The purpose of my chocolate tasting was to see whether the attendees could discern between the four various categories for the sourcing and materialization of chocolate as discussed in class and the readings: (1) Direct Trade, (2) Fair Trade, (3) Organic, and (4) Industrialized. Because much of Chocolate class was about the social, anthropological, and economic impacts of and differences between each of these chocolate types, I thought this would be an excellent theme to my tasting that brings historical, socioeconomic, and taste-related views.
Figure 1. The fancy invitations I used to invite 7 participants to my tasting.
Figure 2. The participants of my chocolate tasting.
Types of Chocolate in the Tasting
(1) Direct Trade There are four general types of chocolate (based on its production processes) that we have learned in Chocolate class. The first is Direct Trade, also known as bean-to-bar chocolate, as these companies have control of its manufacturing process from growing and harvesting of the cacao bean all the way to its packaging and selling into a bar. Direct Trade chocolate is usually a chocolate company that directly deals with farmers. There’s a bit of variation in its manufacturing processes, but this leaves more room for negotiation from the different chocolate companies. Direct Trade companies may place environmental and labor factors into consideration, but not to as far of an extent as other chocolate types such as Fair Trade. In Direct Trade, there is less regulation because it is assumed that there is maximum control between the cacao harvesters, manufacturers, and packagers of the chocolate product. However, the very direct control of these Direct Trade chocolate companies costs a high premium, making their products quite expensive. Because of the rarity of a chocolate company having complete control of an entire chocolate farm, which is usually located outside of the U.S., solely for their company, the quantity of Direct Trade producers which exists is very low.
(2) Fair Trade The second category of chocolates presented was the Fair Trade chocolate type. These mass-produced confections are intended to guarantee a consistent smell and taste, achieved through rigorous oversight and a careful blending of cacao. According to Michael D’Antonio of Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, using liquid condensed milk instead of the powdered milk that the Swiss favored, Schmalbach’s mixture was easier to move through various processes: “…it could be pumped, channeled, and poured — and it required less time for smoothing and grinding. Hershey would be able to make milk chocolate faster, and therefore cheaper, than the Europeans” (D’Antonio 2006: 108). With techniques like these that were melded again and again by Hershey a century ago, efficiency of methods for the mass-production and -distribution of chocolate was possible. However, these efficient industrialized methods definitely compromise the ethics of labor, environmentalism, and health-focuses of these chocolates.
(3) Organic The third type of chocolate that is explored in this tasting is Organic chocolate. Organic chocolates place an emphasis on health and the environment. They do not use pesticides, and because it places such a large, conscious emphasis on these issues, there is a loss of yield that occurs in terms of its production and consumption. These chocolate products also tend to be extremely expensive, for there is usually a rearrangement premium placed on their price tag. Additionally, although organic chocolate products focus on health-related and environmental issues, there is no standard for the laborers of its production. Organic chocolate products must also all undergo certification, and usually the bars themselves are sold in small proportions.
(4) Industrialized The final category of chocolates which were presented during the tasting was Industrialized chocolate. Fair Trade chocolates emphasize the moral ethics of the chocolate production. They prioritize producing ethical, labor-regulated goods, and for this reason they also weigh between ingredient and product. These products also require a certification by one or more of the various Fair Trade certification companies. These groups usually require a type of price threshold, which makes this type of chocolate a little bit more expensive. Fair Trade chocolates also take the environment into account, although oftentimes not as much as Organic chocolates do. Fair Trade chocolates also focus on community development.
Figure 3. The advertising and packaging used for each of the four chocolates used in my tasting.
(1) Direct Trade:
Taza Chocolate, Seriously Dark, 87% Cacao, Organic Dark Chocolate
Observations of Packaging:
Easy-to-read font that pops out
(2) Fair Trade:
Seattle Chocolate, Pike Place Espresso, Dark Chocolate Truffle Bar with Decaf Espresso
Observations of Packaging:
“Rainy coffeehouse hipster”
Cloudy color scheme (not as bright)
Lake Champlain Chocolates, Cacao Nibs & Dark Chocolate, 80% Cocoa
Observations of Packaging:
“Typical coffee colors”
Compromise between adult- and kid-themed packaging (could theoretically work for either audience)
Cadbury, Royal Dark, Dark Chocolate
Observations of Packaging:
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
“Here There Will Be No Unhappiness.” Hershey Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, by Michael D D’Antonio, Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 106–126.
Chocolate, today, is one of the most beloved treats in the world with an estimated 7.7 million tons of chocolate to be consumed in 2018/2019 alone (“Consumption of Chocolate Worldwide,” Statista). However, even with such interest and demand for chocolate, the average consumer does not necessarily have any strong understanding around chocolate—from what makes certain chocolate better quality to what is a fair price for chocolate. In order to gauge a deeper understanding of what drives chocolate decisions and views, I decided to conduct a small study in Harvard Square with blind taste tests in order to get to the root of how the average consumer with no prior educational or personal experience with the chocolate industry rates and evaluates chocolate. By looking at how consumers blindly view chocolate bars and how they view chocolate packaging it will become clearer that brand stereotypes, the exploitation of certifications and labels, and the use of distinct flavors and fillings all lead the average consumer to falsely attach a certain quality or price to chocolates. It can also be argued that feeding on the surface level understandings of the average consumers could be a fruitful strategy for chocolate companies when trying to grow their brand, customer loyalty, and profitability.
Before diving into the findings of this blind chocolate taste test, it is important to set up what exactly happened during the taste test. I conducted a study involving ten people around Harvard Square who each sampled twelve unique, distinct chocolates. In my study I bought four different chocolate bars of varying flavors, price points, and qualities from three stores near Harvard Square—CVS, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods. Next, I had each of the ten willing participants sample a square from each bar without knowing anything about the bars, including not seeing the packaging, and then have them detail out the flavors, texture, and quality as well as guess as to where I purchased the bar between the three stores available and how much the chocolate was worth per ounce. After detailing out the experience around eating each piece, then I would show the participants the packaging that the bar came in and have them describe the packaging as well as give them an opportunity to update their guesses on where I purchased the bar as well as the price per ounce. Finally, after this part was completed, I would then reveal where I actually purchased the bar and what the price per ounce was for the respective chocolate bar, taking note of any surprised reactions to my reveal. A list of all chocolate bars used as well as the stores they were bought at and the price per ounce for each bar are listed at the end of this blog post.
Stereotypes Around Big Chocolate Brands
and Store Brands
A consistent finding throughout the process of tasting all the chocolates was that when there was a bar that had a logo pressed into the piece then that logo held a large swaying power over what the perceived quality and price of the bar was. For example, one of the chocolates sampled was a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar which has the infamous “HERSHEY’S” pressed into each bite. When the volunteers went to sample this bar and saw the logo, the reactions were immediate with people shouting that they already knew this bar and knew it would be very low quality and cheap. People guessed on average that the Hershey’s bar would value at around $0.40/ounce which—based on all the bars surveyed—would be considered incredibly cheap and lower than the $0.59/ounce it actually costs. Surprisingly, though, for such a considerably low-end, mass-produced chocolate bar, most of the participants genuinely loved the taste and “tongue-melting” quality of the texture. Overwhelmingly, the response was favorable because the bar was consistent with their expectations and past experiences. This same response followed with other well-known chocolate bars, including Cadbury and Dove. The fact that these brands are well known and branded so strongly led most participants to associate the chocolate with a lower price point and perceived lower quality, but still the flavor was desired and left people wanting more.
This response to the mass-produced chocolate bars in this study is not necessarily surprising given chocolate’s rich history. With Van Houten’s invention in 1828 “on a process for the manufacturing of a new kind of powdered chocolate with a very low-fat content,” he gave birth to the ability to bring chocolate to the masses in a cheap, low quality, fast production form (Coe and Coe, 234). The importance of this chocolate history is that for almost two centuries cheap, mass-produced chocolate has been growing in popularity and has become a common staple in most American’s lives, which is directly correlated with why the average consumer has such a positive association and appreciation for the distinct tastes of such bars. However, given the history, the average consumer also assumes that these bars are very cheap because their brands are specifically generic enough to present an affordable front. Also, interestingly, because these large chocolate companies are linked with affordability and lower quality, they are viewed to be sold at cheaper, more generic locations too. For example, for each of the bars tested that are more mass-produced (Hershey’s, Cadbury, and Dove) the overwhelming responses from taste testers was that these bars were purchased at CVS because similarly that store is also associated with more affordable products when compared to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. The stereotype of the chocolate does not end at the bite of the bar but instead carries itself through the branding of any logo in the chocolate, the packaging for the bars, and even the stores that sell the chocolate.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the chocolates
tested that instead had unique designs in the chocolate pieces were more likely
than not to be viewed as being purchased at Whole Foods because that store
seems to carry the stereotype (at least amongst the participants) to be pricier
and more connected to unique, well designed products and produce. In the scope
of this taste test, the participants on average would guess that high quality,
nicer looking bars came from Whole Foods, any decent tasting bars came from
Trader Joe’s, and all generically mass-produced bars came from CVS. It became
apparent that the value the average consumer attaches to the chocolate bar does
not stop at the flavor and bar’s packaging but extends to where the bar is
The branding these chocolate companies and the stores
have crafted completely impacts customers’ responses, no matter what the
reality is. For example, all participants assumed that every bar sold at Whole
Foods must be expensive, but the group was shocked to learn that one of the
bars tasted from Whole Foods—Chocolove’s Orange Peel—was essentially the same
price per ounce as Dove’s bar from CVS. These reactions are telling of the expectations
and the preconceived notions people link the stores to as well as the
Strategic Uses of Certifications and “Earthy” Messaging
Beyond stereotyping mass-produced bars and stores based on their histories and assumed values, the use of certifications and labels as well as “earthy” messages overwhelming sway the average consumer to associate higher value to the products. In this blind chocolate tasting test, participants would frequently hold strong views and preferences after tasting some of the chocolates and sometimes rank the bars as lower quality, lower price, but these same people would then completely change their view after seeing the packaging if it had labels—such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, etc.—or was announced to be organic, vegan, etc.
For example, when the participants were sampling the Endangered Species Chocolate’s Caramel Sea Salt + Dark Chocolate bar, many of the guests absolutely despised and detested the bar because they felt it was too salty and felt cheap in quality compared to some of the other bars sampled already; however, the moment they all saw the bar’s packaging, most of the participants then associated the bar to be high quality because it has certifications that claim the product is “Non GMO Project Verified” and Fairly Traded—not to mention the wrapping claims that ten percent of the net profits are used to save the wildlife. All of a sudden a bar that was unsuccessful in this test group, considered to be bought at CVS, and guessed to be worth roughly $0.70/ounce was then shifted into a luxury bar that must have been bought at Whole Foods and priced around $1.50/ounce—which would place it in an expensive bar category. This is just one example from this taste test that illuminates the importance of perception and the use of labels and how these elements can lead to false views of the product that was just tasted and disliked.
When a product does have such certifications or
labels front and center, the average consumer assumes these labels are linked
with better quality and more expensive chocolate. However, when asked to the
group of people involved if any of them knew what it means to be Rainforest
Alliance certified or to be Fairly Traded none of them felt confident to explain
what they mean but positively associate them to mean doing good. Interestingly,
though, many of these certifications that were created to benefit farmers and
create more clarity into the process have actually opened “the door to decrease transparency around trade terms”
(Leissle, 147). So instead, the average person who does not know what such labels
represent is blindly trusting that having any
label means better quality. Ironically, though, even some of the mass-produced
bars have labels too—with Dove claiming to be Rainforest Alliance certified and
Hershey’s claiming to use farm fresh milk—yet consumers do not necessarily associate
these well-known brands to be high quality, suggesting that stereotypes around
brands supersede stereotypes around certifications and labels.
Similarly, bars that announced on their packaging that they were organic, no soy, vegan, etc. had a comparably positive leap in the perceptions of this test group. For example, Hu’s Cashew Butter + Pure Vanilla Bean Dark Chocolate bar (one of the overall favorites from the taste test) left the participants overly impressed after witnessing the packaging of the chocolate. This bar when blindly tasted was widely enjoyed by the participants, for they seemed to enjoy the nice complexity of flavors and unique inner filling that stood out from other bars sampled; however, even though the group already considered this bar to be valuable and high quality, there was a general lift in appreciation and value after reading the packaging: “organic house-ground cacao, vegan, paleo, no palm oil, no refined sugar, no cane sugar, no sugar alcohols, no dairy, no emulsifiers, no soy lecithin, no vanilla extract.” The seemingly never-ending list of characterizations for the bar seemed to check off boxes the participants did not even know were there—almost setting a new standard for what should be expected of chocolate bars and food in general. With each new “no” read by the participants on the package it seemed to raise the price and quality slightly, even though the consumer could not taste the fact that these ingredients were missing—they had to be told on the wrapping. While, yes, creating a bar that checks off so many different items is most likely expensive and higher quality than a mass-produced bar, the use of presenting these feats on the packaging greatly resulted in the average consumer in this taste test increasing their price and standards—maybe falsely because none of the items presented on the packaging were things the consumers could taste or rather not taste.
Companies that take use of certifications, labels, and “earthy” messages seem to be trying to tap into a pathos and logos approach of swaying consumers into purchasing their products. Such identifiable items on the chocolate bars’ packaging more times than not successfully added more value and clout to the bars overall, whether or not the bar was actually enjoyed by the participants—suggesting that the addition of these elements might be a strong business model for producers in order to gain appreciation and profitability.
Flavors, Fillings, and Cacao
Another major finding and revelation that became prevalent during this conducted chocolate taste test was that bars that used complex flavors—such as fruits, nuts, espresso—, forms of fillings within bars, or higher percentages of cacao contents all left participants at large attributing higher qualities and higher price points to the chocolate bars whether or not they liked the bars.
With flavors, it is not that bars without any non-chocolate flavors are low-valued, but there seemed to be a common, underlying belief in this taste test that the addition of flavors must mean that the bar was more expensive than maybe expected. Interestingly, the use of flavors did not necessarily alter whether participants considered the bars to be higher quality but only dictated the pricing per ounce category. For example, Madécasse’s Sea Salt & Nibs Dark Chocolate was generally appreciated amongst guests but almost everyone was held up by the fact that there seemed to be some type of nut (which was actually nibs) in the chocolate. Even before seeing the packaging for the chocolate bar, participants already were guessing this bar was worth roughly $1.50/ounce, with many of the reasonings being the use of some type of nut that the guests assumed would have cost more.
Additionally, the participants added on a higher price per ounce for Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Coffee Chocolate Bar because of the velvety, rich inner filling filled with easily distinguishable espresso. The sharp, strong use of espresso as a filling left the participants excited by the fact that there was a filling and immediate reactions that espresso is expensive at coffee shops so it must be expensive in chocolate bars. Similarly, this notion led many of the people to also assume the bar was purchased at Whole Foods because of the strong general consensus that unique flavors must be only sold at high-end stores like Whole Foods. Ironically, history shows that the addition of fillings with different nuts or flavors was actually a great way to lower the cost of manufacturing the chocolate. This can best be seen with the Milky Way bar that had “malt-flavored nougat” as the main ingredient, allowing for the candy to be “much bigger, tasted just as chocolatey, but cost much less to produce” (Brenner, 54-55). Therefore, even though the consumer might associate fillings with higher price, they might be actually helping attribute to lower costs for the chocolate.
Finally, there was also a strong positive correlation that suggested that as the cacao contents raised in percentage so did the value and quality—claiming the product was more “natural” and “raw.” This became clear with the chocolate bar that had the highest cacao contents of any of the bars, sitting at 85% cacao. Valrhona’s Le Noir Extra Amer 85% Cacao from Trader Joe’s was considered by most in this taste test to be too dark and bitter in flavor, yet there was a unanimous agreeance that this bar must be a luxury bar sold at Whole Foods because of its clearly bitter taste that many guests assumed also meant higher cacao percentages. While they were correct in guessing this bar had high cacao percentages, the group was incorrect in estimating a price per ounce because the bar was $0.85/ounce—not the $2.00/ounce the participants were averaging in guesses.
In all three situations—whether it be non-chocolate flavors, fillings, or cacao percentage—the participants found themselves assuming that the addition of these contents must yield a higher price, yet many were very surprised to find that their assumption did not always turn out to be true. Studies have shown that people cannot actually taste any of these flavors, fillings, or cacao contents by just placing the chocolate on their tongue; instead, it is now assumed that there is “no real flavor” until one smells and sees the chocolate too (Coe and Coe, 261). Chocolate producers are taking advantage of these “neurogastronomical” researches in order to sway consumers. These additional elements in a bar, therefore, successfully fooled the average consumer in this taste test into attributing higher price and assumed value for the product, falsely swaying opinions on chocolates whether or not they were actually liked for their tastes.
What is the Take Away?
While there were a lot of great findings from the taste test that was conducted with ten people around Harvard Square with no extensive experience in the chocolate industry, this study is by no means a conclusive evaluation of how the average consumer values and experiences chocolate. However, this taste test is a chance to better evaluate how some consumers make decisions based on taste, packaging, and stereotypes.
At the end of the day, average consumers are just that, the average majority of people indulging in the chocolate bars being sold globally, and there are many falsifications that lead and sway people into attributing higher or lower quality and price points to bars—from the use of stereotypes, certifications and messaging, and flavors and contents. One general consensus was that no one could properly guess the price for any of the chocolate bars, showing that chocolate producers can maybe take advantage (and already do) of the fact that the average consumer does not have a strong background in what price different qualities of chocolate should be or is fair. The use of stereotypes, labels, and flavors all have a strong ability to falsely lead the average consumer away from the actual value of the product and instead make them willing to spend far more or far less for a product than it is actually worth.
Companies might be doing these things and playing to
the fact that the average consumer does not know much because it allows for
companies to grow in customer loyalty as well as dictate the pricing for each
bar and grow their profits and popularity. Consumers can try to take some of
the learning responsibility and conduct their own taste tests to find what
types of chocolates they actually enjoy, first, then consider what the price
point in reality is because often times our tasting experience or package
viewing experience filter how we price and value chocolate.
Chocolates used in this Blind Taste Test
Silky Smooth Dove:
Dark Chocolate ($0.90/ounce)
Species Chocolate: Caramel Sea Salt + Dark Chocolate (60% Cocoa) ($1.10/ounce)
Cambridge, Massachusetts presents consumers with a number of different retailers from whom to buy chocolate. And within and across these retailers, consumers are presented with a number of different options of flavors and brands of chocolate. I visited four stores in the Cambridge area that sell chocolate: CVS, Cardullos, Cambridge Naturals, and Formaggio Kitchen. After my visit to each of these stores, as well as spending time on each one’s respective website, I noticed an interesting dynamic surrounding the implied social class of each expected consumer base created through the selection of chocolate within each store. Helping to situate these findings are a number of academic sources that aided my discovery of this dynamic. By looking at the varying role of chocolate across markets, as evidenced by price and quantity, packaging and marketing, and surrounding retail items, one is able to use chocolate to determine the underlying social dynamics that connect contemporary ideas of nutrition and consumer class.
Price and Quantity
The price of food has an important impact on the quantity and quality of consumption for the global population. As Robert Albritton points out in his book “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry”, price and quantity inextricably link nutrition and class. One quarter of the population suffers from a price point on food that is too high and are malnourished as a result of insufficient quantity (Albritton 342). A second quarter suffers at the hands of the price point in relation to quantity being too low, driving up their consumption and causing high levels of obesity (342). While the first example seems intuitive, the second deserves more exploration.
seems counterintuitive that a corporation, created to profit from its sold
goods, would provide a surplus of food to consumers at a low price. Why would
these corporations not either reduce the amount of food they sell or raise
prices? Why would consumers pay for more food than they need, and not spend the
equivalent amount of money on appropriate portion sizes? The answer to the
first question is that these corporations, often denoted as fast food
companies, compete with each other for business, so it is in their interest to
provide consumers with the most food at the lowest price, so as to win
business. This works because of the incredibly low costs of production of this
kind of food (344). The profit margin of cheap food is barely lowered by the
addition of one more patty on a burger or a few more chicken nuggets in a meal.
Therefore, the competition among fast food corporations results in lower prices
and larger quantities of food, in a way that is not present in other types of
restaurants that have the higher costs of production associated with a higher
(and often times healthier) quality of food. As for consumers, the psychology
of taste reveals that this type of food leads to over consumption as a result
of its better taste and lack of the kinds of nutrients needed for a person to
feel full (Benton 211). Lower classes that may be priced out of consistently
eating healthy must turn to alternatives that are not only unhealthy but
psychologically addicting. This means income not only affects material
possessions, but health as well, which is much more concerning. While the
example used above was fast food restaurants, a similar problem is visible
today in the industry of chocolate consumerism.
An important example is the comparison of the chocolate selections in two stores in the Cambridge area, CVS and Cardullos. When comparing the average prices of similar quantities (as measured in ounces) of chocolate between the two stores, CVS appears to average .58 cents per ounce, while Cardullo averages .75 cents per ounce. Additionally, while the costs of CVS bars were lower on average, the average number of calories from each CVS bar was higher than Cardullos’ bars, with the majority of the caloric difference coming from a higher sugar content in CVS chocolate. While these are rough estimates I calculated by hand, the significant difference between them, along with what we know about the price and quantity relationship for cheap goods, is in line with what is to be expected from a store like CVS, known for its everyday items, and Cardullos, which prides itself on its “Gourmet international and local chocolates” suitable for the “chocolate connoisseurs” of Cambridge (Cardullos Web).
A second example of nutrition and class and how its relationship is demonstrated through the economic factors of price and quantity is found in chocolate’s role as a gift. Cambridge Naturals, a health and wellness store just outside of Porter Square, displays chocolate in a manner that provides evidence of the problematics of this relationship. The store sells chocolate mostly in small quantities meant for individual consumption. The chocolate is marketed alongside self-care products such as cbd oils, moisturizers and lotions.
Of note though, is the larger quantities of chocolate, which come packaged in a mock gift wrap, as if to say that while the buyer of the gift would never purchase such a quantity of chocolate for himself or herself, he or she would if it were to be given as a gift. It shows the consumers personal commitment to health, while also demonstrating their ability to pay more for a larger quantity of chocolate that will be given as a gift. The individual chocolate only exists in unornamented wrap, while the larger exists, with few exceptions, in decorative packaging. From this, the store seems to imply negative social connotations around both the giving of a single bar of chocolate as a gift as well as the purchase of a large quantity of chocolate for oneself. One could also make the argument that Cambridge Naturals is trying to balance the image of health it hopes to be associated with, with the higher profit margins that come from selling a larger amount of chocolate at a more expensive price. The store offers the consumer the ability to purchase the larger box of chocolate under the pretense that it is a gift, as the consumer would be remiss to indulge in such a quantity of chocolate by himself or herself.
Marketing and Packaging
This point segues nicely into what the packaging and marketing of chocolate say about the connection between class and nutrition. As discussed by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens in their blog “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies,” many corporations, especially those selling goods with potentially detrimental effects to consumes’ health, have an incentive to put profits above human well-being. The most effective way they have done this in the past is through targeted marketing campaigns that address the controversial aspects of their business. The Sugar Association, which faced potential regulation from the FDA in the 1960s, spent millions on convoluting the idea that sugar was unhealthy. The crux of their argument was that “there was no conclusive evidence” sugar had negative effects to a person’s health (Taubes par. 3). Of course, no study is infallible, and the exercise of picking independent details off as inaccurate in order to invalidate an entire study feels like a reprehensible strategy. The Sugar Association shifted the burden of proof off of themselves and onto other agents, meaning they did not have to prove sugar was healthy, rather, until it was proved definitively by these outside agents that it was categorically unhealthy, no judgment could be made (par. 8).
While Taubes and Couzens focused on how marketing fought against the idea their products were not nutritious, Emma Robertson’s analysis of marketing in “Chocolate Women and Empires” shows how companies would reinforce social stereotypes through their ads depicting idealized consumption. There has been a long standing class separation between industrialized chocolate as that of the working class and craft as that of the sophisticated intellectuals (Robertson 3). Robertson focuses on the example of Rowntree’s attempt to associate their various chocolates with different social classes based on price and quality. For example, Rowntree depicted a sophisticated woman consuming one of their more expensive bars of chocolate (26). This not only targeted people within a certain class, but also those of a specific gender. Rowntree attempted to idealize all the classes in their activities. By doing so, they maintained an appeal to all markets across price points. Those in the lower class saw an idealized version of themselves eating a Rowntree chocolate bar. This type of advertising would have been more realistic, and therefore more appealing, than if they saw a wealthy person consuming chocolate. The message of Rowntree was not that if a person ate this chocolate they would elevate their social status, this would have been difficult to be convincing for obvious reasons. Instead the message was that if one eats this chocolate they become a better version of themselves. When the only difference between a person and the idealized version of that person was a bar of chocolate, that idealized version became more attainable. With this type of marketing, Rowntree bucketed people by social class and reinforced social inequity through expectations of the type of chocolate that person was consuming.
Coupled with Taubus’s and Couzens’s argument on nutrition, Emma Robertson’s analysis of marketing in “Chocolate Women and Empires” evidences how advertisers have pushed narratives in nutrition and class for the benefit of their own sales. These narratives have continued into contemporary society. Returning to the four chocolate stores, there are again two prime examples that can be explored. The first compares the packaging and marketing of CVS products with that of Formaggio Kitchen. These two stores share the largest discrepancy in price point of the four, which makes for a good comparison around how each advertises and packages their respective chocolates. CVS sections all of their chocolate under one category, arranged by increasing quantities, not by brands. In doing so they focus more on quantity than quality. The below image shows the increase sizes in quantity. The movement from right to left in the store is reflected in the below image moving top to bottom, with the right corresponding to top and far left corresponding to the bottom.
Consumers are expected to search by consumption and price. Formaggio Kitchen on the other hand, arranges their chocolates by brand, reflecting a consumer base that knows the kind of chocolate they want to purchase, with the quantity being of secondary consideration. CVS retails producers who package their chocolate in wrappers with larger amounts being encased by plastic bags. Formaggio Kitchen also uses wrappers for individual bars, but a comparison of the touch of the wrappers of those bars retailed by Formaggio Kitchen and those retailed by CVS exhibit’s a noticeable different in quality of wrapping. Many of the chocolates in Formaggio Kitchen contain thicker, smoother wrappers than those in CVS. While small, it is noticeable and enhances the experience of the consumer as he thumbs through the potential chocolate for purchase. Finally, nearly all of CVS advertises the price of their chocolate as being on sale, be it buy one–get one free, or a markdown from the original price. Formaggio Kitchen,on the other hand, is not as concerned with letting their consumer know the price, subtly displaying it below the bar. The differences in presentation of chocolate in these retail stores affirms who each store is trying to market to. Consumers who buy their chocolate at CVS are expected to be concerned with how much they want, and where they can get the best deal. Formaggio Kitchen consumers need to come in with more knowledge of the chocolates they are presented with, as traditional name brands are absent from the selection. Consumers are also expected to be less concerned with the price, a quality of those with higher incomes. The contrast between these two retail stores highlights contemporary class distinctions that markets, such as chocolate, attempt to capitalize on.
A second comparison is the online presence of these chocolate companies. Most notably is the prevalence of Cambridge Naturals Instagram page.
It is full of pictures of healthy, largely white, millennials holding Cambridge Natural products. The Instagram feed is linked at the bottom of every page one could visit within the Cambridge Naturals website, often with their most recent posts displayed. For context, all three other stores in this comparison do have Instagram’s, but the link is confined to the home page and only appears as a small icon at the bottom. And each Instagram appears to cater to a consumer base that is much more diverse than the one Cambridge Naturals hopes to attract. Through a handful of posts, Cambridge Naturals reinforces stereotypes that those who enjoy its craft chocolates are wealthy, white, healthy millennials. This depiction of the ideal consumer is dangerous. It shows a disregard for thoughtful advertising that can appeal to a consumer base without excluding a social class or body type. Again through these examples, as situated by scholarly articles, the link between nutrition and class becomes increasingly problematized through the chocolate industry.
Surrounding Retail Items
Finally, the last example I would like to present here is the importance of the experience for consumers, and the role it plays in connecting nutrition and class. Julie Guthman provides a good example of this with the consumption of organic salad mix by the noveau riche of San Francisco in her book, “Fast food/organic food: reflexive tastes and the making of ‘yuppie chow.’” Organic salad was first introduced as an organic food in restaurants that provided its consumers with the experience of dining with other sophisticated members of society who could also appreciate the importance of organic food (Guthman 503). The markups in restaurants made the salad mix inaccessible to the common people, and the idea of organic food as healthy caused body weight to be used as a measure of separation between social classes. Peter McNeil and Giorgio Riello also write about the importance of consumer experience and the role it played for members of various classes in “Luxury a Rich History.” Those who can afford to do so, have shifted their preferences away from brands as a measure of luxury and focused more on achieving the extraordinary through paid experience (McNeil 235). For retailers, the challenge is to create an environment that convinces the consumer of the value of their product. They can no longer rely on brand name and recognition, so the selection of the various kinds of products the retailer includes in the store is what creates the environment.
For CVS, their store has everyday items, ranging from school supplies and cleaning products to other snack foods. They aim to capture the everyday consumer who stops by to grab supplies in small amounts, such as laundry detergent, a snack, or shampoo. In many ways it is a better stocked, convenient store. The surrounding environment to the chocolate situates it as a low cost, everyday item that fits in with the overall consumer environment created by CVS. They hope to move product in large quantities, and their chocolate selection reflects this. The environment does its best to cater across classes by being accessible to the lowest one. Its food selection captures this approach, and as a result, explains why much of that food is not fruit or vegetables, but highly processed foods, including chocolate made by companies with an eye toward profits.
Cardullos, on the other hand, advertises a quintessential New England experience. The store contains a deli restaurant, wine selection and even “New England” goods. Their chocolate selection is meant to both benefit and enhance this environment for the consumer. Catered to those looking to experience New England, the store appears to appeal to tourists visiting Cambridge. It provides a place to get lunch, as well as purchase souvenirs in the form of wine or chocolate.
Those who can afford to travel are often in the upper echelons of society, and those who eat fresh deli food are at least somewhat health conscious, especially given the other food options they would have passed over in the square, such as Flat Patties and Felipe’s. By marketing the deli as quintessentially New England, an identity appealing to those who do not spend extended amounts of time in New England regularly, the chocolate is selected to reflect healthier and wealthier consumers. This deduction on its own may seem contrived, but given the large amount of evidence of such connection existing between nutrition and class, this assertion is well founded.
As mentioned previously, Cambridge Naturals selects products and brands that will collectively create an experience to appeal to their target demographic. Outside of chocolate, there are no other food products sold at Cambridge Naturals. The majority of the store is focused on self-care products, arranged cleanly in rows of the store. Given mainstream knowledge of chocolate is that it is generally unhealthy, seeing it in the store might seem somewhat out of place. Yet it is one of the three FCCI retailers that sells fine cacao, which minimizes additional ingredients to chocolate outside of cacao and sugar (Martin 4). As a healthier version of non-mainstream chocolate, the target consumer base of wealthier millennials can rely on the qualities of craft chocolate as an explanation for why it is marketed along health products. The variety of chocolate offered also indicates this approach has worked. Craft chocolate now comprises a significant part of the store and the brands have carved out a place among the consumerism of healthy, wealthy millennials.
Finally, the environment of Formaggio Kitchen is the most upscale. They market cheese, wine, and chocolate. The pairing of fine cheese and wine is known to be a practice engaged by the upper echelons of society. Formaggio Kitchen must feel then that their selection of chocolate would correspond to the type of luxurious environment those searching for wine and cheese would like to experience. In addition to food, Formaggio Kitchen also offers tasting classes that range from $40 to $100. Access to these classes being restricted to those with the desire and ability to pay for a class focused on learning about finer foods. The dynamics surrounding these types of classes are important, unlike cooking classes, Formaggio Kitchen does not teach you a skill but rather a knowledge. This knowledge can only be further utilized through the continual purchase of these more expensive foods one has learned about. So while the price of the class can be between $40 and $100, there are undoubtedly continued expenses to allow the student to utilize this knowledge.
This upper tier and what it says about nutrition and class are important. Unlike CVS, consumers are not purchasing chocolate based on cost, and unlike Cardullos and Cambridge Naturals, consumers are not even consuming healthier chocolate for the purposes of better nutrition. Formaggio Kitchen situates itself in a class of people that consume its product solely for the experience. Cheese, wine, and craft chocolate do not contain many of the essential calories needed for a complete meal. They are not consumed for their nutrition but rather for their taste, demonstrating how in the most elite parts of society, consumption of food may transcend nutritional value if it presents the consumer with an experience of luxury.
In conclusion, the versatility of chocolate makes it a very interesting food that is consumed across classes for a number of different reasons. As a result, an analysis of how it is retailed gives insights into the connected role class plays with nutrition. Those most worried about nutrition often seek to maximize their caloric intake with minimum price. Those seeking healthier chocolate often do so because they are able, and willing to pay more. And then those simply searching for the modern luxury of experience do so through chocolate, which has found a place alongside wine and cheese as a fine food that can provide such an experience.
Albritton, Robert. 2012. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” pp. 342-354
2004. “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.” pp. 205-218
“Cardullo’s Gift Baskets
and Fine Wines.” Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, cardullos.com/.
Guthman, Julie. 2012. “Fast food/organic food: reflexive tastes and the making of‘yuppie chow.’” pp. 496-509
and Giorgio Riello. 2015. Luxury: A Rich History. pp. 1-10, 225-293
“Sizing the craft chocolate market,” Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (blog),
Any lover of fine chocolate is familiar with the dilemma of standing in front of a craft chocolate display, especially those who are inclined to try new things and consider more than flavor in making a choice. “The choices in fine chocolate are almost as overwhelming as the possibilities” (Williams and Eber 2012, 145). So how do you decide? Will you grab the bar that appears to be making a social impact on the production end? Or the bar that promotes the conservation of wildlife? How about that new lemongrass and coconut bar, though? And then there’s the masterful, graphic, nuanced package design that is incredible and beautiful for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with chocolate. The wallpaper. The problem that I want to unpack here, if you will, is how consumer decisions are affected and obscured by package design and why it’s important in the world of craft chocolate. (In my references to consumers and the craft chocolate market, I am speaking specifically about that of North America and Europe.)
There’s no universal rule about what the consumer is looking for, so chocolate packaging is all over the board. The primary goal is, or at least should be, according to fine flavor chocolate manufacturers and chocolatiers, buying chocolate that tastes exceptionally good. But flavor is a perception, and an individual’s perception of flavor is affected by all of the senses, not just taste, as well as complex cognitive function (Shepherd 2012). For most consumers, this perception begins with sight and, thus, packaging. Visual cues have a profound effect on our perceived acceptability and expectation of a food, as well as the associations we have from learned and past experience (Delwiche 2012). The packaging is our first visual cue, in fact our first sensory cue in most cases, in making a decision on a bar of chocolate.
“If we turn back to the phenomena [of perception], they show us that the apprehension of a quality, just as that of size, is bound up with a whole perceptual context, and that the stimuli no longer furnish us with the indirect means we were seeking of isolating a layer of immediate impressions” (1962, 8). When we choose a chocolate bar based on our perception of the package, we’re not always able to isolate that ‘immediate impression’ from the ‘whole perceptual context’ of how good the bar will taste, what it represents, and how it actually impacts people and environment. So purveyors can leverage the power of that immediate impression of the package design to sell the idea and the anticipated gestalt of what lies within that layer.
This is not a new concept. Merleu-Ponty wrote that in 1962 and advertisers have long been aware of this reality, appealing to specific consumer bases in whatever way is most effective to them at that point in time. The success of the industrial and processed food market is a glaring example of this. In terms of the craft market, of which fine (or craft) chocolate is a part, it must be done for a slightly more discerning audience. It can be argued that designing for consumer appeal and marketability enhances the viability of a craft chocolate industry that can afford to purchase high-quality beans and support socially conscious business practices, but it also greatly increases the fetishism of chocolate and reinforces the “positive fantasy of the commodity” (Duncombe 2012, 360). Furthermore, the methods, circumstances, and governing bodies discerning what constitutes fine cacao are wrapped up in representational politics, historical narratives, market interests, and social tensions (Leissle 2013). The package design of fine and craft chocolate seems to exist on a spectrum of exoticism to localization, with a confounding dose of social justice and a decent measure of health claims in between.
Whole Foods Market came onto the grocery scene in the early 2000s with a remarkable new approach to retail food marketing – taking into account the burgeoning food movement that promoted local, sustainable, and socially conscious products in an increasingly mysterious food industry, they designed their stores to appeal not just to the gustatory pleasures of their consumers but also their liberal politics and, arguably, upscale aesthetics (Mack 2012). This new sensory design approach in grocery retail brought the firm great success – Whole Foods now has 456 stores in the United States, Canada, and the UK (Statista 2017). Chocolate packaging has undergone a similar re-design in the sense that the way in which it appeals to the gustatory, ethical, and aesthetic inclinations of the consumer. But ther is a distinct difference between chocolate and, say, the grains and dairy products sold at Whole Foods (though their sensory design approach has been criticized by Michael Pollan, who claims that the size and scale of the firm has pushed the small-scale, sustainable farmers they appear to support out of their the supply chain, Mack 2012).
Though local markets for craft and fine chocolate are growing, the great majority of craft and fine chocolate is consumed far from the places where it is produced and that production has a controversial history, which obscures consumer understanding of the impact of their choices on the production end of the value chain. But just like organic and non-GMO labels affect consumer perception of truly local products, there is a vast crop of certifications and labels (including organic and non-GMO) in chocolate that draw on consumer notions of ethics, morality, and socially conscious buying practices. These certifications are pervaded by international politics, financial inaccessibility, and general misunderstanding, and often do not have the transformative effect on producers or environment that they claim. Nonetheless, the average consumer lacks the information or experience to understand the labels and, thus, they are perceived as valuable. The obscurity of certifications has motivated producers like Taza chocolate, a chocolatier based in Somerville, MA, to create their own direct trade label and the company also publishes an annual transparency report that includes purchase prices and information about producers. The readership of that report is very low as it relates to the consumption of their product, which suggests consumers don’t seek out that information beyond the package and its labels even when it is available.
The “mythology of chocolate” has been pervasive since the early days of its popularization in Europe and is evident throughout the chocolate industry, especially as it pertains to femininity and romanticism in marketing (Robertson 2009). That mythology has extended to a whole new exoticism of the industry, using imagery, language, and semiotics to market the allure of the exotic and build that “positive fantasy of the commodity” (Duncombe 2012, 360). That fantasy includes not just the romanticized provenance and culture of cacao but also an ever-growing array of flavors, many of which are far removed from the geographic and cultural origins of cacao, all of which brings up deeply embedded issues of class, race, and otherness (Martin and Sampeck 2015).
On the other hand, there is the ‘localization’ of chocolate – a response to the food movement of recent years and the subsequent, ever-growing appeal of local foods. The know-your-farmer consumer approach doesn’t hold in the chocolate market of North American and Europe because cacao is not, in fact, a local product. Instead, the ‘localization’ of chocolate, at its core a foreign product, has been achieved through packaged farmer narratives, in the growth of single origin chocolates, an emphasis on local manufacture and craftsmanship, and the notion of terroir (Leissle 2013, 23, e.g. Williams & Eber 2012, 148, Presilla 2009). All three of those abstractions of chocolate as a ‘local’ product rely on consumer perception and the successful communication of the concept by manufacturers and chocolatiers by way of package design.
Cacao’s early association with wealth – the Mesoamericans used the beans as currency and the Spanish eagerly adopted the practice by acquiring great amounts of the valuable cacao beans, most often by unjust means – carried right over to early European consumption of chocolate. Chocolate started as a luxury commodity only accessible to the rich but, despite eventually becoming available and widely consumed by the masses, the notion of ‘richness’ in chocolate persists today (Coe and Coe 2013). Whether it’s the gold foil, the font, or a box or package that is decorative in and of itself, the package design of many a fine chocolate draws consumers in with its aesthetic representations of luxury, class, and richness.
Chocolate also has been connected to notions of health since the first Mesoamerican imbibers of chocolate celebrated the its medicinal properties in treating illness and myriad ailments. The association fit nicely into the Spanish obsession with health and they eagerly adapted cacao into their own medicinal frameworks (Coe & Coe 2013). The benefits now touted by ‘functional chocolate’ advocates are different than past iterations of ‘chocolate as medicine,’ but the notion persists in the perception of chocolate’s antioxidant properties, the benefits of flavonoids for cardiac health, the positive effects on mental and emotional health, as well as the nutritional value of raw chocolate and its adherence to increasingly common dietary restrictions (Castell, Pérez-Cano, and Bisson 2013).
Makers of craft chocolate source high-quality beans with ‘fine flavor.’ They use small-scale, traditional tools and finish the bars largely by hand. So craft chocolate is expensive. “Manufacturers and chocolatiers will tell you they follow their hearts in creating their chocolate and bonbons but too many consumers follow the herd and buy into marketing and the power of packaging” (Williams and Eber 2012, 146). Those manufacturers and chocolatiers emphasize that their primary, driving goal is great flavor and they are enthusiastic about educating the consuming public about their craft and what constitutes great flavor. Makers like the Mast brothers in Brooklyn, NY, and TCHO in Berkeley, CA, have opened their doors to chocolate lovers for tours, tastings, and flavor education. While this access does help a small batch of consumers better understand the price tag on their favorite bar of craft chocolate and identify the flavor profiles they love, the focus on flavor and craft largely dismisses the socio-political implications of chocolate. And for the makers who do incorporate that narrative into their educational endeavors, what of the consumers who don’t have access to this first-hand experience and education? It’s left to the packaging. Thus, this type of education misses a great deal of the consumer market and ‘knowing’ your chocolate becomes more a matter of cultural capital than a keen understanding of the product in all its complexity.
Williams and Eber write about the wealth of information available to consumers and claim that “consumers are becoming more educated about the origins of cacao and chocolate worldwide [as they learn] how flavor varies depending on terroir, postharvest processing, and chocolate making” but this focus on flavor and ‘craft’ obscures the crucial social and local-global implications of chocolate and the effectiveness of all that information places arguably too much responsibility on the consumer for interpreting and comprehending the market to drive their choices (2012, 161). Moreover, the consumption and enjoyment of chocolate, a ‘nonessential’ product, is hedonistic. Consumers of fine chocolate are attempting to make good choices in the midst of looking for gustatory pleasure and an intoxicating flavor experience, and the perception of the package is crucial in that moment of choice.
The demand for chocolate in general isn’t likely to subside – people report craving chocolate more than any other food item and studies have found a well of explanations and dimensions for the near-universal chocolate habit (Benton 2014). Package design in chocolate is not only confounding in the obscurity of information about chocolate, but it exploits that habit. In appealing to the socially constructed aesthetic tastes of consumers, package design further obscures the reality of cacao production, deepens the gap between producer and consumer, and perpetuates a disconnect between chocolate consumerism in capitalist societies and ongoing poverty in production areas.
All too often, “’premium chocolate’ may not be any more “fine” than the paper it’s packaged in” and the controversy and confusion around certifications, origins, cacao content, and production practices has even motivated some manufacturers and chocolatiers to leave that information off the package altogether (Williams and Eber 2012, 168). Some of those packages look more like a skilled graphic designer’s canvas than the wrapper of an actual food product. Chocolate packaging has taken on a life all its own, fully crossed over into the lifestyle and design world, and the aesthetic pursuits even carry over to the chocolate itself, with highly refined molds, coloring, and décor.
All of this is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with designing a beautiful, unique package or that the fault of the craft chocolate industry is in the design. Many, if not most, of these companies have good intentions and admirable business practices. And marketing is marketing. In their article “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” Martin and Sampeck (2015) write that “while there is much to recommend fine and craft, there is also much left to be done. In other words, the problems of the local-global divide and socially unequal state of cacao-chocolate production and consumption described throughout this essay persist in the present day, despite many of our perceived solutions” (2015, 56). In light of all this, what is the right and just way to market fine and craft chocolate that will be viable but also judiciously attend to those problems and observe the craftsmanship of fine chocolate? Can there be congruence in branding and design, good business practices, and telling genuine, impactful narratives about chocolate?
Ethical and effective package design must “avoid the pitfalls of rhetoric obscuring reality,” to borrow a phrase from Martin and Sampeck (2015). “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” (Christian Aschwanden as cited in Williams and Eber 2012, 171). The packaging needs to convey those dimensions of the product, and that is no easy feat when it comes to package design.
In the complexities and obscurity of the industry itself, there isn’t a simple, catch-all solution to ethical and effective package design, but purveyors who keep it simple, present understandable and supportable information, and use non-essentialized representations of plant and people seem to be on the right track, for now. But perhaps the future of chocolate packaging is a way to use today’s technology and the highly skilled designers already being employed by the chocolate industry to fill in the gaps between bean and bar – a way to communicate important information and non-binary narratives to consumers, specifically from sources without commercial investment in those narratives like Yellow Seed. But the fine chocolate industry itself may have a long way to go before that information is designable and fully digestible to chocolate lovers.
Works Cited –
Adam Mack. 2012. The Politics of Good Taste. The Senses and Society, 7(1): 87-94, DOI: 10.2752/174589312X13173255802166
Benton, David. 2014. The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving. In Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain. ed. Astrid Nehlig, 205-218. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Castell, Margarida, Francisco Jose Pérez-Cano , and Jean-François Bisson. 2013. Chapter 19: Clinical Benefits of Cocoa: An Overview. In Chocolate in Health and Nutrition, Nutrition and Health 7. DOI 10.1007/978-1-61779-803-0_19
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2013, The True History of Chocolate: Third Edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Delwiche, Jeannine F. 2012. You Eat with Your Eyes First. Physiology & Behavior 107: 502-504.
Duncombe, Stephen. 2012. It Stand On its Head: Commodity Fetishism, Consumer Activism, and the Strategic Use of Fantasy. In Culture and Organization 18(5): 359-375. DOI: 10.1080/14759551.2012.733856