Tag Archives: Taste test

How Easy it is to Falsely Sway the Average Chocolate Consumer

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.

The Study

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.

Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar with infamous “HERSHEY’S” logo pressed into each bite.

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 sold.

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 chocolate.

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.

One example of a chocolate bar that has certifications on the wrapping itself.

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.

Hu’s bar which lists all of the ingredients it purposefully does not include in the recipe.

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

  • CVS
    • Silky Smooth Dove: Dark Chocolate ($0.90/ounce)
    • Endangered Species Chocolate: Caramel Sea Salt + Dark Chocolate (60% Cocoa) ($1.10/ounce)
    • Cadbury Dairy Milk: Milk Chocolate ($0.74/ounce)
    • Hershey’s: Milk Chocolate ($0.59/ounce)
  • Trader Joe’s
    • Trader Joe’s Organic Milk Chocolate Truffle ($0.57/ounce)
    • Valrhona: Le Noir Extra Amer 85% Cacao ($0.85/ounce)
    • Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Coffee Chocolate Bar ($0.66/ounce)
    • Trader Joe’s Fair Trade Organic 72% Cacao Belgian Dark Chocolate Bar ($0.57/ounce)
  • Whole Foods
    • Chocolove XOXOX: Orange Peel in Dark Chocolate ($0.93/ounce)
    • Madécasse: Sea Salt & Nibs Dark Chocolate ($1.51/ounce)
    • Hu: Cashew Butter + Pure Vanilla Bean Dark Chocolate ($3.33/ounce)
    • Cocoa Parlor: Into Dark 80 ($1.66/ounce)

Works Cited

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

Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.

“Consumption of Chocolate Worldwide, 2012/13-2018/19 | Statistic.” Statista, Statista, Nov. 2015, http://www.statista.com/statistics/238849/global-chocolate-consumption/.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.


Multimedia Sources

Morris, Jelene. Hershey’s Bar with Chocolate Bloom. Wikimedia Commons, 1 October 2008, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hersheys_Bar_with_Chocolate_Bloom.jpg

All other images provided by author of this blog post.

The Harvard Square Chocolate Shop Shelf

On May 2nd, 2019, my two friends and I decided to hold a chocolate tasting in our dorm room, for our big final project. In order to save money, we chose to jointly purchase six chocolate bars from a store in Harvard Square. We collected a group of six acquaintances together to taste the chocolate with us, collecting their comments. While we coordinated in data collection and logistics, we did not coordinate in the creation of our final reports. I am excited to eventually compare our different takeaways from this project.

The six bars we chose are Cote D’ Or’s Lait-Melk bar, Valrhona’s Blond Dulcey bar, Taza Chocolate’s 80% Dark Dominican Republic bar, Taza Chocolate’s 84% Dark Haiti bar, Antidote’s 84% Cacao bar, and Antidote’s 100% Raw Cacao bar. The packages for each of these bars can be seen in the designated pictures below.

Terroir

We chose these bars for a variety of reasons. The two Taza bars have similar cacao contents and are from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, respectively. One of the Antidote bars also has a similar cacao percentage but is from Ecuador. These three bars allow us to explore the concept of Terroir. According to Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay, “(terroir is) at once the most meaningless and meaningful term in wine, and still has the power to raise hackles and incite debate . . . The term, which was once owned wholly by the French, has now permeated the general vocabulary of wine and food in many other languages.[i]” In short, “Terroir” is the idea that a food is imbued with the essence of the location in which it was produced. Cheese from Wisconsin, wine from France, and raisins from California, are all examples of Terroir-based food marketing.

Our sample size was only six people, but our respondents were pretty consistent in saying that they didn’t notice much of a difference in taste between the three bars; this implies that these laymen did not notice any Terroir-effects. They were sensitive to textural anomalies but felt that the flavor was mostly indistinguishable. None of the group was able to tell the difference between the Taza bars, though their special “stone ground” texture resulted in a clear grainy consistency that each respondent noted. One respondent did mention that the Haiti bar had “a slight something, as if it were sitting next to a crate of raisins for a while.” Another chimed in that the light brush of flavor was not very significant; it reminded him of La Croix. Aside from these two insights, all descriptions of flavor between the bars was consistent.

This is consistent with McNeil and Riello’s discussion of French and Italian products. “Consumers today tend to think that people have always loved (them); this is not the case. In the case of French regional wines, the allure of such products was created only between the end of the nineteenth century and the Vichy years of the Second World War, a period in which the consumption of regional products was linked to a new vision of tourism made possible via the improved roads of the Routes Nationales 6 and 7. This led to a renewed emphasis on ‘regional styles’ and ‘folkloric traditions’ adapted to a completely new luxury market that stressed the importance of terroir and region, rather than just urban gastronomy.[ii]” In short, the concept of “Terroir” was made up to advertise French produce. While I would need more data to officially prove that Terroir doesn’t exist, our small taste-test seemed to lean towards that conclusion.

 

chocolate frontchocolate back

 

Taste Test Results

Brand Type Cacao % Focus Group Adjectives
Cote D’ Or Lait-Melk > 50% (unspecified) Boring “Christmas chocolate,” Hershey-like, cheap,
Valrhona Blond Dulcey 32 Toffee-esque, Doesn’t have a taste, delayed taste, creamy,

buttery, sticky,

Antidote Cacao Bar (w/ nibs) 84 Salty, Sour, Bitter, Like cooking chocolate, crunchy,
Antidote Raw Cacao Bar (w/ nibs) 100 Not soft, tree bark, earthy/soil, slow to melt, like a coffee bean,

“It tastes like punishment”

Taza Chocolate Dark Dominican Republic 80 Crunchy/flaky, aerated, gritty/sandpaper, sandy,
Taza Chocolate Dark Hatian Same texture as above – Fruity – Raisin adjacent,  like a La Croix, Fruit flavor,

 

Interesting Notes:

People would be willing to spend $5-$12

They all said they’d pay more for wine than chocolate

They all said they’d be willing to pay more for chocolate than a burrito

Most of the group said they’d prefer a Hershey bar to each of the alternatives, despite those same friends expressing a preference for darker chocolate.

Our one British friend said he didn’t like any of this chocolate. He said he prefers Cadbury.

Value

We chose the Cote D’Or bar and the Valrhona Blond Dulcey bar to compare with the Antidote 100% Cacao bar. I wanted to get a good understanding of how our friends reacted to cocoa butter, sugar, and milk content; their primary observation was that the darker a chocolate bar is, the more they feel it is worth. The members of our focus group told us this explicitly but, more importantly, when we gave them the Cote D’Or Bar, which had the highest cocoa butter content, the first reaction was “this tastes cheap . . . like Christmas chocolate.” The feeling that cacao content is proportional to value held up through the entire tasting among all our participants.

On May 1st, a guest lecturer discussed how Mexican food is underpriced when compared to other alternatives. “If you go to an Italian restaurant, they’ll charge you $20 – 25 for a bowl of pasta . . . Mexican food costs more to make in terms of ingredients and labor but people aren’t willing to pay that much for it.” Keeping this quote in mind, I asked my friends how much they would pay for one of the chocolate bars we tasted. Their responses ranged from $8 – 12. “Would you pay more for this than a burrito,” I asked them. “Absolutely,” one respondent replied. The others quickly agreed.

blog-featured_organin_labels-20180417.jpg
Photo courtesy of https://foodrevolution.org/blog/why-choose-organic/

Luxury and Organic Labeling

Chocolate is seen as a luxury product, both in our focus group and more broadly. Looking at the packages of each of our chosen bars, it’s pretty clear that chocolate companies are leaning into the luxury-angle. The bars we picked were each graced with distinctive fonts, artistic logos, and iconic color schemes. Each design is simple, yet elegant. Tucked away on the back of the bar are labels, logos, and informative blocs of text, each designed to convey information about the company’s values. Values, themselves, can be a luxury in a competitive market.

According to Peter McNeil and Giorgio Riello, “the true achievement of ‘luxury’ in the twenty-first century has been its ability to beguile as many people as possible in much the same way as mass consumption did in the post-war Western world.[iii]” Luxury is used as a marketing scheme. “It plays on our inner feeling of wanting ‘something better,’ and nurtures the rampant individualism of self-fashioning that has come so much to shape our societies since the 1980s.[iv]” Luxurious products are an expression of self-indulgence, a byproduct of an individualist mindset.

Interestingly, while ‘luxury’ is about individualism, international labeling efforts have focused on communal efforts. These labels address deforestation, unfair trade practices, and sustainability issues. They seek to turn a personal indulgence into collective action. Consumers can selfishly indulge while selflessly making a difference; labels allow consumers to, psychologically, have their chocolate bar and eat it too.

The bars we picked for our taste testing each have their own, mostly unique, labels. The Taza Bars have two different “certified organic” labels. The Antidote bars claim to be made with cocoa from “farms that use organic practices,” though their website says that “working with (officially) certified organic farms would limit us in getting the best quality cacao.” This feels somewhat sketchy, as it isn’t explained very well. Personally, I find organic certifications to be unimpressive anyway. For one, there is no commercially available GMO cacao strain, meaning all cacao is technically organic.[v] These labels have more to do with the other products within the chocolate, presumably the milk.

As Julie Guthman would say, this is “Culinary Luddism.[vi]” She explains that many people believe their food has declined in quality; they feel society needs to return to the way we used to grow food, in order to ensure quality. “The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast; artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty.[vii]” Organic food has not been scientifically proven to be any healthier than genetically modified food. In fact, it is generally faster to rot, less efficient, and much less consistent. The organic label exists as a virtue signal to uninformed chocolate consumers. Little do they know that all chocolate is organic. Or at least, the cacao is.

In this sense, the label is a part of the advertisement. It was already a mostly meaningless declaration, designed to invoke the sentiment of doing something, to counteract the selfishness of indulgence. The organic label goes even one step further in that it actually doesn’t mean anything. Cacao farmers aren’t benefitted when their product is mixed with organic milk from a small Midwestern dairy. Organic chocolate doesn’t help them at all. It has not been proven to be any healthier and, in a general sense, there’s no good reason for it to exist. The whole label is a marketing scheme.

fair-trade-labels-pic2.png
There are way too many Fair Trade Labels – Image from https://www.fairtradewinds.net/guide-fair-trade-labels/

Other Labels

None of this is to say that labels can’t do good. With the exception of the Cote D’Or bar, every chocolate we tried was supplied via Direct Trade. Direct Trade is a new concept for our globalist age.  It evolved out of a series of complicated political fractures in the “Fair Trade” movement, which tried to ensure that Cacao Farmers were properly compensated for the work they were doing.

This proved to be highly complicated, however. As Ndongo Sylla put it, “Fair Trade is . . . a Western ‘invention’ whose survival depends on its uptake by consumers and political actors of the North. However, Fair Trade is too important an issue to be confined within the borders of developed countries.  Other voices need to be heard. The bias in this debate has resulted in the heterogeneous nature of developing countries being downplayed, and a lack of attention to the progressive and distributive nature of this new development tool.[viii]” The various countries along the Ivory Coast are different from each other and they’re definitely different from the Congo, the island of Dominica, Ecuador, and the countless other chocolate producing regions throughout the world. In some sense, Fair Trade became a one size fits all approach to chocolate pricing, that failed to properly accommodate individual cacao producers.

Moreover, Fair Trade was far from standardized. Different labels with different standards sprang up across the world, with some more popular in some countries than others. From a consumer standpoint, each of these labels were basically interchangeable, and from a producer standpoint, it was difficult to know which certifications were worth pursuing. To address this, a number of producers decided to embrace Direct Trade.

Direct Trade means a chocolate company works directly with specific farmers, that they know and trust, to secure a reliable supply of cacao. Most of the bars that we tried in our room came from companies that could easily tell us where their cacao was grown. They know their farmers and have determined that those farmers meet their ethical standards. Taza and Valrhona both file annual transparency reports, showing which farmers they are working with, where they are located, and what kind of labor practices they use. Antidote also claims to file a report; however, their link appears to have expired. Cote D’Or does not appear to use Direct Trade, though it is a part of the Cocoa Life Program, which unites large producers, including Cadbury, in an attempt to improve the lives of cacao farmers.

Conclusion

Each of the bars we consumed in our dorm room appears to be trying to improve the cacao industry. It is unclear how much of this is a legitimate desire to make the world a better place and how much of it is a cynical marketing ploy, though I am generally optimistic. Considering chocolate is normally a luxury product, meant to be a selfish indulgence, I find it impressive that cocoa companies are embracing ethics in the first place.

This cursory exploration of our local chocolate shelf was enjoyable for me; I hope it was enjoyable to you, dear reader. I know my chocolate-hungry friends really appreciated it.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Parr, Rajat and Jordan Mackay. 2018. The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste. pp. 7-21

[ii] McNeil, Peter and Giorgio Riello. 2015. Luxury: A Rich History. pp. 1-10, 225-293

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Rupp, Rebecca. 2015. Can GMOs Save Chocolate?

[vi] Guthman, Julie. 2012[2003]. “Fast food/organic food: reflexive tastes and the making of ‘yuppie chow.’” pp. 496-509

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Sylla, Ndongo. 2014. The Fair Trade Scandal. chapters, 1-2

Ethical Chocolate: Sweet or Sour?

The concept of the “ethical consumer” was first formally published in 1989 by a UK magazine and has since gained popularity amongst those who view consumption as a moralistic opportunity to translate their personal convictions into pubic action (Giesler & Veresiu). Ethical consumerism is founded on the perception of market-based consumption as a simultaneously economic and political act, a means by which to express one’s fundamentally non-economic values by “voting with dollars.” Through the deliberate moral boycotting of those products that do not meet specific moral or environmental criteria regarding conditions of production, ethical consumers aim to embed the capitalist market within a system of social norms and environmental concerns. The purchasing patterns of these self-proclaimed ethical consumers are thus largely governed by the presence or absence of what has been defined as “values-based labels,” or labels that make explicit claims to be engaged in an “ethical and moral effort to counter unsustainable trends within presently existing capitalism” (Barham 349-350).

In recent years, much light has been shed on the existence of several of these unsustainable trends within the chocolate industry. After many technological innovations of the 19th century allowed for the mass production of chocolate, emerging producers became engaged in a race to conquer this new and flourishing market. Even after plantation slavery had been officially abolished in European colonies across the globe, the success of many of the pioneering chocolate firms became inextricably bound up in imperialistic pursuits. The promise of increasing profits proved too alluring for some members of the chocolate industry to resist the free price of forced labor, and post-abolition slavery remained an integral link in the supply chains of many companies. As late as the early 1900s, investigators backed by the Cadbury company discovered incontrovertible evidence of slave labor on cacao farms on the former Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe. After public outcry erupted, British chocolate firms formally boycotted cacao from São Tomé and Príncipe and relocated their production centers to Africa’s Gold Coast, where cash crop production was already coming to fruition (Martin, “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor”). The seeds were thus planted for the growth of the West African cacao economies, which remain dominant centers of cacao production to this day.

Over the course of the 20th century, cacao exportation became particularly important in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, former British and French colonies, respectively. Today, over 60% of the world’s total cacao production falls upon these two small, developing African nations, with Côte d’Ivoire producing 34.4% and Ghana producing 17.5%. The brunt of this heavy load is borne on the shoulders of agricultural laborers scattered across two million small-scale, independent family farms. These West African cocoa farmers are collectively responsible for the production of 2.8 million metric tons of cocoa per year, yet receive an average per capita daily income of below $0.30 USD (Martin, “Modern day Slavery”).

Given these unsustainable wages, in conjunction with the extremely labor-intensive nature of cacao farming, it is no small surprise that labor conditions on cacao farms are often hazardous and, on occasion, coercive. In response to the increased public visibility of the deplorable working conditions that plague many of the cacao farms throughout West Africa, many chocolate retailers have vowed to sell products made only from ethically-sourced cacao. They have claimed corporate social responsibility by shifting production sources to ethically-certified cacao co-operatives that promise sustainable conditions of production both for workers and the environment (Martin, “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization”). As such, many products marketed in today’s grocery stores now bear the logos for various certifications of ethical production, such as Fair Trade, USDA Organic, Direct Trade, Non-GMO Project, and Rainforest Alliance.

Fair Trade USA Certification Label
Fair Trade USA Certification Label (Fair Trade USA)

Regardless of the specific nature of their claims, products bearing these values-based labels distinguish themselves from their ordinary commercial counterparts through an emphasis on process and quality, attempting to increase corporate transparency by reconnecting consumers to the conditions of production along the supply chain. With the rise of corporate social responsibility, one of the most eminent values-based labels has become that of Fairtrade International, which first appeared in 1988 on coffee sold in Dutch supermarkets, in opposition to the exploitation of coffee pickers in Mexico. By 2002, Fairtrade International launched their official FAIRTRADE Certification Mark to “improve visibility on supermarket shelves, facilitate cross border trade, and simplify export procedures for both producers and exporters.”  Five years later, Fairtrade became recognized as one of just seven organizations worldwide that had reached the highest standards for defining terms of ethical trade (“History of Fairtrade”).

(“Fair Trade: Every Purchase Matters,” 2011)

However, despite these increasingly abundant claims of virtuous production, in this promise to consumers that “behind every Fairtrade certified label is a rigorous certification process, which means [they] can feel confident knowing that [they] are living [their] values with each purchase,” this video makes clear that the undercompensated laborers on West African cacao farms are, in fact, not the primary beneficiaries of many of these values-based certifications. Despite the fact that global Fairtrade sales have amounted to over $3 billion in the non-profit’s short lifetime, very few of these consumer “dollar votes” to “ensure farmers and workers are getting a fair deal” actually reach the impoverished laborers themselves after traveling through Fairtrade’s expensive bureaucratic network (Martin, “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization”).

As such, many of these values-based certification claims of virtuous production do not seem to hold up in practice. The stark reality remains that, in the $100 billion per year chocolate industry, a vast majority of cocoa farmers remain well below the poverty line. These farmers seem to be of secondary concern to the ethical consumers themselves, whose restless consciences and hesitant pocketbooks can be placated by the knowledge that, when they buy values-based goods, “they are making a choice that means quality products, improved lives, and protection of the environment” (“Fair Trade: Every Purchase Matters”). The construction of the socially responsible chocolate producer thus plays directly into the hands of the emerging ethical consumer, relying increasingly on values-based labeling as a means by which to manipulate this audience into consumption by appealing to their heightened moral sensibilities.

It is evident that, within the Machiavellian context of the capitalist marketplace, consumers must always remain skeptical of the motives and claims made by producers. As such, I decided to conduct a taste test survey in hopes of exploring and evaluating the influence of these values-based labels on consumer perceptions of chocolate’s overall taste and nutritional value, the nature of which can ultimately determine downstream purchasing behaviors.

My experiment was comprised of a two-part taste test of nine different chocolate bars, each of which had range of values-based labels. The chocolate bars and their certifications, or lack thereof, were as follows:

Chocolate bars

  1. Dove Dark Chocolate (Rainforest Alliance Certified)
  2. Endangered Species Chocolate: Natural Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt & Almonds, 72% Cacao (Rainforest Alliance Certified, Non-GMO Project Verified)
  3. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate (None)
  4. Hershey’s Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate Bar, 45% Cacao (None)
  5. Lindt Excellence: 70% Cocoa Smooth Dark Chocolate (None)
  6. Nestlé’s Milk Chocolate (None)
  7. Rescue Chocolate: Pick Me! Pepper Chocolate (Fair Trade Certified, USDA Organic Certified)
  8. Taza Chocolate Mexicano Cacao Puro, 70% Dark (Non-GMO Project Verified, Direct Trade Certified, USDA Organic Certified)
  9. Theo Chocolate: Pure 85% Dark Chocolate (Non-GMO Project Verified, Fair Trade Certified, USDA Organic Certified)

The first half of the experiment consisted of a blind taste test, in which each of my seven participants tasted samples of the nine different chocolate bars, given in a random but consistent order to all participants, with no visual cues or background information regarding the chocolate itself or the company that produced it. After each sample, I prompted participants to answer a series of three questions, the first of which asked them to score their overall enjoyment of each undisclosed chocolate bar on a scale of 0-5 (based on flavor, texture, aroma, etc.), where 0 indicated no enjoyment and 5 indicated strong enjoyment. The second question then asked participants to answer how many calories they thought one serving of each chocolate bar contained relative to other brands of chocolate. I provided them with the USDA nutritional breakdown for a general “Sweet Chocolate Bar,” which contains 208 calories per 41 g serving, as a standard reference for this subsequent evaluation (“USDA Sweet Chocolate Bar”). Answers for this second question were also given on a scale of 0-5, where 0 indicated that they thought the chocolate in question contained many fewer calories than the standard given, and 5 indicated that they believed it contained many more calories. The final question asked participants to rate, again on a scale of 0-5, how frequently they thought each chocolate bar should be consumed compared to other brands of chocolate, where 0 indicated much less frequently and 5 indicated much more frequently.

(Pleasantly?) surprised taste testers!
(Pleasantly?) surprised taste testers!

 

 

 

 

 

In contrast, the second half of the experiment was an informed taste test, in which I first provided the participants with a brief description of all the different values-based certifications represented by the chocolate brands, including Fair Trade, Direct Trade, USDA Organic, and Rainforest Alliance. Before re-tasting each sample, I presented participants with background information about the producer as well as the product itself, paraphrased from the packaging and company website. The participants were also told the ingredients and given a complete list of any of the aforementioned certifications received by each bar. I then had them taste each of the nine chocolate samples again in alphabetical order, after which they were then asked the same series of three questions in the same order, regarding overall enjoyment, relative caloric content, and proposed frequency of consumption.

When all participants finished both parts of the experiment, I compared the results from the answers given during the blind taste test versus the informed taste test, analyzing any significant trends or notable changes. A comparison of the answers given for the first question concerning overall enjoyment of each chocolate bar, as they changed from the blind test to the informed test, can be summarized by the following graph:

Overall Enjoyment Results
Overall Enjoyment Results

 

These results reveal that consumer enjoyment of each chocolate was indeed somewhat impacted by awareness of the product and producer, as overall ratings did not remain constant between tests for any of the nine samples. Because the intrinsic, objective factors (i.e. ingredients, presence or absence of conching, etc.) contributing to the chocolate’s overall quality, flavor, texture, and aroma were unchanged across both tests, it can be deduced that some extrinsic factor was affecting the subjective personal experience of these qualities. This extrinsic factor can be assumed to be contained within the information provided to participants during the second, non-blind taste test. In this case, consumer satisfaction and experience of chocolate quality might have been influenced by awareness of brand name, company background, or ingredients, as well as sensitivity to product description or values-based certifications.

In both the blind and informed taste test, the Dove Dark Chocolate came out on top, with 24.5 and 27.5 points, respectively. The fluctuations in overall enjoyment appear to be more correlated with whether the chocolate bars were of the milk chocolate or dark chocolate variety, rather than with the knowledge of the company mission or values-based certifications. Both milk chocolate samples tested (Hershey’s and Nestlé’s) received much lower ratings in the non-blind test, while enjoyment increased for all the dark chocolate bars. Initially, in the blind taste test, Nestlé’s Milk Chocolate received 20.5 points, but only half of that number in the informed taste test, falling from fourth to last place. Similarly, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate ratings declined to 13, placing it eighth out of nine in the second test. In contrast, enjoyment of Hershey’s Dark Chocolate bar increased from 22 to 27 points, bringing it from third place in the blind taste test to second place in the informed taste test. This observed trend may in part be due to the fact that dark chocolate is often perceived as being of higher quality and purity than milk chocolate. The ability to discern visual indicators of this presumed superior quality, such as the dark color of the chocolate bar itself or the percentage of cacao contained within it, may have caused participants to perceive the dark chocolate bars as being of higher quality in the second test.

Amongst those chocolates with several values-label certifications, Taza Cacao Puro enjoyment remained relatively high and stable across both tests, while enjoyment of Rescue Chocolate, Endangered Species Chocolate, and Theo Chocolate was relatively low, but increased slightly in the informed test. This finding becomes of particular interest, when taken with the results from the following question, in which participants were asked how frequently they thought each chocolate bar should be consumed compared to other chocolate brands:

Proposed Consumption Frequency
Proposed Consumption Frequency

With the exception of the Lindt chocolate, which is marketed as a premium chocolate, the recommended frequency of consumption for chocolate brands that lacked any values-based certifications showed a marked decreased over the course of the two taste tests. Conversely, for those chocolate brands that did have values-based certifications, the recommended frequency of consumption increased conspicuously in the informed taste test compared to the blind taste test. When taken with the previous observation that enjoyment of these same chocolate bars was lower than most other conventional bars and did not increase significantly, such a finding suggests that it is the consumer’s active promotion of those social or environmental causes that are represented by these values-based labels, rather than an improved tasting experience, that is motivating them to recommend more frequent consumption when their knowledge of the product increases.

The final question touched more directly on my main inquiry and motivation for conducting this taste test survey–that is, whether claims of ethical production would promote a “halo effect,” a long-established phenomenon in social psychology whereby “an initial favorable impression promotes subsequent favorable evaluations on unrelated dimensions” (Schuldt, Muller, & Schwarz 1). Participants were asked to score relative calorie content of each chocolate sample, a higher score out of 35 total points reflecting that participants tended to think that the chocolate sample contained more calories than most other brands of chocolate, while a score on the lower end indicating the general perception of the chocolate as lower calorie than most other chocolate brands.

Proposed Calorie Content
Proposed Calorie Content

These results demonstrate that those chocolate brands with several ethical production certifications were ranked as being significantly lower in calories in the informed taste test. In contrast, all of the bars that lacked any explicit claims of ethical production methods were perceived as being much higher in calories after the second taste test. Consistent with the logic of health halo effects, consumers appeared to be making positive and negative health inferences on the basis of the presence or absence of socially ethical food production practices, respectively, which bear no nutritional connotation whatsoever. Previous research has already demonstrated the existence of significant “health halo effects” based on claims of USDA Organic certification, whereby consumers judge organic foods as being lower in calories than their non-organic counterparts, regardless of the fact that organic certification does not have any direct bearing on calorie content. For example, people tend to judge Oreo cookies made from organic flour as containing fewer calories than do regular Oreos, despite the fact that the two products have equal nutritional value (Schuldt, Muller, & Schwarz 2).

With the growing obesity epidemic sweeping the nation, this health halo effect that accompanies values-based labeling is of imminent concern, as consumers are being led to make to unfounded assumptions about the nutritional value of the foods they are eating

Sucrose for Comfort (Mother Jones)
“Sucrose for Comfort” (Mother Jones)

Over the past 30 years, the percentage of adults who suffer from obesity has more than doubled from 15% to 35.7%, causing the incidence of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses to skyrocket. Increasing rates of obesity have been shown to be directly correlated with annual per capita sugar consumption, which has soared to over 132 pounds in the United States, or the equivalent of 31 teaspoons of added sugars per day (Taubes & Couzens, Albritton 343). This exponential sugar increase in the American diet can be largely attributed to the rise of industrial food corporations, which, driven by competition in the capitalist marketplace, seek to maximize profits by minimizing production costs; however, this self-seeking mentality is often at odds with the best interests of the American population, as lowering production costs often means pumping food products full of empty calories. As a direct consequence of the contemporary capitalist food industry, “junk foods,” or those foods that tend to be very high in calories relative to nutrients, abound to such an extent that 50% of the average American’s daily caloric intake can be accounted for by fat and sugar (Albritton 343).

From the point of view of the capitalist food corporations, the “ideal food ingredient for profit purposes is something that is cheap and that consumers crave,” (Albritton 344). Many big businesses have found the perfect profitable candidate in chocolate, which exploits the addictive quality of sweetness and requires relatively low input costs. Today, mass-produced chocolate bars are ubiquitous across the nation, lining the aisles and countertops of every grocery and convenience store, supplied primarily by the chocolate industry’s “Big Five”–Hershey’s, Mars, Nestlé, Cadbury, and Ferero Rocher (Martin, “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market”). These corporations reap the profits of the American obesity epidemic, aggressively pursuing marketing strategies that enforce ‘brand loyalty from cradle to grave’ for those products that exploit the human craving for sugar, fat, and salt.

However, these large chocolate corporations are not the only ones responsible for pursuing profit-maximizing ends at the expense of consumer health. Rather than competing directly for the same consumer base as the Big Five industrial chocolate powerhouses, emerging “socially conscious corporations” have adopted the aforementioned alternative, values-based marketing strategies. It is in these companies’ best interests to pursue such values-based marketing strategies, as their success is likely enhanced by the evocation of these problematic health halos that accompany claims of socially ethical production. However, by capitalizing on the unsustainable working and environmental conditions that tarnish the reputations of bigger chocolate corporations, socially conscious corporations are selfishly bolstering sales to the detriment of the health of their “ethical consumers.”

In order for ethical consumption to become an authentic and meaningful institution capable of affecting actual positive change, consumers must become more than superficial values-based label-readers. They must view these products with the same skeptical eye with which they would view any product of the capitalist food industry, seeking to further educate themselves not only about the benefits of ethical production, but also about its shortcomings that impact those at home and abroad. Only in this way can ethical consumption truly live up to its potential to become an agent of social and environmental transformation.


Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” Food and Culture. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. 343-52. Print.

Barham, Elizabeth. “Towards a Theory of Values-based Labeling.” Agriculture and Human Values 19 (2002): 349-60. Kluwer Academic Publishers. Web. 1 May 2015.

Fair Trade: Every Purchase Matters. Fair Trade Certified, 2011. Youtube. Web. 3 May 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7K4G5-ydhS0&gt;.

Fair Trade USA Certification Label. Digital image. Logos & Labels. Fair Trade USA, 2015. Web. 5 May 2015. <http://fairtradeusa.org/resources/logos-labels&gt;.

Giesler, Markus, and Ela Veresiu. “Creating the Responsible Consumer: Moralistic Governance Regimes and Consumer Subjectivity.” Journal of Consumer Research 41.3 (2014): 840-57. Chicago Journals. Web. 2 May 2015.

“History of Fairtrade.” Fairtrade International. Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, 2011. Web. 3 May 2015.

Martin, Carla. “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization.” AAAS 119x Lecture 18. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 4 Apr. 2015. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Modern day Slavery.” AAAS 119x Lecture 15. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 25 Mar. 2015. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market.” AAAS 119x Lecture 13. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 11 Mar. 2015. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” AAAS 119x Lecture 11. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 4 Mar. 2015. Lecture.

Schuldt, Jonathan P., Dominique Muller, and Norbert Schwarz. “The ”Fair Trade” Effect: Health Halos From Social Ethics Claims.” Social Psychological and Personality Science (2011): 1-9. Sage Publications. Web. 1 May 2015.

Taubes, Gary, and Cristin K. Couzens. Sucrose for Comfort. Digital image. Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies. Mother Jones, Nov.-Dec. 2012. Web. 05 May 2015.

“USDA Sweet Chocolate Bar.” HealthGrove. N.p., 2015. Web. 2 May 2015.