Word Count: 2372
The Chocolate Metamorphosis
Chocolate is an exceptionally human product. When one observes a cacao pod next to a bar of chocolate, it turns strikingly clear that the contents of a cacao pod must have undergone significant transformations before taking the shape and taste of a chocolate bar. And all of these transformations are inherently at the mercy of human decisions. As a matter of fact,“during nine tenths of its long history, chocolate was drunk, not eaten,” (Coe and Coe, 12). But, humans eventually metamorphosed chocolate back into a solid. To gain any insight on the present state of the chocolate industry, it is therefore essential to focus on the engagement between humans and chocolate. Hence, interviewing a Brazilian woman was an ideal, taken opportunity to better understand a 21st-century individual’s relationship with chocolate, the role chocolate plays on the individual’s life, and how chocolate’s significance may or may not have changed over time. Among other important themes, the interview leads to a two-faced thesis that the qualitative aspects of chocolate and its production are more dependent than ever on the desires of the consumers (the demand side of the market), and that cultural preferences and tastes for chocolate have changed.
Taking on the pseudonym “Marcela,” the subject of this interview has consumed chocolate all her life. As a child, Marcela had a preference for sweet, chocolaty treats. Today, Marcela consumes only dark chocolate, usually the 70% Lindt chocolate bar. Transitioning from sweet, cheaper chocolates to darker, more expensive chocolates, Marcela said she developed a more refined taste as she got older. But, while her tastes for chocolate changed over time, she thinks she remained hooked to chocolate mostly because of the addictive caffeine and sugar it contains. Discussing the contents of chocolates, Marcela actually was aware of the presence of flavonoids, which she thought to be “good for the heart.” Cacao contains hundreds of compounds, one of which is the antioxidant flavonoid compound, quercetin, “known to have not only antioxidant but also anti-inflammatory activity,” (Coe and Coe, 31). Since the Olmec civilization, cacao has indeed been associated with medical benefits, but also it has served as a sacred symbol, supposed aphrodisiac, source of energy and strength, unit of currency, and congregational drink. Today, though not all the potential benefits from the complex chemical structure of cacao are understood, at least dark chocolate can be recommended as a healthier alternative to sweeter, milky chocolates. Marcela revealed that the primary reason why she stopped eating sweet, milk-containing chocolate was because she took a conscious decision to regulate her sugar and fat intake.
Interestingly, Marcela drew a parallel between her consumption of chocolate and coffee: Both contain caffeine, and she does not go a day without either of them. Moreover, one should add that not only do chocolate and coffee contain caffeine in common, but they also each contain one more alkaloid (methylxanthine), theobromine and trigonelline, respectively. Marcela came to the conclusion that a piece of dark chocolate and a cup of coffee are like substitute goods for her: hence, in a kind of tradeoff between chocolate and coffee, she notices that she consumes more of one when she reduces the consumption of the other, and vice-versa. This characteristic of the demand side could have significant implications for the supply side of the markets of chocolate and coffee.
If coffee and dark chocolate were indeed substitute goods, and consumers behaved like Marcela, in theory the cross-price elasticity of demand should always be positive (Hayes). Since chocolate’s caffeine is addictive, people tend to be less sensitive to changes in its price. But, if coffee is a kind of substitute for chocolate, the demand for chocolate could perhaps be less inelastic than previously thought. So, ceteris paribus, if for instance dark chocolate’s price were to increase, some of the consumers could consume more coffee instead, and the relative strength of this substitution could impact the profitability and survival of the chocolate business. Unfortunately, cacao trees are pickier than humans when it comes to survival in the environment they live in, and cacao trees are very susceptible to diseases, too.
With climate change, and the potential variation of temperatures and humidity away from the desirable conditions for cacao to prosper, cacao producers may gradually have to transition away from cacao and into other crop plantations. Interestingly, some of this transition away from cacao in some regions may be partially offset by flexible businesses like Mayorga Organics. One of their food scientists, Melanie, mentioned in a lecture to college students in Massachusetts that Mayorga Organics is transitioning from coffee production to cacao production due to global warming. Meanwhile, large chocolate companies are investing in genetic modification as an alternative: In September 2018, “the 35 billion dollar corporation [Mars] pledged $1 billion as part of a plan to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by 60 percent or more by 2050,” (Vandette, Kate). Plus, Mars and UC Berkeley are collaborating in the exploration of gene editing by using CRISPR technology, as supported by an account in the World Economic Forum, (Brodwin, Erin).
Consumers today are surprisingly more educated about supply chain issues than they used to be. But how much do consumers know about the factors of production involved in the chocolate business, and how much do they care? During a significant period in history, both crops of cacao and coffee were dependent on human enslavement as a source of labor. Having visited cacao farms in Brazil before, Marcela knew that today the initial stages in the production process are still very manual, with no machinery; in big chocolate businesses the next parts are more industrialized. She remembered the strong smell she scented when walking in the shade of seemingly randomly-sorted cacao trees, and the humid tropical weather which makes her skin sticky. Today, in the typical production process of chocolate from bean to bar, there are several steps and technological components involved: machetes are generally used in the hand-labor-intensive harvesting of cacao pods within 20 degrees from north and 20 degrees south of the equator; extracted beans are fermented, dried, sorted and bagged, roasted, potentially Alkali-processed, winnowed, ground; pressing (in a hydraulic press) and conching happen last (Coe and Coe, 19). A chocolate bar may be complemented with additives such as milk, sugar, salt, pepper, other spices, nuts, or fruits, too.
Though Marcela might know a bit more than the average person about the process of chocolate, on an ordinary day she does not interrupt her chocolate eating to think of all the work which happens behind the scenes, before she purchases the packaged, final product at a supermarket. Even while Marcela was well-aware of the sad demise of cacao farms in Brazil affected by the witches’ broom disease, she was not aware that there are still concerns regarding illegal kinds of child labor found today in cacao farms, including some in Brazil (for example, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8H6088tpE8c and https://vimeo.com/332509945). Fortunately, Brazil has several programs for whistleblowing on child labor, and some are focused on publishing the names of those who need to be held accountable for. There are also several certifications through which companies may commit to avoid child labor. But, when it comes to chocolate production, it is a true endeavor to detect and regulate child labor in rural settings with weak infrastructure and limited access to technology, like Medicilândia in Pará, Brazil. Yet again, this is the time in history where consumers have perhaps the biggest say on supply than ever.
Millennials account for approximately one fourth of the world population, and play an increasingly significant role in the establishment of consumer trends. As a matter of fact, in the U.S., Millennials amount to the largest consumer group ever in the history of the country (Das Moumita, 76). Millennials are exerting their power through demands for more socially and environmentally sustainable processes (The Nielsen Company). Hence, moving forward, they are expected to continue having an important role in impacting the supply chain processes for chocolate production all around the world.
The targeting of the Millennial audience is already present in a very recent innovation – a “fourth” kind of chocolate. In her interview, Marcela mentioned that during Easter she read about a newly-created “Ruby Chocolate” in a section of the newspapers on palate. It is important to note that Easter is a very important in Brazil not just because the holiday has a large following population, but also because the nation as a whole adopted the custom of creating and consuming chocolate eggs during Easter. Regardless of the religious affiliations they may associate themselves with or without, Brazilians consume large quantities of chocolate during Easter. So, when Marcela set out to buy some Easter eggs, she decided to try Callebaut’s new chocolate:
“After dark, milk, and white chocolate, the ruby chocolate is the most incredible discovery of the last 80 years! // It is a new experience of flavor and color, obtained from ruby cacao almonds. With pink coloration and fruity, slightly acidic flavor, the ruby has unique characteristics which come from ingredients naturally present in cacao, without artificial coloring or flavoring. // The almonds of ruby cacao are found in diverse producing regions in the world, like Ecuador, Ivory Coast and even Brazil. // The authentic Belgian ruby chocolate of Callebaut is done with cacao cultivated in a sustainable manner, and its sales contribute with programs supporting cacao farmers and their families. // [In pink font] Give in to this experience and discover the color and flavor of ruby, the pink chocolate of Callebaut.”
This picture Marcela took provides a great opportunity to analyze the marketing strategy of the company. The first line of the propaganda markets ruby chocolate as a brand new, innovative product by placing it as “the most incredible discovery of the last 80 years.” This is probably especially attractive to Millenials, who are all about market disruptions. The choice of pink coloration is an interesting way to contrast with the tones of brown chocolate and white chocolates that consumers are used to. Perhaps it is a way to further target women, given the stereotypical association of pink with women. Plus, the possibility that this ruby chocolate is targeting women would actually make sense in the larger context of chocolate advertisements: if observed closely, many of the video advertisements for chocolates usually use the figure of a woman. In fact, the chocolate gift-giving culture overarchingly centers around men giving women chocolate – take Valentine’s day for example. So, with its pink coloring, ruby chocolate does seem to fit in this more general tendency to focus on attracting the more feminine consumers. This appeal to the status quo, or cultural recurrence, is then followed by a reference to the sources for the raw cacao materials in this chocolate bar. With strict adherence to the words used, one might be consuming ruby chocolate made with cacao from the Ivory Coast (the world’s largest cacao producer) or Ecuador, but the inclusion of Brazil as a source among these others may sway the Brazilian consumer towards thinking that ruby chocolate is actually Brazilian. That is thus a clever strategy to attract Brazilian consumers. This aspect of nationalism is also seen in the selling of the product as Belgian, which prompts the reputation of Belgium as a competent, quality chocolate producer. The next complement is again an appeal especially to Millennials: “The authentic Belgian ruby chocolate of Callebaut is done with cacao cultivated in a sustainable manner, and its sales contribute with programs supporting cacao farmers and their families.” With that, Callebaut leverages its social and environmental causes, without necessarily pinpointing exactly what these programs do, how effective they are, or what “a sustainable manner” means. The final phrase, in pink, circles back to the theme of women in chocolate media while also hinting at a sensual tension with chocolate through the imperative command, “give in.”
Regarding the actual experience Marcela had tasting the ruby chocolate, she reported that she did indeed feel a more fruity, citric taste. In her case, it turns out that she did not really enjoy that acidic feel. Taste is really something personal, as each individual consumer has his/her own particular preferences. Marcela likely would have preferred the taste of a chocolate with greater alkali (Dutch) processing, which reduces acidity and darkens the color of chocolate.
With the generous amount of time devoted by this interviewee in sharing her experiences with chocolate, two important insights stand out. First is a confirmation of the increasingly important say of consumers in the chocolate market. Second is the realization that cultural preferences and tastes for chocolate have changed over time. The adoption of cacao in different cultures, with changing preferences of taste, coupled with technological innovations meant the world could eventually reap the benefits of democratization and widespread consumption of chocolate. At the heart of the expansion of the chocolate market is the critically important increase in the social and economic power of women as consumers. Meanwhile, more sophisticated machinery and methods of processing further viabilized mass chocolate consumption and the rise of big chocolate industries.
Just as Marcela the interviewee changed her preferences from childhood to adulthood, so did the world’s consumers in a longer run. Today it is no longer common to see cacao beans used as barter currency, or to have chocolate drinks before going to war in ritual of Aztec warriors. Instead, chocolate is now more popularly consumed in a solid state, is frequently sweetened and mixed with milk, and is often purchased as a gift; the stereotypical gift-giving of chocolate is associated with a woman on the receiving end. Plus, cacao fruits themselves might be induced to change in the human led effort to genetically modify them, increase yields, improve immunity to diseases, and sustain the supply in the midst of climate change.
More than 2 centuries ago, John Phillips, founder of Phillips Exeter Academy, claimed that “[…] goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.” The truth in these words has not changed. But, the relationship between humans and chocolate certainly has, and is constantly subject to alteration. So, looking into the future, change is the one thing people can be certain about. Hopefully, change shall come for the better, under the influence of both knowledge and goodness, together.
Ashihara, Hiroshi. “Metabolism of Alkaloids in Coffee Plants.” Brazilian Journal of Plant Physiology, vol. 18, no. 1, Mar. 2006, pp. 1–8. Crossref, doi:10.1590/S1677-04202006000100001.
Brodwin, Erin. “Chocolate Could Be Extinct by 2040.” World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/chocolate-is-on-track-to-go-extinct-in-40-years/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2019.
Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
Das, Moumita. “Connecting With The Most Powerful Consumer Generation.” Promotional Products Association International, p. 11.
The Nielsen Company (US), LLC. “Green Generation: Millennials Say Sustainability Is a Shopping Priority.” Nielsen, http://www.rhizalab.org/pk/en/insights/news/2015/green-generation-millennials-say-sustainability-is-a-shopping-priority. Accessed 2 May 2019.
Hayes, Adam. “Understanding the Cross Elasticity of Demand.” Investopedia, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/cross-elasticity-demand.asp. Accessed 3 May 2019.Vandette, Kate. “Genetically Modified Cacao Could Stop Chocolate from Running Out.” Earth.Com, 3 Jan. 2018, https://www.earth.com/news/genetically-modified-cacao-chocolate/.