in packaging. For example, image 3 shown below displays a variety of Tejas single source chocolate bars from various regions and the percent of the chocolate that comes from there. The company made sure to write fire roasted and stone ground so that the consumer has some knowledge of the process the beans went through, and carefully constructed an image to further connect the consumer to the beans as if taking the consumer on an “exotic” trip to the home of the beans for an enjoyable getaway from everyday life. Much different when compared to the very brand name focused packaging of Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bars that don’t advertise cacao content, origin, or geographic location (see image 4).
As good at it sounds even single source chocolate shows similar discrimination towards African cacao like the top five chocolate companies do. The evidence lies in the numbers; there is a huge disparity in the amount of single source bars from West Africa vs. those from South America and other regions of the world. Only 3.8% of single source bars contain cacao exclusively from West Africa (according to Mark Christian’s chocolate database—the largest one in the world). An official reviewer of Britain’s seventypercent.com demonstrates the continued prejudice and racial views against Africa by commenting on one of the few 100% Ghanian cacao bars, stating that the Torres bar has an “ominously dark color, though indicative of its Ghanian origins, evokes an unexplainable fear that these nearly black colors usually do” (Leissle, 27). The “unexplainable fear” reflects the internalized fear and aversion to anything resembling Africa and Black people as it’s dangerous, sinful, and uncontrollable—at least according to society’s false narrative of Black people.
Similarly, top chocolate companies avoid advertising West African cacao due to the negative stereotypes surrounding the region. They don’t want to be associated with the stereotypes of Africa such as “poverty, conflict, human rights violations, HIV/AIDS, debt, lack of urban development and oil (Leissle, 26).” They also don’t want to be associated with the problems and discrepancies regarding worker’s rights, child labor, and working conditions of the 1990s and the 2000s (Martin). Because of the lack of general knowledge regarding the top brands cacao beans used to make their chocolate, the companies can better avoid consumer anger and boycotting of their products since they won’t/can’t connect the working conditions of their farmers to their products. As a result of Africa’s invisible narrative in cacao production and the lack of connection between consumer and farmer, the large chocolate companies of today can avoid labor/processing accountability and giving recognition to West African cacao, holding all the benefits and rewards for themselves.
With chocolate’s diminished terroir, a lack of an African narrative, and almost no connection between the beans of origin and consumer, the world’s largest chocolate corporations can easily brand their bars with complete focus and emphasis on their company rather than the beans or process. Thus their consumers build their loyalty not on cacao bean taste, strand, or origin but on company name and logo. For if consumers knew where the cacao originated, they would no longer be as loyal and focused on say Mars or Cadbury, but much more focused on bean strand and location, seeking out a variety of chocolatiers who source cacao from those locations, decreasing large corporations strength, power, monetary success, and fame. Subject seven nearly had it right when they said, “African cacao isn’t marketed as well (not as widely publicized necessarily) and people don’t know it as well as South America” in regard to what they think of African vs. South American cacao. It’s not that the cacao isn’t marketed well; it’s simply not marketed at all—a huge shame considering it makes up most of the world’s chocolate market.
Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 13.3 (2013): 22-31. University of California Press. Web. 6 May 2015.
Martin, Carla . “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market.” Emerson Hall 210, Cambridge . 9 Mar. 2015. Lecture.
Martin, Carla . “Modern Day Slavery.” Emerson Hall 210, Cambridge . 25 Mar. 2015. Lecture.
Nesto, Bill. “Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate.” Gastronomica 10.1 (2010): 131-35. University of California Press. Web. 6 May 2015.
Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate And The European Internalization Of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111.4 (2006): 660-91. Oxford Journals. Web. 6 May 2015.
Kristy Leissle in her article “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate” argues that the negative image Americans retain of West Africa deters chocolate companies from single-sourcing their chocolate from that region. However, I argue that not only does this negative imagery give the appearance of poor quality cacao beans, it tastes like it is of poor quality to the consumer.
Food and culture are very closely intertwined. When visiting a foreign country, one of the main outlets through which you can get in touch with the culture is through its food. Each culture enjoys a specific diet and even then, it can vary from city to city. Many social scientists have studied this idea and found that food is very closely tied to memories. Chocolate companies attempt to replicate those good memories using their product as a sort of reminder (Stuckey 2012).
If that is true, how then is it possible that most people do not understand the history of chocolate and its origins? Indeed, most do not even think to ask where chocolate comes from or where it is made. In fact, very few understand anything about chocolate when in reality, it has a very rich history. Beginning in the Mesoamericas with the Olmecs, the cacao bean has undergone many transformations to arrive at its current form of the popular chocolate bar (Coe and Coe, 2013). Through technological advancements though, its complex flavors have been dulled in favor of the mass production of consistently flavored chocolates.
This brings us to the recent development of single origin chocolate on the production side of the story. In the past, cacao beans were valued based on origin. This information told the buyer whether the cacao was fine or bulk cacao. Fine cacao has more complex flavors and is considered to be better quality. Bulk cacao, on the other hand, is more resistant to disease and heartier than fine cacao. This method of judging chocolate has reappeared, a comeback made apparent by the explosion in the number of artisans producing single origin chocolates. The market has gone from a single chocolate maker in 1997 to 37 today and still growing (Leissle 2013).
However, the world’s largest chocolate-producing region is noticeably absent. West Africa produces over 70% of the cacao on the world market today, but only 3.8% of single origin chocolates are sourced from West Africa (Leissle 2013). How is it that 70% of the world’s chocolate is produced in this region but few chocolate artisans have chosen this area to supply their cacao beans?
Leissle argues that consumers today are unaware of the origins of chocolate because single origin chocolate makers claim the bean strain and bulk amounts sold are not conducive to their goals (2013). They claim the beans are too bitter and have weak, simple flavors, whereas single origin chocolates aim to bring out the complex, diverse flavors of chocolate. Additionally, the cocoa farms only sell in bulk which is not efficient for these kinds of companies, which make the chocolate from bean to bar. Ghana is considered to have the best cacao in West Africa because of the strenuous quality measures its Cocoa Board exercises. However, the Ghana Cocoa Board also presents an obstacle: it is under government control and it is the government that controls where the cacao can be exported. Though this system does indeed present a difficult obstacle, countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Nigeria have similar quality beans but with deregulated markets that allow for direct contact with the farmers. Furthermore, artisans from other countries source a lot of their products from West Africa.
Why then has the United States not followed this trend? We look to the history of relations between the United States and West Africa. Leissle claims that because the US has historically had negative relations with West Africa, the cacao beans are perceived as being of lower quality (2013). Media in the US has created a negative image of West Africa and Africa in general. The average American only knows stories of West Africa’s political instability, the poor infrastructure, and today, most prominently, the Ebola outbreak. This negative light the media has painted of West Africa has led to the conclusion that West Africa has poor quality cacao beans, at least from the point of view of the chocolate artisans.
The charged history of slavery has also turned these artisans away from sourcing cacao beans out of West Africa. Even as late as the early 1900s, slavery was a hot topic as rumors of slavery on cacao plantations in Sao Tome and Principe turned out to be true (Satre 2005). This is the clear motive for American companies staying away from West African origins of cacao beans–slavery will always be a delicate subject in the United States.
Chocolate companies typically use the wrapper and exotic words to entice the consumer, to elicit some curiosity (Leissle 2013; Stuckey 2012). Images of exotic scenery with hardworking cacao farmers are included on the wrapper as well as exciting descriptors. Some companies even appeal to the goals of social justice in order to hook the consumer. These ploys clearly will not appeal to American consumers. Companies cannot market the Wet African countries because the first words that come to mind when considering West Africa are not “vacation spot.” Instead, Americans see danger, AIDS, Ebola. A quick Google search of this topic leads to articles on armed robbery, civil war, and the Ebola outbreak. Appeals to social justice will also be aversive because of America’s history with slavery.
All of these factors have led to few chocolates of single source from West Africa in the United States. What does this mean to the consumer though? Bill Nesto explores the consumer reaction to single origin chocolate in one of his articles (2010). According to Nesto, it does not appear that most customers understand the phrase single origin chocolate. Indeed, there are so many different terms that have not been officially defined in the chocolate world that a consumer would be hard-pressed to understand all the concepts.
Recent studies though may have a consumer-side explanation for why no chocolate is from West Africa. Studies have shown that expectation, as well as one’s surroundings, can change how a food tastes (Zelano and Gottfried 2012; Grabenhorst et al 2008). Applying these results to the chocolate world, this negative imagery of West Africa can indeed leave a bad taste in the mouth though the chocolate is the same as all other chocolates we have been consuming. Chocolate single-sourced from Ghana might not taste as delicious as the Ghanaian chocolate in a Hershey’s bar. For chocolate amateurs who does not understand the distinction of single origin chocolate, they only see the country of origin; negative portrayals of West African countries by the media do not lend themselves well. If the chocolate is expected to be of lower quality, then it will taste like it is lower quality, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
All of these factors keep the origins of chocolate in the dark despite the fact that over 70% of all marketed chocolate comes from a single region. Chocolate has been completely divorced from its origins (Norton 2006). The negative image of a country leads to an expectation of lower quality which, in turn, results in a worse-tasting chocolate. It is a vicious cycle that does not benefit anyone–a cycle inherent in the system. Because of the perception of low quality chocolate, no one invests in West Africa, reinforcing its bad reputation. The issue now is how to solve these problems. A weakening cacao industry is turning people away from growing cacao and there soon may be a shortage of chocolate. Should chocolate producers be more transparent about where the cacao is coming from? Or should we be striving to eliminate the negative media coverage of West Africa? There is currently no incentive for a change in the system, so it seems it will be a while yet before we see more single origin chocolates from West Africa on the US market.
Coe, S and Coe, M. (2013). The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson.
Grabenhorst, F., Rolls, E., and Bilderbeck, A. (2008). “How Cognition Modulates Affective Responses to Taste and Flavor: Top-down Influences on the Orbitofrontal and Pregenual Cingulate Cortices.” Cerebral Cortex 18 (7): 1549-1559.
Leissle, K. (2013). “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 13, No.3, pp. 22-31.
Montanari, M. (2006). Food is Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
Nesto, B. (2010). “Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol.10, No.1, pp. 131-135.
Norton, M. (2006). “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” American Historical Review 111 (3): 660-691.
Satre, L. (2005). Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Stuckey, B. (2012). Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Zelano, C. and Gottfried, J. (2012). “A Taste of What to Expect: Top-Down Modulation of Neural Coding in Rodent Gustatory Cortex.” Neuron, Vol.74, No.2, 217-219.