Tag Archives: Chocolate Tasting

Chats over Choco: A Discussion of Chocolate in History, Society, and Industry

Introduction: Why do you like chocolate?

The cafe is cozy and dimly lit, the perfect setting for an interview. Dave and I head to the back and sit at a small wooden table. A few days ago, he had eagerly agreed to be interviewed as soon as I mentioned that the subject of my questions would be chocolate. Of course, he only became more enthusiastic after I mentioned that we would be doing a blind taste test as well. We order a couple of loose leaf teas and two slices of white bread — an odd order at a cafe, but we would need them to cleanse Dave’s palate during the tasting.

I start out by asking Dave how much he likes chocolate, to which he replies, “A pretty large amount.” I then ask him why he likes chocolate, but he seems confused at how to answer. “Well, it has a unique taste,” he says. “It has that melt-in-your-mouth quality. It’s creamy, fragrant, smooth, appealing.” Basically his answer in a few words was that chocolate simply tastes good — it has a good flavor and a good texture.

The question I asked seems simple, but upon closer examination there seems to be no clear answer. Why is the world so crazy about chocolate? In “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving,” author David Benton notes that chocolate is “by far the most common food item that people report that they crave” (205). But is there some scientific reason behind this, or are we just continuing the traditions of ancient civilizations (such as the Aztecs and the Maya) who called chocolate the ‘food of the gods’?

In my interview, I aimed to first look at chocolate from a more historical point of view to examine reasons behind its inherent ‘specialness,’ before comparing this to what we think of chocolate today. I then wanted to examine something a little less black and white — Dave’s general feelings towards chocolate, and why these certain feelings may have developed as a result of pop culture and the media. After this, I wanted to touch on some thoughts about the nature of the chocolate industry and some of the problems in it. And finally, I wanted to try a blind chocolate taste test, to compare my knowledge about chocolate companies with Dave’s blind opinion about the chocolates themselves. I thought it would be interesting to see whether he could taste differences in quality, flavor, and texture.

Chocolate in History vs. Today: What do you associate with chocolate?

“I have fond memories of chocolate from when I was little,” Dave explains. “In a lot of the events I would go to, like performances, they’d have chocolate to give us kids and we’d eat it while watching the performers.”

It might seem rather arbitrary that we associate chocolate with special events and celebrations. However, this has been a pattern throughout history. Going back to the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations, chocolate has often appeared in rituals and religious ceremonies. In a sacred Mayan text, the Popol Vuh, cacao appears several times — for example, there are stories about gods being represented by cacao pods (Coe & Coe, 39). Cacao was also linked to marriage rituals (for example, as dowries) and rites of death.

A couple drinking cacao during a marriage

There are many sources that talk about how chocolate has always been special, historically. It has often appeared in religious and spiritual contexts. Such myths about cacao and gods may seem so detached from us now; maybe we are ‘logical’ or ‘scientists’ and no longer widely believe in such tales. But then maybe we are not so far from this mindset as we may initially think. We still romanticize chocolate as being a mystical substance with mysterious powers. Although we may not call it the ‘food of the gods,’ we still hold it with a similar regard. We still serve it at events and special occasions, we still relate it to fertility (it is associated with aphrodisiacs and romance), and yet we cannot easily explain what makes it so special.

For children especially, chocolate is an alluring treat associated with intensity and excitement (as it was to Dave). This may be why marketing to children is such a huge business: children are even more likely to ignore any logical arguments and accept chocolate as being magical. But there is even evidence of adults today thinking of chocolate in this way: for example, in “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered,” James Howe describes a doctor who was trying to scientifically explain the remarkable cardiovascular health of the Kuna people. The doctor notices that they drink a lot of cacao and immediately relates this to their heart health, although he may not have made the same conclusion had they been drinking a common cornmeal drink. And of course, their healthiness turned out to be unrelated to cacao drinking. The doctor had simply been romanticizing cacao, perhaps because it was more mysterious to him.

As for the reason why we are drawn to cacao, it could be scientific: chocolate has been shown to be one of the most complex natural flavors (Brenner, 64), so perhaps we are simply attracted to this multi-dimensionality. Or maybe the fascination of the Aztecs and Mayans with chocolate has carried over to our time. Or as Benton explains in “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving,” it could just be because it tastes good (214). Either way, all we can conclude is that chocolate is mysterious to us and that we still tend to consider it under in mystical context — kind of like how the Aztecs and Mayans did so long ago.

Chocolate and Emotions and Pop culture: How do you feel about chocolate?

“I think of chocolate and happiness,” Dave says fondly. “Yeah, it’s definitely a happy food. I sometimes eat it when I’m stressed, but then I eat a lot when I’m stressed in general.”

It seems that Dave is not the only person who thinks that chocolate encourages happiness. Chocolate is often given as a gift of love or celebration, in order to urge someone to think of you in a fond or romantic way. But because of chocolate’s clear link with improving mood, people often eat it when upset, bored, or stressed. As Benton describes in his essay, there is a link between chocolate and ‘emotional’ eating, and there is  also “consistent evidence that chocolate craving is associated with depression and other disturbances of mood” (206). In other words, because we associate chocolate with happiness, our cravings often occur when we are upset.

Dave doesn’t explicitly mention eating chocolate when he is stressed or sad, but he does describe some of the chocolates he likes best: specifically, those small dark chocolate nuggets wrapped in colorful foil with inspirational messages written on the inside. It seems that the companies manufacturing chocolate are aware of its power to improve mood, and they try to exaggerate this effect as much as possible in order to encourage people to keep coming back. And yet, as Benton describes, there is no convincing evidence of certain constituents in chocolate having special mood-improving powers. This is again part of what makes chocolate so mysterious to us; we can look at its components and try to analyze scientifically, but in the end it’s the chocolate as a whole that is inexplicably stimulating.


A Dove chocolate with a cheerful, inspirational message:
“All you really need is love, and a little chocolate doesn’t hurt!”

But what deeper effects could these emotions have? Chocolate encourages happiness for so many people; how can we see the effects of this in the media and pop culture? I ask Dave how he relates chocolate to pop culture. He leans back in his seat, looking a little wistful.

“Oh, romance for sure,” he says, waving a hand. “And holidays… I always buy the most chocolate during those Christmas, Halloween, and Easter sales. And Valentine’s Day, of course — although I haven’t recently gifted chocolate in a romantic way or anything. But I want to.” He goes on to describe a romantic scene of him standing in a park near a bench with snow on the ground, holding a red box of chocolates and a single rose. “I always think of those little red heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. Dark chocolates. With a bow.”

Confectionery company Cadbury greatly increased sales
by starting to sell their chocolates in a heart-shaped box

It’s surprising how specific these images are; we now seem to inherently relate Valentine’s Day to chocolate without questioning why we would do so. As for the other holidays, they are also important earning opportunities for chocolate-selling companies, especially if those companies take advantage of our associations of chocolate with romance and love. Many a chocolate advertisement will ruthlessly target women, appealing to them as mothers and housewives.

Hershey’s Syrup TV Commercial: https://www.ispot.tv/ad/AfkQ/hersheys-syrup-fairys-chocolate-milk. A Hershey’s chocolate syrup ad appealing to mothers and associating their product with a ‘happy family.’

In terms of romance, Dave’s answer reveals the influence that these advertisements and depictions in the media have on us: he never even considers the possibility of a woman gifting a man chocolate. As a male, he assumes that it is his duty to do the giving. And this is no new concept — as Emma Robertson describes in “Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History,” women have been positioned as consumers since the time of the Aztecs (68). So we see again that there are common themes throughout history that have survived even until today.

Ultimately, we know that we crave chocolate because it tastes ‘good,’ and that we consider it an aphrodisiac and so relate it to fertility. We also know that historically, people have also loved and obsessed over chocolate, and wondered at its unusual powers — so much so that they associated it with divinity and spirituality. But in the end, we marvel at chocolate just as much as them. There are few satisfying or scientific answers as to why we associate chocolate so strongly with love, women, and happiness, rather than some other delicious treat. The fact that chocolate has held such an important position since so early in history just enhances its image in our eyes, and we continue to romanticize and fantasize, as can be seen from the media and its influence on people like Dave. At this point, we are fed so much information about chocolate’s link to romance and happiness that I would be surprised if Dave had not described the exact specific imagery that he had.

The Chocolate Industry: What do you know about the industry?

I knew that when asked about the ‘biggest’ chocolate brands, Dave would most likely name Hershey. But I wasn’t so sure about the others.

“I love Lindt, Godiva. Ferrero,” Dave lists. I was surprised. Lindt is the first one he mentions? “And Hershey’s, of course. Hershey’s is comfortable.”

I ask him why it’s comfortable. He describes how one of his teachers used to give him a big Hershey’s Symphony cookies n’ cream bar on his birthday, how he would split it among his friends, and hide it from his parents. “Well, it’s comfortable but the taste is aggressively sweet. I like dark chocolate, mostly.”

It seems that so many people have fond memories associated with Hershey’s. But is Hershey’s actually good? All of the other brands Dave mentioned suited his preference for dark chocolate; Lindt and Godiva are known for making higher quality, more expensive products (especially better quality dark chocolate). Hershey’s, however, seems to have established itself as a reliable and homely brand. As seen in advertisements such as the one for Hershey’s syrup, they appeal to family and strive to create good memories to associate with themselves. So it would make sense that people such as Dave would remember Hershey’s fondly, even if their preferences lie elsewhere.

There is a stark difference, in fact, between what American consumers and other consumers think of Hershey’s. Americans, having grown up on it and having forged many good memories with a Hershey’s bar in hand, are more likely to say that Hershey’s tastes ‘like home.’ However, other consumers have commonly remarked that Hershey’s tastes rather ‘like vomit.’ In his chocolate-making process, Hershey unintentionally added the side effect of milk fat fermentation, which creates a sour note in his milk chocolate (D’Antonio, 108). Since the milk is partially soured, it creates an acid that is found in substances such as baby spit-up — but American consumers are now too accustomed to the taste, or perhaps swayed by their pleasant memories of Hershey’s, to notice or complain (Metz).

One other surprising aspect of Dave’s comment was that he failed to mention Mars, indisputably one of the most influential chocolate snack manufacturers. When I tried to bring up candies Twix and Snickers, he commented that he had had a vague idea that such candies were produced by the same umbrella company, but that he hadn’t heard much about it. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Mars has always been a secretive company — Forrest Mars had cared about quality and his empire vision and little else. Others had always agree that “Mars’s intelligence operations [were] infamous… they tried to pump information out of… anybody they could” (Brenner, 62). It is clear, then, that the nature of the company also largely impacts what the general public thinks of their brand and products.

Mars, Inc — familiar candies, unfamiliar company

I then asked Dave what he knew about unethical labor in the industry, just to gauge his awareness. He commented that he was aware of problems such as child labor in the system. “Consumers are definitely implicated in these problems, though,” he says, almost uncomfortably. “But if I saw a normal chocolate bar and a more expensive one labeled ‘ethically sourced,’ I’d probably go with the normal one. Nowadays it seems like labeling your candy as being ‘ethically sourced’ is more of a gimmick to squeeze more profit out of consumers. If I’m shopping and looking for a few items, I often don’t have the motivation to research the brand then and there.”

In other words, Dave was able to tell that the problem was complex enough that there could be no simple solution. He knew that just adding labels would not be enough to motivate consumers like himself to do research themselves and to start acting upon their new knowledge. As is true in many other situations, complex lives require holistic responses.

Tasting: what do you taste?

I had Dave close his eyes and taste test three different brands of dark chocolate (with a palate cleansing in between each): Cadbury, then Hershey’s, then Lindt. I was interested to see how his opinions might match up with the information I had about each brand.

On Cadbury: “This smells like dark chocolate! It is nutty, quite smooth, not too sweet, and melts nicely. But the taste is rather straightforward. It doesn’t linger.” Rated: 8/10

On Hershey’s: “This has a very odd odor. I’m not sure how to describe it. It melts incredible fast, is very sweet, and tastes a bit like coffee. It tastes lighter than the other one… maybe milk chocolate?” Rated: 7/10

On Lindt: “This smells very chocolatey; no odd scent here. It seems to melt slower though, and it tastes both very sweet and not so sweet at the same time. It does have some astringent notes and it seems to make my tongue dry. It’s very rich.” Rated: 5/10

Dave’s comments surprisingly matched up with what I predicted. He sensed that Hershey’s uses a lower percentage of actual cacao (by guessing that it was milk). He even smelled the sour note in the Hershey’s chocolate. However, he didn’t seem to like the texture of the Lindt chocolate as much, which was unexpected to me since Lindt was the one who invented the conching process. But in the end, he seemed to enjoy all three samples of chocolate (and continued eating them after the interview had ended).

Conclusion

After a closer examination, it becomes clear that chocolate has a complex and rich history, a controversial and influential role in society, and is the center of a competitive and powerful industry. The whole world is obsessed with this single characteristic flavor; so many people are constantly craving it, giving and receiving it, and talking about it. But is this such a surprise? The biggest conclusion at the end of the day is that chocolate is mysteriously delicious — and that perhaps we are not so different from those ancient civilizations and their myths about the ‘food of the gods.’

References

Benton, David. “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.” Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain, by Astrid Nehlig, CRC Press, 2004.

Brenner Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: inside the Secret World on Hershey & Mars. Broadway Books, 2000.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.

“‘Here There Will Be No Unhappiness.’” Hershey: Milton’s S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, by Michael D’Antonio, Simon & Schuster Paperback, 2006.

Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 12, no. 1, 2012, doi:10.1525/gfc.2012.12.1.cover.

Metz, Elle. “Does Cadbury Chocolate Taste Different in Different Countries?” BBC News, BBC, 18 Mar. 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31924912.
“’The Romance of the Cocoa Bean’: Imperial and Colonial Histories.” Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History, by Emma Robertson, University of York, 2004.

Multimedia Sources

“Cadbury Heart Shape Box – For My Valentine.” Cadbury Joy Deliveries, http://www.cadburystore.com.au/media/catalog/product/cache/image/700×560/e9c3970ab036de70892d86c6d221abfe/v/a/valentine_box_open_box_1600x1600_03_new_1_.jpg

“A Couple Drinking Cacao during a Marriage.” Mexicolore, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/images-ans/ans_21_06_2.jpg.

“A Dove Chocolate with a Cheerful, Inspirational Message.” Cinnamon Spice & Everything Nice, http://www.cinnamonspiceandeverythingnice.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Dove-Dark-Chocolate-Mint-Swirl-Promises.jpg.

“Hershey’s Syrup TV Commercial, ‘Fairy’s Chocolate Milk’.” ISpot.tv, http://www.ispot.tv/ad/AfkQ/hersheys-syrup-fairys-chocolate-milk

“Mars, Inc — Familiar Candies, Unfamiliar Company.” WOWT 6 News, http://www.wowt.com/home/headlines/Mars-candy-products-recalled-369811351.html.

Chocolate in the 21st Century: A Chocolate-Tasting Experiment and Essay

Introduction

For my final project, I decided to host a chocolate tasting with fellow students Frankie Hill and Sarah Kahn, who will be writing their thoughts on the tasting independently. The six types of chocolate we chose to use for the tasting were Cote D’Or’s Belgian Milk Chocolate, produced by Mondelez International, Valrhona’s Blond Dulcey, a special take on traditional white chocolate, Antidote’s 84% cacao dark chocolate with nibs as well as their 100% “raw” chocolate with nibs, and finally, Taza Chocolate’s Stone Ground 84% dark chocolate from Haiti, as well as their 80% dark chocolate from the Dominican Republic. We thought that these chocolates represented a variety of different tastes, textures, countries of origin and philosophical approaches to chocolate-making, and as such, we felt it would be appropriate to use them as units of scholarly analysis, and to use our subjects’ reactions to the various types of chocolates as real-world context through which to frame our analysis. These different types of chocolates are connected to various issues in the contemporary chocolate industry, from the growth of the “fair trade” movement, to the evolution of our modern understanding of what constitutes “chocolate” to the surge in the “craft chocolate” industry, to the exploitation of labor in Africa and much of the rest of the developing world. In this post, I will be detailing the chocolate tasting subjects’ subjective evaluations of the various chocolates my colleagues and I selected, and then diving into my own analysis of how these chocolates connect from a historical, economic and sociological perspective to the various issues that I have raised.

Chocolates used for tasting in the experiment (proprietary image)
Chocolate tasting subjects enjoying some dark chocolate (proprietary image)

Chocolate #1: Cote D’Or’s Belgian Milk Chocolate, by Mondelez International

Background

Cote D’Or’s Belgian Milk Chocolate is a fairly standard milk chocolate blend produced by Mondelez, the largest chocolate company in the world. It has been a staple of the Belgian commercial market since its introduction in 1883 (Mondelez International, “Brand Family”). Every aspect of the chocolate’s packaging and presentation looks corporate and modern, from the relatively modest off-white exterior of the package to the basic foil wrapping to the neatly lined, Kit-Kat like rows into which the chocolate is divided, virtually identical to each other.

Taster Reactions

The general reaction to the Cote D’Or chocolate from our chocolate tasters was unimpressive. They commented that the texture was fairly smooth, the chocolate melted in one’s mouth at a somewhat average rate, and the taste was largely indistinguishable from the kind of chocolate you would get in a store-bought basket for Christmas or Easter. The taste of the chocolate seems consistent with its presentation as the product of a large, Western corporate conglomerate tailoring its chocolate and ingredients towards mass consumption. One taster remarked that the bars tasted like “Kit-Kat without the middle part.” One could say that this chocolate served as a sort of control for the experiment, a flavor of chocolate most people in the West would already be familiar with.

Connection to Broader Themes from the Course

The most important aspect of the first chocolate, to me, was Mondelez’s use of its “Cocoa Life” logo on the front of the packaging. Cocoa Life is Mondelez’s proprietary branding of what it refers to as its “global sustainability program… tackling the complex challenges that cocoa farmers face, including climate change, gender inequality, poverty and child labor.” Mondelez’s stated goal is to have all of its chocolate sourced through its Cocoa Life program by 2025 (Mondelez International, “Why Cocoa Life?”). This struck an interesting attempt for a large multinational corporation, often associated in the popular imagination with oppressive hierarchies and exploitation, to capitalize on recent trends towards sustainably sourced chocolate. As Kristie Leissle argues in her book Cocoa, in a chapter focusing on trade justice, consumers in the West are increasingly aware of the abuses that can occur in chocolate production and seek “guilt-free” sources of chocolate. There is a movement towards not “free trade,” but “fair trade” in which chocolate farmers and workers are fairly treated and compensated for their product (Leissle, Cocoa, pgs. 128-158). What is truly interesting is that even traditional players in the market seem to be convinced that marketing themselves as fair trade-compliant is now good for profits, a development which may represent a positive trend towards greater equality in the chocolate production industry, or more cynically, a coopting of grassroots movements for economic justice by the usual suspects.

Chocolate #2: Valrhona’s Blond Dulcey

Background

According to Valrhona, Blond Dulcey was the result of a fortunate accident when pastry chef Frederic Bau “absentmindedly left some white chocolate in the double-boiler for too long.” After removing the chocolate from the boiler, he “noteiced it had turned a blond color and the faint smell of toasted shortbread and caramelized milk wafted out of the pan.” Sliced up into irregularly-sized pieces, with a light beige color reminiscent of crackers, and containing 32% cocoa butter (Valrhona US), Blond Dulcey is anything but typical white chocolate, and it seemed appropriate as part of the experiment to try this unique chocolate on our tasters.

Taster Reactions

Our tasters described the chocolate as very buttery, melting easily in one’s mouth. It was also described as slightly bitter, sweet but in a mild way, and as tasting “like nothing” according to one of the tasters. It seems the high concentration of cocoa butter in the chocolate, as well as the unique chemical processes giving it its off-white color, produced the intended effect of a substance which, while marketed as chocolate, tastes, looks and feels very different from the twenty-first century conception of what “chocolate” is.

Connection to Broader Themes from the Course

“What is chocolate?” is a theme that has been grappled with from the food’s inception as a grainy Mesoamerican drink that was originally served cold and consumed by elites for a variety of ritualistic purposes to a hot, smooth, often bitter concoction taken by European nobility along with coffee, to the modern, mass-produced chocolate bar consumed widely across the (mostly) Western world today (Coe and Coe). As chocolate made its way from the New World to the Old, and then eventually from Old World elites to the masses, its flavor profile changed, most dramatically so with the introduction of sugar, and a variety of substances pleasing to Western palettes changed the nature of chocolate so as to make it almost unrecognizable from its starting point (Schwartzkopf and Sampeck). The kind of experimentation with chocolate which led to the creation of Valrhona’s Blond Dulcey has been an integral part of chocolate’s history, leading us to a moment in modern history where a white chocolate bar, containing no part of the cacao plant except for the cocoa butter harvested from the chocolate production process, can legitimately fall within the spectrum of foods considered “chocolate.”

Chocolates #3 and #4: Antidote Chocolate’s 84% Cacao with Nibs and “Raw 100%” Cacao with Nibs

Background

Antidote produces its chocolates with “rich Arriba Nacional beans from the south and west of Ecuador.” The company claims to work mostly with farm cooperatives and to use a proprietary process for its Raw 100% bars in order to “maximize the potency of anti-oxidants, flavonoids and holistic nutrients” (Antidote Chocolate). Its founder goes by “Red,” and the packaging on the company’s bars gives off a very new age, hipster, pseudo-anarchist vibe which seems common to many craft chocolate brands these days. For our chocolate tasting session, we offered participants both the 84% and “Raw 100%” cacao varieties. We thought these bars would provide an excellent contrast with the earlier chocolate samples and expose our tasters to the experience of “raw” dark chocolate.

Taster Reactions

Our tasters immediately identified the rough, crunchy texture of the cacao nibs embedded within the chocolates, though they originally misidentified them as nuts. They were able to distinguish between the 84% and 100% cacao varieties, with one taster remarking that the 100% cacao tasted “like tree bark,” and many commenting that it was “unusually bitter.” Another taster remarked that there was a hint of fruit in the 84% cacao bar. I informed him that the plants around which a cacao tree is grown often influence the taste of its fruit, and that “terroir” is an important concept in the burgeoning world of craft chocolate. All in all, our tasters, which had never tasted chocolate nibs or anything close to “pure” cacao, were strongly impacted by the taste, though they did not rate it highly on average.

Connection to Broader Themes from the Course

The Antidote chocolate bars represent a glimpse into the workings of the modern craft chocolate industry. As Kristy Leissle argues, the craft chocolate community is obsessed with the concept of artisanal chocolate (Leissle, “‘Artisan’ as Brand: Adding Value In A Craft Chocolate Community”) and constantly seeks to differentiate itself from big, corporate, traditional chocolate by marketing its brands as more art-like and less processed. This is exemplified by the obsession in some craft circles with the concept of “raw” chocolate, though there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes “raw.” The “Raw 100%” antidote chocolate bar also highlights another tendency of craft chocolate makers: evoking imagery of ancient Mesoamerican cultures in order to add the air of authenticity to their products. Antidote’s Raw 100% bar claims on the packaging to be inspired by Tonacatecuhtli, the Aztec god of creation and fertility. The debate continues over whether this should be considered dangerous cultural appropriation, or should be celebrated as a marketing move which Mesoamerican chocolate farmers will ultimately profit from (Coe and Coe, pgs. 262-263).

Chocolates #5 and #6: Taza Chocolate’s 84% Dark from Haiti and 80% Dark from the Dominican Republic

Background

Taza Chocolate specializes in stone ground chocolate, which it calls “perfectly unrefined, minimally processed chocolate with bold flavor and texture.” Supposedly, its founder and CEO Alex Whitmore was inspired to create a stone ground chocolate-factory in Somerville, MA after taking his first bite of stone ground chocolate while traveling in Oaxaca, Mexico (Taza Chocolate). For our chocolate tasting session, we chose Taza Chocolates’s 84% Dark with chocolate from Haiti, as well as the 80% Dark with chocolate from the Dominican Republic. We wanted to stick with dark chocolate to give our tasters further exposure to concentrated cacao flavors, and chose both Haiti and the Dominican Republic as they less common sources of chocolate than the typical chocolate from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, yet are connected to these two countries through shared histories of colonialism and exploitation. We also thought that stone ground chocolate might present an interesting spin on the concept of “raw” chocolate as compared to Antidote’s take on “raw” chocolate.

Taster Reactions

Our tasters repeatedly remarked that there was a rougher texture to the Taza bars than to previous chocolate samples, likely due to the larger particle size of the chocolate due to the unconventional refining process, as I informed them after the tasting process. They could also taste the difference between 84% and 80% dark chocolate, though only slightly, suggesting that slight gradations in cacao concentration can be detected to a limited extent even by inexperienced tasters. Curiously, our tasters seemed to prefer the 84% Dark from Haiti over the 80% Dark from the Dominican Republic, even though they reported the 80% Dark as being slightly sweeter, suggesting that country of origin is an important factor in determining chocolate taste and quality.

Connections to Broader Themes from the Course

            Though Taza claims to go above and beyond in pursuing ethically sourced chocolate, paying farmers above the fair trade price for their wares (Taza Chocolate), it still relies heavily on the racialized system of value extraction that has historically categorized chocolate production since its inception. As late as the early 20th century, slave labor was still being used to produce chocolate in places such as Sao Tome (Satre). In modern times, over 70% of chocolate is produced in Africa, with a large quantity of the rest being produced by low-paid black labor in countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Yet nonetheless, black workers which produce the majority of the world’s chocolate consume only a tiny fraction, and most of the profits go to the white owners of Western chocolate companies (Leissle, pgs. 4-7, 36-46).


Modern chocolate production and consumption patterns (April 2010 to March 2011)

Conclusion

Ultimately, our chocolate tasting experiment presented an opportunity to both enjoy chocolate with friends as well as to continue educating ourselves and others on some of the broad themes explored in the course this year. It is my hope that people in the West and across the globe will continue to consume and enjoy chocolate for many years to come, while keeping in mind the realities of the global chocolate trade and never taking for granted the blood, sweat and tears of the less powerful people who make it all possible, fighting every day to ensure they receive justice.

Works Cited

“Antidote 100% Raw Cacao Bar with Nibs.” Antidote, 2019, antidotechoco.com/products/raw-100-cacao-nibs.

“Antidote 84% Dark Chocolate Bar with Nibs.” Antidote, 2019, antidotechoco.com/products/cacao-nibs-84.

Antidote Chocolate. “ABOUT US – Antidote Chocolate.” Antidote, antidotechoco.com/pages/about-1.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.

“Cote D’Or Milk Chocolate.” Gourmet Boutique, 2019, http://www.gourmetboutique.net/collections/cote-dor-chocolate.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Leissle, Kristy. “‘Artisan’ as Brand: Adding Value In A Craft Chocolate Community.” Food, Culture & Society, vol. 20, no. 1, 2017, pp. 37–57., doi:10.1080/15528014.2016.1272201.

Mondelez International. “Brand Family.” Mondelez International, http://www.mondelezinternational.com/brand-family.

Mondelez International. “Why Cocoa Life?” Cocoa Life, http://www.cocoalife.org/.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2006.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 73–99.

“Taza 80% Dark Stone Ground Chocolate Bar, Dominican Republic.” The Chocolate Path, 2019, http://www.chocolatepath.com/products/taza-80-stone-ground-organic-chocolate-bar.

“Taza 84% Dark Stone Ground Chocolate Bar, Haiti.” IHerb, 3 May 2019, http://www.iherb.com/pr/taza-chocolate-organic-84-dark-stone-ground-chocolate-bar-haiti-2-5-oz-70-g/75609.

Taza Chocolate. “About Taza.” Taza Chocolate, http://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/about-taza.

“Valrhona Blond Dulcey.” Confectionery News, 2019, http://www.confectionerynews.com/Article/2012/10/17/World-s-first-blond-chocolate-claims-Valrhona.

Valrhona US. “Blond® Dulcey 32%.” Valrhona US | Retour à La Page D’accueil, us.valrhona.com/chocolate-catalog/couverture-chocolate/blondr-dulcey-32/bag-beans. Wade, Kristine. “The Production of Chocolate.” Flickr, 3 Feb. 2017, http://www.flickr.com/photos/147998004@N06/32640931946.

Is Certified Chocolate Better Chocolate?

Chocolate is a delicious treat, but for the farmers who grow cacao, life is not so sweet. Cacao farmers inhabit some of the world’s poorest regions and earn small, irregular wages. When Carol Off visited a farming community in Côte d’Ivoire, she found that the cacao laborers lacked access to basic services including education and medical care (Off, 6). Additionally, the cacao farmers faced highly variable pricing and high taxation levels (Off, 6). These conditions severely hinder economic development and allow poverty to persist among farm workers. Because these problems are so prevalent, several organizations have risen to promote more fair business practices. These groups certify producers who follow a strict set of policies throughout their production process. This paper focuses on three groups in particular: Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and USDA Organic. Carla Martin’s course “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food” discusses the benefits of these various certifications as well as their flaws. Among the many critiques of these certifications is their failure to ensure a higher quality product and to gain traction among American consumers. To test these weaknesses, I decided to perform an informational chocolate tasting to gauge Harvard students’ understanding of these certifications and to ascertain whether certified products were of a higher quality.

image locating cote divoire
Côte d’Ivoire: The world leader in cacao farming. 

Brief Summary of Certifications

According to Fair Trade’s mission statement, the organization seeks to empower farmers by using a market-based approach to improve wages and working conditions for farmers and laborers. Additionally, Fair Trade seeks to strengthen local economies while simultaneously protecting the local environment (Fair Trade). Ndongo Samba Sylla argues in her book The Fair Trade Scandal that while Fair Trade is an organization with good intentions, the organization often falls short of its aims. Among Sylla’s complaints is the lack of money actually reaching certified producers. Fair Trade products charge a premium, but only minimal amounts of this increased price actually reach the farmers (233). Thus, Fair Trade’s impact on poor farmers is negligible. Similar sentiments are echoed in “The Fair Trade Shell Game” which suggests that Fair Trade hurts non-certified farmers and offers no real quality guarantee (Markham Nolan, Dusan Sekulovic, and Sara Rao). With these and many other problems, it seems that Fair Trade, while commendable in its aims, fails to truly benefit producers and can also mislead consumers.

The USDA Organic website suggests that the intent of this certification is to promote healthier and safer agricultural practices for producing the crops (USDA). While their efforts to promote better environmental and health practices are admirable, this strategy fails to account for social issues. Julie Guthman notes that if certified organic products focus intensely on the materials used during the production process, the labor practices should also be scrutinized (507). Evaluating the USDA’s various certification levels also reveals the potential for great disparity among certified products (USDA). In addition to these concerns, it has been suggested that organic standards have declined over time and that certification provides a false assurance of quality (Martin). With these critiques, it is important to understand that organic products may not be as beneficial as they are often portrayed.

Finally, Direct Trade is intended to serve as an alternative to Fair Trade. According to Taza, Direct Trade implies a rejection of unfair labor practices and unfair wages. Direct interaction with cacao growers is intended to ensure better treatment of farmers and a higher quality product (Taza). As can be seen with Taza, however, these relationships often rely on small chocolate makers which can lead to potential problems in stability and quantities being purchased (Martin). Nonetheless, Direct Trade may prove to be an effective means of combating unfair treatment of cacao growers.

The logos for the certifications appear below. Direct Trade’s logo was unavailable under Creative Commons.

The Chocolate

Sample 1: Hershey’s Special Dark (45% cacao; $0.59/oz.; no certifications)

The first sample in the tasting was a Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate bar. While only 45% cacao, significantly below the other chocolates in percentage, this bar was selected to serve as the typical dark chocolate bar that could be found in American households. For its prevalence, it was selected as the first sample in the tasting in order to establish a comparison point for the other chocolates.

Sample 2: Lake Champlain Dark Chocolate (72% cacao; $2.00/oz.; 100% Fair Trade, USDA Organic)

The second sample, a dark chocolate bar from Lake Champlain, was selected to fill the role of the Fair Trade certified bar, although it was also certified organic. At 72% it was close to the 70% cacao I was targeting in the study. Every ingredient in the bar was reported to be organic and Fair Trade certified.

Sample 3: Taza Cacao Puro (70% cacao; $2.04/oz.; Direct Trade, USDA Organic)

Taza is known for its small, dedicated chocolate making team. Participating in the Direct Trade initiative, Taza claims to work with cacao farmers to ensure that they are selecting the best cacao possible and purchasing it at a fair price. The chocolate selected was 70% cacao, perfectly at my target percentage. The chocolate disc was also certified organic.

Sample 4: Ghirardelli Intense Dark (72% cacao; $0.85/oz.; no certifications)

Ghirardelli’s Intense Dark bar was selected as a good quality non-certified bar to challenge the quality assumptions that the tasters might have about certified and non-certified bars. At 72%, it fell within my target range. With its general perception of higher quality, it seemed an excellent choice to challenge the craft producers in the tasting.

Sample 5: Lindt Smooth Dark (70% cacao; $0.85/oz.; no certifications)

The Lindt chocolate was selected as another good quality non-certified chocolate bar. This bar matched the 70% cacao chocolate without receiving any certifications.

Sample 6: Dick Taylor Northerner Blend (73% cacao; $3.98/oz.; organic*)

The Dick Taylor bar carried a similar cacao percentage to the other bars in the study. While the bar does not bear the USDA Organic symbol, it advertises its ingredients as organic. According to the USDA website “You may only, on the information panel, identify the certified organic ingredients as organic and the percentage of organic ingredients.” With the bar using only certified organic ingredients, I considered this bar to be certified organic though some may disagree with this assessment. This bar is not Fair Trade or Direct Trade and so was used to capture the impact of using only organic materials without the effects of other certifications.

20170504_192908
Certified Samples-Personal Photo

20170504_192831
Non-Certified Samples-Personal Photo

 

The Process

Five of my friends, who were not involved with Martin’s course, generously volunteered to participate in the tasting. Before providing them with any chocolate, I gave them a brief questionnaire about the three certifications. For each certification, I asked them if they were familiar with it and how they interpreted it. Across all five participants, the only certification that was familiar to the tasters was USDA Organic. None of the tasters were familiar with Fair Trade or Direct Trade. Having ascertained that the participants did not have a well-developed understanding of these certifications, I provided them with information sheets describing the purpose of each and the critiques that were discussed in Martin’s class. While these information sheets were certainly not comprehensive, they were intended to help the tasters understand the intent of my tasting.

After ensuring that all of the participants had read through their information sheets, I moved onto the tasting portion of the event. Before beginning, I allowed the tasters to read the series of questions asked on their tasting sheets. Using Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate as the first sample, I walked the group through the tasting process. Because the tasting was intended to be a blind test, I asked that the participants not look at the chocolate samples throughout the process. While not a foolproof method, the participants were able to avoid seeing the chocolate while performing the tasting. They were asked to first smell the chocolate, evaluating its aroma. Next, they were asked to snap their samples to judge the sound of the chocolate. Finally, they were allowed to put the chocolate on their tongues and let it melt. This final step was used for them to evaluate the texture and flavor of the chocolate. During each of these steps, the participants were asked to provide ratings for certain qualities on a scale of 1-5. An image of the specific questions asked is posted below. After answering this series of questions intended to help the tasters evaluate the chocolate, they were asked to judge the overall flavor and quality of the chocolate on scales of 1-10. The separation of flavor and quality was intended to account for tasters who prefer lower quality chocolate. One taster was particularly aware of his preference for low quality chocolate. His self-awareness was evident in his responses. Between each sample, tasters were asked to use carbonated water to cleanse their palates.

tasting sample
Tasting Sheet-Personal Photo

 

Once each of the 6 samples had been tasted, the tasters were told to rank the chocolate based on apparent quality. Once this task was completed, I announced the name of each sample and its certifications. I then asked the tasters based on their analysis whether they thought that there existed a correlation between quality and certification. Finally, I asked the participants how large of a premium they would be willing to pay to consume an equal amount of certified chocolate as non-certified. For example, if they would be willing to pay $1.50 for a certified chocolate bar and $1.00 for a non-certified bar of the same size, this difference was considered to be a 50% premium. Once this question was answered, the task was left to me to interpret the tasters’ responses.

Results

By the time that the tasting was complete, both questions I sought to address in my tasting had been answered. Simply put, the participants did not understand Fair Trade or Direct Trade, but had a basic knowledge about USDA Organic. Despite understanding the intent behind organic certification, they were not aware of the varying levels of certification and the requirements for each level. Since these Harvard students, a group which tends to have high engagement on socioeconomic and environmental issues, failed to recognize these certifications, it could be inferred that American consumers are unlikely to recognize them as well. For the organizations who provide these certifications, this lack of recognition should be concerning. Certified products may not be appropriately valued by consumers because the certifications mean little to the average person purchasing a chocolate bar or other certified products.

Flavor Ratings

Taster

Hershey’s Lake Champlain Taza Ghirardelli Lindt Dick Taylor

A

9 4 6 7 3 1

B

3 8 9 5 1 10

C

8 8 6 7 8

7

D 6 8 7 5 6

8

E 7 9 6 9 6

6

Average 6.6 7.4 6.8 6.6 4.8

6.4

Certified?

No Yes Yes No No

Yes*

This table shows the tasters’ reviews of the chocolate’s taste on a scale of 1-10.

Quality Ratings

Taster

Hershey’s Lake Champlain Taza Ghirardelli Lindt Dick Taylor

A

3 4 8 7 3 1

B

1 7 9 6 2 10
C 8 8 6 7 7

7

D 6 8 8 5 6

9

E 5 9 7 8 6

8

Average 4.6 7.2 7.6 6.6 4.8

7

Certified?

No Yes Yes No No

Yes*

This table shows the tasters’ estimates of the chocolate’s quality on a scale of 1-10.

The above tables display the participant’s responses to the various chocolate samples in terms of flavor and quality. The row labeled “Certified?” identifies whether the sample is certified with any of the three certifications discussed in this paper. In the flavor ratings, the certified chocolate performed well with Lake Champlain and Taza having the highest average response. Dick Taylor was below Hershey’s and Ghirardelli but was not far behind. Lindt was easily the least popular among the group. In the quality ratings, the gap between certified and non-certified chocolate was clear. Taza, Lake Champlain, and Dick Taylor were rated as the three highest quality chocolates on average. Ghirardelli’s average was slightly lower than this group, but the other two non-certified chocolates received much worse scores. While this sample of tasters and chocolate bars is too small to claim that the relationship between certification and quality is statistically significant, the selection of the certified bars as the best tasting and highest quality seems to indicate that these companies do in fact produce a higher quality product. This result could be explained by these companies’ relatively small supply as they tend to be craft chocolate makers while the non-certified companies produce on a much larger scale. This smaller production could be viewed as a confounding variable in my study. Without further study and a significant budget increase, it would be quite difficult to determine whether the smaller production or the certifications are the cause of the higher quality. Regardless of which aspect of these producers leads to their apparent higher quality, the selection of the certified products as the highest quality in this study seems to indicate that there is at least a correlation between quality and certification. In the table below, it is shown that the participants in the study were able to guess almost perfectly which chocolate bars were certified and which were not. Tasters A and C incorrectly guessed that Ghirardelli was certified, but all other answers in the study were correct. Since Ghirardelli had a significantly higher quality rating than the other non-certified chocolates, these incorrect guesses suggest that the participants perceived an association between quality and certification. The participants all felt that they could identify the certified bars based on apparent quality, further confirming this hypothesis.

Do you think it is certified?

Taster

Hershey’s Lake Champlain Taza Ghirardelli Lindt Dick Taylor

A

No Yes Yes Yes No Yes

B

No Yes Yes No No Yes
C No Yes Yes Yes No

Yes

D No Yes Yes No No

Yes

E No Yes Yes No No

Yes

Certified? No Yes Yes No No

Yes*

Participants’ guesses as to which bars were certified.

While the tasters’ failure to recognize the certifying bodies speaks to a lack of consumer education, the ability of participants to identify certified chocolates with near perfect accuracy signals that concerns about quality assurance from these certifying bodies may be unwarranted. The apparently discernable higher quality of certified chocolates may indicate that companies concerned with their business practices tend to produce better products. Despite this indication, the responses to the question of how large a premium should be on certified products fell significantly short of capturing the true price differences in the samples provided. On average, participants were willing to pay a 16% premium for certified chocolate. Based on prices for the certified chocolate and non-certified chocolate, the premium for these certified chocolates was approximately 249%. In other words the certified chocolate was approximately 3.5 times as expensive as the non-certified chocolate. With such disparity between actual pricing and the participants’ willingness to pay, the certified chocolate seems to be too expensive for the consumers in my study. Furthermore, only a small portion of this high premium reaches the farmers growing the cacao anyway (Sylla, 233). In conclusion, despite providing a higher quality product, these chocolate makers may not achieve their objectives in addressing issues in production due to high pricing, poor distribution of the price premium, and lack of consumer recognition. While these certifications are a step toward improving the chocolate industry, further efforts are necessary to fully address the poor conditions on cacao farms.

 

Works Cited

Fair Trade USA. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

Guthman, Julie. “Fast Food/Organic Food Reflexive Tastes and the Making of “Yuppie Chow”.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Martin, Carla. “Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization/globalization.” Cambridge, MA. 05 Apr. 2017. Lecture.

Nolan, Markham, Dusan Sekulovic, and Sara Rao. “The Fair Trade Shell Game.” Vocativ. Vocativ, 16 Apr. 2014. Web. 03 May 2017.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New, 2008. Print.

“Organic Regulations.” Organic Regulations | Agricultural Marketing Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba. The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Trans. David Cleiment Leye. London: Pluto, 2014. Print.

“Taza Direct Trade.” Taza Chocolate. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

 

Photo Sources

Several photos in the essay are personal photos taken by me. These are labeled as such in the captions.

Côte d’Ivoire: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cote_d_Ivoire_in_Africa.svg

Fair Trade Logo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FairTrade-Logo.svg

USDA Organic Logo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USDA_organic_seal.svg