Tag Archives: Theobroma cacao

Theo Chocolate: Trendsetters and Pioneers for Bean-to-Bar Companies and Socially Conscious Consumers Alike

Theo Chocolate is the first bean-to-bar chocolate company that is an organic fair trade-certified and GMO-free cocoa producer in the United States. Based out of Seattle starting in 2006, Theo Chocolate is a pioneer of a shared value for-profit company.  By expanding economic value and social value simultaneously to the cost of the goods they are selling, they are an exemplary leader of how companies can be more socially and environmentally responsible. When they first were founded, they applied creative entrepreneurial solutions to capture a small share of a large market and ultimately forever influenced the way consumers interact with the products they choose to purchase. Consumers of Theo Chocolate better understand the supply chains of the product they are consuming, naturally develop loyalty to brands they trust and faithfully believe in, and shape market perceptions of the fundamental value of chocolate by increasing demand (Butcher 2014). This paper is an ethnographic analysis of Theo Chocolate that will examine their mission as an ethical and sustainable chocolate maker, how that has changed since conception, and how successful the company has been on the basis of their own metrics.

This first section will discuss their founding and original mission statement to focus on their social and environmental success since conception. Theo Chocolate was founded by Joe Whinney, when he wanted to fundamentally challenge the answer to two questions: do chocolate manufacturers bear responsibility for producers of cocoa beans? And do they bear responsibility for how they are produced? As Carol Off describes in her publishing Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, responsibility regarding who should monitor farming practices has traditionally been pushed around between chocolate companies, large corporations, and even the US and African governments where the beans were being produced (Off 2008). There was no general consensus as to how far the orgins of the cocoa bags of beans should be monitored and tracked. Whinney wanted to break this cycle and take on this responsibility while still being a for-profit company. Whinney’s first founding mission was that “the finest artisan chocolate in the world can and should be produced in an entirely ethical, sustainable fashion”(Butcher 2014). His initial aims were to more concretely improve the growing conditions for farmers and to promote fair trade practices for cocoa bean farmers.

Social Work and Responsibility

With regards to the farmer’s role in the chocolate supply chain, he wanted to make sure they were environmentally and sustainably creating higher quality, larger yields, while also raising the farmers standard of living. Whinney after doing much market research felt that the key to higher quality chocolate was the fermentation of the beans. Fermentation removed the acids and tannins that created bitterness. He felt strongly that the farmers should understand and be educated on the role of fermentation. Consequently, he worked side by side with the farmers to help them adopt the best fermentation practices (Butcher 2014). Not only was it beneficial for Whinney to be able to develop a reliable relationship with farmers that were loyal to the quality he wanted, but it also economically was efficient because the higher percentage of beans that were correctly fermented, the higher prices the farmers were able to demand. Selling beans at higher prices meant that the farmers collected more money to sustain their livelihood. It was a welfare-enhancing transaction for both Whinney as well as the farmers, what he referred to as “enlightened capitalism”. Whinney hoped in the future of sustainable and modern cocoa production, the farmers would take on more of a responsible role controlling the quality of their beans, as well as marketing their own cocoa. He believed that if the farmers could adopt this commanding mentality, their livelihoods wouldn’t be so subject to the prices negotiated by larger chocolate companies.

Whinney was a huge contributor to helping develop price transparency. He established a pricing grid which provided complete information for consumers of the chocolate, the retailers selling the chocolate, but most importantly the bean farmers as well. Educating the farmers about prices allowed them to understand what factors are key determinants to price input. It was essential the farmers understand that when they can utilize proper quality tests and post-harvest practices, they create independent value for themselves as well as Whinney. Theo Chocolate reported that in 2009 when most bulk cocoa was selling for $2,000 a metric ton, they were willing to pay $3,600-$6,000 a metric ton for quality beans, which at this time was highly unpopular (Butcher 2014). Theo Chocolate prided themselves on the high quality of organic and fair trade cocoa they brought in and believed it provided real incentivization for farmers.

Interview of Co-founder Debra Music about Theo Chocolate values

Theo Chocolate wanted to ensure that their business reflected their social responsibility, not only to the farmer but toward the consumer as well. They used only organic ingredients, green energy sources in their operations, as well as sustainable wrapping. Theo Chocolate often donated many of their proceeds towards notable causes that aligned with their company’s values. For example, in 2010 after an earthquake in Haiti, a certain portion of chocolate proceeds were donated to CARE, a relief organization fighting global poverty. With the proceeds, CARE delivered 600,000 water purification tablets to make contaminated water drinkable (Butcher 2014). Additionally, Theo Chocolate had a signature Cherry and Chili Bar, whose proceeds were donated to PCC Farmland Trust, the local food co-op where the cherries and chilies were grown in Washington state. Theo’s World Bicycle Relief Sea Salt Bar was created with the proceeds going towards the World Bicycle Relief Program, who donated bicycles to health care workers in Africa. Two featured bars displayed the Jane Goodall stamp. The stamp was a signal that the bars were an ethically and quality produced product coming from the developing world, and the proceeds promoted forest conservation through the Jane Goodall foundation. Finally, it is notable that locally Theo wanted to help the community whom it hired from and interacted with (Butcher 2014). The company often used the factory store as an events space to help support local businesses, hunger, and other community initiatives.

Entrepreneurial Strategy: Owning the Chocolate Niche

Theo Chocolate developed a unique business marketing and entrepreneurial strategy to generate profits. Their first success as a company came when they understood the market they were dealing with and saw the unrealized opportunity. Whinney observed very early on that they were in a growing market, and that high-quality product would be the future for profits. In 2010, premium chocolate sales, premium chocolate being chocolate that sold for more than $.50/ounce, were about $2.1-2.4 billion total (Butcher 2014). From 2006-2009, the sale of premium chocolate had grown 5 times the rate compared to regular chocolate, and in the US market, there were not many players. When Theo Chocolate was founded there were only approximately only 15 chocolate producers. Most were confectioners who purchased blocks of chocolate and remelted it to make their own chocolate products (Butcher 2014). No bean-to-bar chocolate maker had ever been Fairtrade, organic, and non-GMO. Theo’s quality was certainly the finest as well as the most socially responsible. Whinney was able to recognize many changing chocolate trends and take advantage of them at the forefront. He implemented exotic flavors, savory inspired flavors, raw cocoa, and upscale packaging to be at the forefront of the changing market.

Whinney was a firm believer that chocolate needed to taste extraordinary or else nobody would buy it the second time: “Without having amazing products nothing else matters” (Butcher 2014). His chocolate bars had higher quality cocoa percentages and while expensive to produce, the quality was uncontested. A huge competitive advantage that Theo Chocolate had being a bean-to-bar company rather than a confectioner was full control over the quality. They essentially had full vertical control of the entire chocolate making process from bean sourcing to the chocolate manufacturing. This was essential to keep up with the fast-paced consumer preference changes and trends, allowing them to flexibly adapt to their consumer demand.

Examples of their current, more non-traditional seasonal flavors

Theo chocolate did something never before done in chocolate wrapping marketing in the United States at the time, they received multiple certifications and displayed them on the wrapping of every chocolate bar. Theo Chocolate was the first bean-to-bar company to do this. Currently, on their website, they promote 4 certifications: USDA Organic, Fair Trade for Life, Star-K Kosher Certification, and Non-GMO (Theo Chocolate 2019). Theo Chocolate states on their website: “Trust is fundamental to every relationship, including our relationships with our customers and suppliers. We believe transparency is an important component of trust and employ third-party verification for the claims we make” (Theo Chocolate 2019). Since conception, they have held true to this honest standard, and were the first ones to adopt using this marketing strategy for being fair trade and organic simultaneously. These certifications symbolize that Theo Chocolate prioritizes holding themselves to the highest standard and wants to foster such accountability towards their customers. They also demonstrated by their popularity that the marketing model works, as many more chocolate companies have sought out these very same badges.

Finally, Theo Chocolate is at the forefront of distribution. Premium chocolate has historically been and still is, sold through company-owned stores, specialty stores, and websites. However, they foresaw that organic food would become more sought after in the mid-2000s and correctly predicted there would be more demand for grocery stores that stocked organic chocolate. Theo Chocolate, in as early as 2008, partnered with Whole Foods to provide chocolate bars in their grocery stores. It has been a symbiotic relationship with the two companies because Whole Foods needs suppliers whos incentives aligned to provide the same quality products. According to Whole Foods, “Organic products have grown on average more than 20% per year over the last 7-10 years, making it the fastest growing segment of agriculture”(“Whole Foods UK” 2019). In many ways, Whole Foods acts as a middleman that is able to efficiently match the product produced to the consumer’s growing need. Theo Chocolate positioned themselves strongly within the growing Organic Industry, as well as in the responsible gourmet chocolate industry to catch two rising trends simultaneously and significantly boost demand for their product.

All of these marketing strategies are an indication that Theo deeply understood the new audience they were working with and trying to cater towards. On one hand, they pioneered the socially responsible chocolate, which you now see today in marketplaces as being much more commonplace. On the other hand, they also changed the way consumers think about responding to social responsibility, by developing this consumer consciousness in the typical millennial that is now commonplace. Theo Chocolate created unprecedented change on both the supply, as well as the demand side of organic fair trade chocolate.

Theo Chocolate and the Future

What does the mission statement look like today? Has it changed or strayed from its original intentions? Currently, they proclaim: “As a company rooted in cocoa, our mission is to create a more beautiful, compassionate, and enduring world by responsibly making delicious and inspiring products for everyone” (Theo Chocolate 2017). They are aware of the success their chocolate has received globally. Currently, they are now focusing on further developing the existing built connections between entities and people to make them stronger. One way they are doing this is by turning toward their internal operations to care for the employee base. Theo Chocolate has a strong commitment to developing their employees professionally but also educating them about the strength of social responsibility so each employee can hopefully go out one day and make a substantial impact one way or another.

Video of employees reflecting on company values

Ultimately I conclude that not only are they exemplary at the amount of social impact they have effectively brought about, but Theo Chocolate is one of the first shining examples within the American chocolate industry that could generate outstanding profits because they marketed such social responsibility. They sold America not only their product but their vision. Theo Chocolate made being a bean-to-bar company trendy while also on the consumer-facing side making socially conscious purchases trendy and feel good. Their small share in the chocolate market has set a rippling precedent for American markets to promote corporate social responsibility on any level of scale.

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Works Cited

Butcher, Alva Wright, and Paula A. Wilson. “Theo Choloclate-Doing Well By Doing Good.” Journal of Case Studies 32, no. 1 (2014): 19-36.

Off, Carol. 2008. Bitter Chocolate. New York: The New Press.

“Our Certifications – Theo Chocolate”. 2019. Theo Chocolate. https://www.theochocolate.com/blog/our-certifications/.

Tedxseattle – Debra Music & Joe Whinney – 4/16/10. 2010. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQUaUirxnwo.

Theo Chocolate Values. 2019. Video. https://vimeo.com/235404979.

“Whole Foods UK”. 2019. Wholefoodsmarket.Com. https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/mission-values/organic/growth-organics-industry.

2018 Heart Of Seattle Winner – Swanson’S Nursery. 2019. Image. https://vimeo.com/265462272.

2019. Image. https://www.theochocolate.com/product/lemon/.

2019. Image. https://www.theochocolate.com/product/grapefruit-ginger/.

Importance of the Botanical History of Theobroma Cacao

            Chocolate is a daily part of modern life. It is constantly being advertised on television, mixed into various recipes, and consumed by the pounds. However, most people don’t stop to think about where their chocolate bars, cakes and drinks come from. Theobroma cacao is the answer to this unasked question. Theobroma cacao is the tree that grows cacao pods, which are harvested for the beans inside of them to be heavily processed to make the chocolate we know today. Theobroma cacao originated in South America and was discovered by European explorers in the 16th century, although it was used for hundreds of years by the native people of the region before this. It has since spread across the world through human expansion. The botanical history of the cacao tree has focused on how to cultivate it to maximize cacao pod production, which continues to be the emphasis today. Theobroma cacao has spread across the world and has been harvested for numerous uses throughout the centuries since it was discovered, but the botanical care needed to grow the tree has been the key factor to the plants’ success.

            Theobroma cacao’s genetic origin was in the Amazon basin of South America. It grew naturally throughout that area and in some parts of Central America. These locations fall within the geographic range of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator, where Theobroma cacao can grow and bear cacao pods (Coe and Coe, 19). This very specific region where Theobroma cacao can grow has created difficulties for people trying to cultivate the tree in other areas of the world. It is a picky tree that needs the correct conditions to grow and produce fruit. After the discovery of the cacao tree in the 16th century, the popularity of chocolate spread throughout Europe. It wasn’t until 1753 that Carl Linnaeus named the tree Theobroma cacao, which means food of the gods in Latin. This meaning originated from the reverence the Maya and Aztec people had towards the cacao tree, often offering cacao drinks to their gods (Leissle, 28). Since Linnaeus’ classification in the 18th century, Theobroma cacao has continued to grow in popularity because of the valuable seeds it produces. As a result, there has been a consistent study of the botanical properties of the tree with the goal of producing the most number of cacao pods possible.

            Numerous works have been written about the botanical care of the cacao tree, which shows how important proper cultivation is for growing success. There are many variations of Theobroma cacao that present options to choose from when growing the tree. The two main types are the Mesoamerican specimen; the criollo and the South American specimen; the forastero. The book Theobroma cacao or Cocoa, Its Botany, Cultivation, Chemistry and Diseases by Henry Wright was written in 1907 and discussed the nuances of both criollo and forastero cacao, focusing on their cultivation and growth (Wright). Wright was not the only author to publish books dedicated completely to the botany of Theobroma cacao. John Hinchley Hart published a book in 1892 on the botany and cultivation of cacao, including images of both criollo and forastero cacao pods, which can be seen below (Hart). Even earlier, D. Morris published a book called Cacao: How to Grow and How to Cure It in 1882 (Morris). Clearly, the botany of the cacao tree was important enough to merit multiple books, each with hundreds of pages written on how to care for the plant.

Hart’s depictions of criollo and forastero cacao pods in his book ‘Cacao: Treatise on the Cultivation and Curing of Cacao; Botany and Nomenclature of the Same, and Hints on the Selection and Management of Estates’, 1892

            Knowing more about the cultivation of cacao may shed light on why so many works have been written on it. Theobroma cacao is a very tricky plant to grow. It requires to be above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and constantly have moisture, some shade, and specific soil components. If these conditions are met, it needs to survive the diseases and pests that can often overtake the tree (Royal Botanical Garden). If the tree grows and sprouts flowers on its trunk (a process called cauliflory), it requires a small fly called a midge to pollinate its flowers. Only 1-3% of flowers that grow on cacao trees are pollinated and grow into the actual cacao pod that is so valued for its beans (Coe and Coe, 21). The pods take around six months to completely ripen. These ripe pods are then harvested to get the coveted beans to make chocolate. The animated video below is one we watched in lecture explaining how complicated the process of growing a cacao tree can be and how other animals are involved. Given all of the intricate steps involved in getting one ripe cacao pod, it is no wonder so much emphasis has been placed on the botanical studies of Theobroma cacao. It is a plant that supplies an enormous industry across the world and takes a great deal of care to grow properly.

Royal Botanical Garden video on the complex process of growing a cacao tree

Theobroma cacao has spread across the world since its European discovery. Today, 74% of cacao is produced in Africa, 17% in the Americas and 9% in Asia Pacific (Leissle). The expansion of the cacao tree to Africa and Asia Pacific was due to human globalization, but even humans could not grow cacao out of its natural geographic location of 20 degrees north and south of the equator, as all of the places it grows today still fit in this band. The image below shows how tightly the cacao growing areas stay around the equator. Plantations have been created to grow cacao trees in large quantities to produce massive amounts of chocolate. A focus on the botany of the tree is imperative to the success of the entire industry. Theobroma cacao is a plant that needs a specific environment to produce cacao pods, which cannot be ignored even with today’s modern science.

Map from the Royal Botanical Garden showing the areas Theobroma cacao is grown along the equator, both as a native and introduced plant. This map is not exhaustive of the locations but gives a general overview.

            The natural history of cacao has seen it spread from the Amazon region of South America to plantations worldwide. Yet we still do not know all there is about the plant. In 2010, Mars, Incorporated funded a genome project for Theobroma cacao to try and learn more about the optimal ways to grow the tree and identify areas to genetically modify it to be more fruitful (Pollack). There are still studies being conducted on the genetic components of the cacao plant today. On the other hand, the botanical studies of Theobroma cacao in the past have created a collective knowledge that allows it to be grown in other parts of the world, and even in someone’s own home. A gardening website boasts ‘Grow Your Own Delicious Chocolate’, and has detailed instructions on how to care for a cacao tree in someone’s own backyard (Logee’s Growers). A video that accompanied the online instructions is included below, showing how much knowledge and care is required to grow a single cacao tree in a greenhouse. It takes meticulous care, but it can be done because of the collective knowledge built throughout the centuries of cacao cultivation.

Logee’s video on how to grow your own chocolate tree

            Theobroma cacao, the food of the gods, still has a deity-like presence over the world today. It is the source of chocolate, a billion-dollar industry and a food loved by all. However, it took hundreds of years of studying the natural history and botany of the cacao tree to be able to grow it successfully in large quantities worldwide. It is a special tree that takes special care, and we have the chocolate production we love today because of the botanical studies performed to know the ins and outs of Theobroma cacao.

Works Cited

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

Grow Your Own Delicious Chocolate (Theobroma Cacao). https://www.logees.com/growcacao. Accessed 13 Mar. 2019.

Hart, John Hinchley. Cacao: Treatise on the Cultivation and Curing of Cacao; Botany and Nomenclature of the Same, and Hints on the Selection and Management of Estates. Government Printing Office, 1892.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Morris, D. Cacao: How to Grow and How to Cure It. Government Printing Establishment, 1882.

Pollack, Andrew. “DNA of Cocoa Bean Tree Sequenced by Mars and Hershey.” The New York Times, 15 Sept. 2010. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/15/business/15chocolate.html.

“Theobroma Cacao L. | Plants of the World Online | Kew Science.” Plants of the World Online, http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:320783-2. Accessed 13 Mar. 2019.

Wright, Henry. Theobroma Cacao or Cocoa, Its Botany, Cultivation, Chemistry and Diseases. 1907.

Cacao and its Varieties

Cacao products come in many varieties, some of which begin with the beans themselves. While not always immediately distinct, the seeds and the trees from which they are obtained both display considerable diversity. This diversity is of considerable importance both in study of the tree and to the industry surrounding its products. Generally, a few major variants of cacao are commercially recognized. This text aims to provide an overview of the major varieties of Theobroma cacao, of their significance to the groups involved in their utilization, and on how these groups are themselves important in defining these varieties. The different varieties of cacao are often presented as definite categories, even as specific cultivars to consumers. However, the definitions of these varieties tend to be rather inexact, and often do not correspond closely if at all to botanical knowledge. Indeed, much of the categorization of cacao instead has historical, geographical and recently, economical origins. Nevertheless, differences between trees and trends in these do exist even if their naming may be inaccurate. Further, genetic diversity; whether displayed by varieties or otherwise, of cacao trees is of particular importance to cacao producers, since the diversity in a given cacao population may greatly affect the productivity and health of that population.

The cacao tree, or Theobroma cacao is an undergrowth tree which requires rather specific conditions for successful cultivation. The tree requires locations that provide it with moisture and an environment with what might be describes as rich, or messy environment, the better to accommodate the midges which pollinate the tree. Of particular note is that the cacao tree is susceptible to many afflictions, such as blights, fungi, pod rots and other pests and diseases. Thus, the cacao tree is a remarkably fickle plant, the cultivation of which presents many difficulties. As shall be further investigated below, different varieties of the plant may exhibit different degrees of resistance however; while genetic variety, more specifically, is of special importance. (Coe, The True History of Chocolate, p. 19 – 21)

Cacao cultivars and terroir in marketing. Image credit: Own work.

According to recent analysis, the genus Theobroma may be subdivided into 22 distinct species, most of which grow mainly in the Amazon basin. Theobroma cacao also seems to have originated in this area, but has, at least in part due to human activity migrated north into Mesoamerica. (S & M Coe, The True History of Chocolate, p. 24 – 25). Theobroma cacao is commonly divided into three or four main varieties, each with various subdivisions. Many of these varieties are contentious however, subject both to varying definitions and levels of recognition. Many varieties are defined by historic usage and location rather than strictly botanically, and perhaps their most important utility is as a marketing tool. (Leissle, Kristy, Cocoa, p.163)

The ancient spatial separation between South American and Mesoamerican cacao trees itself defines the main, perhaps most definite cacao varieties: the criollo variety (Theobroma cacao ssp. cacao), defined by long, heavily ridged pods is native to Mesoamerica. Criollo, or “local” variety commonly counts as the most prized and was commonly grown by the Aztecs and Mayans. While this variety is often considered to be of superior quality, it is also particularly vulnerable to disease and pests. Remarkably, this cultivar is also perhaps the only one supported by actual genetic evidence (Leissle, Kristy, Cocoa, p.165)

Forastero cacao (Theobroma cacao ssp. sphaerocarpum), defined by its round pods is native to South America. The forastero, or “foreign” variety is, though less prized, the most widely produced cacao; making for most of world production. Though its taste may be considered inferior, this variety is considered sturdier and more resistant than Criollo. Though the distinction between these varieties is one of the most common and arguably most definite, it already demonstrates how cacao is commonly labelled for political, economic or geographical, rather than botanical purposes. As hinted at by their very names, the distinction between the two originated after the conquest of Mesoamerica, when the Criollo, or local populations, which had declined along with the native inhabitants were supplemented with forastero, that is, foreign stock brought in from south America. (Leissle, Kristy, Cocoa, p.163)

Three varieties of cacao. From the left: Forastero, Trinitario, Criollo. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Insofar as they may be considered useful botanical categories, the closeness of these particular varieties is demonstrated by their having retained the ability to produce fertile hybrids: they are also commonly considered ancestral to most other varieties. A third major variety is Trinitario, which is already somewhat poorly defined as any hybrid between criollo and forastero. (S & M Coe, The True History of Chocolate, p. 26). These major varieties of cacao together make for most worldwide cacao production, with the forastero being most prominent, providing around 80 % of all cacao. In addition to these three, various other varieties of cacao may be identified, notably the nacional variety. Each of these major varieties also contains various more or less obscure sub-varieties, such as (West African) Amelonado, which are often defined mainly, even exclusively by growing locality.

Global distribution of the main cacao varieties. Blue: Criollos, Green: Forasteros, Red: Trinitarios. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite their limited utility for biological purposes, the actual variety in cacao is of considerable importance to the cacao industry. To the consumer, these varieties provide some insight into the origins and terroir of cacao.  Meanwhile, to the grower, these varieties are of material significance, since diversity, or lack thereof, may greatly affect the profitability of a cacao plantation. This fact is especially obvious in places where the cacao tree is not native but introduced. The cacao tree, as aforementioned, is rather susceptible to various diseases, and the lack of genetic variety commonly found in introduced populations may exacerbate such issues. This may be observed, for example, in Amelonado cacao in Ghana, introduced there from Brazil. These trees necessarily have rather less genetic variety than traditional cultivars due to the loss of genetic diversity that occurs when a new population is established from a limited selection of a parent population. The difference in genetic diversity may be readily established through comparison with older, traditional populations. This issue is particularly prominent in some parts of Ghana due to poor infrastructure and the repeated use of seeds from the same plantations. The result is unhealthy and hence unproductive trees with low yields: undesirable to any grower. (Motamayor, p. 83 – 84)

Thus, the designations of most cacao varieties are less useful as botanical categories than one might expect based on how these names tend to be used. However, while the relevance of these categories to the biologist may be limited, their wider utility as cultural and economical concepts is considerable. while the designations of cacao varieties are not generally reliable indicators of botanical properties, they are still important both as more general indicators of diversity and as a cultural and economic phenomenon.

Works Cited:

Leissle, Kristy, Cocoa, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2018

Coe, Sophie & Michael, The True History of Chocolate, Thames & Hudson, London, 2013

Motamayor, Lanaud: Molecular Analysis of the Origin and Domestication of Theobroma cacao L. Managing Plant Genetic Diversity. IPGRI 2002, https://pubag.nal.usda.gov/download/14003/PDF (Retrieved 07-03-19)

Multimedia Sources:

Tamorlan, Tres variedades de cacao; Creative Commons 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tres_variedades_de_cacao.jpg

Sémhur, Main cacao species – World distribution map – blank, Creative Commons 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Main_cacao_species_-World_distribution_map-_blank.svg

Taza and Theo: An Investigation of Ethical Chocolate Making

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Recent years have shown the chocolate industry to be riddled with alarming socioeconomic and ethical dilemmas spanning from child labor to racial prejudice and sexism (Berlan 1089-1090). The interwoven issues facing the chocolate industry are daunting and suggest that chocolate cannot be divorced from the web of exploitation that often follows in its wake.  While large chocolate companies like Hershey’s and Mars continue to dominate the industry despite suffering harsh comments from critics, some chocolate companies have taken up the challenge to produce and sell chocolate while intentionally pursuing ethical practices. This investigation takes a look at two small chocolate companies: Taza Chocolate and Theo.

The Companies

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Taza Chocolate

“We make and share stone ground chocolate that is seriously good and fair for all.” 

Taza Chocolate is located in Somerville, Massachusetts and specializes in stone ground chocolate. Taza was launched in 2005 by founder Alex Whitmore and his wife and brand manager, Kathleen Fulton (Taza Chocolate). Whitmore was inspired to produce stone ground chocolate after traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico where he had his first taste of the delicacy and became the apprentice of a molinero to learn how to master the production technique. Taza describes itself as “a pioneer in ethical cacao sourcing” and hails itself as the “first U.S. chocolate maker to establish a third-party certified Direct Trade Cacao Certification program” (Taza Chocolate).

Theo Chocolate

“As a company rooted in cocoa, our mission is to help create a beautiful, compassionate and enduring world by responsibly making delicious and inspiring products for everyone.”

            The Theo cholocate company is located in Seattle, Washington and was founded in 2006 by Joe Whinney. Theo prides itself in being the first “run of organic chocolate” made in the in the United States (Theo Chocolate). The founding of Theo was the legacy of Joe Whinney’s passion for making a difference in the injustice and exploitation he witnessed as he traveled Central America and Africa during the 1990s. Per Theo, their chocolate is crafted with “only the purest ingredients grown in the most sustainable way possible” to meet the “highest standards for organic, Fair Trade, and Fair for Life, organizations which promote equitable trade practices for small farmers abroad (Theo Chocolate).

 

Tackling the Dark Past of Chocolate

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The Problem: Transparency

Although the grim realities of the chocolate industry have been revealed in recent years, the lucrative field is still shrouded in mystery, as many chocolate companies are not forthcorming with the inner workings of their firms. The issue of transparency extends to many foreign governments which are vague and negligent about the treatment of poor cacao laborers in their countries. Taza Chocolate and Theo endeavor to increase their transparency by providing information on their sourcing, bean to bar technique, and certifications.

Taza Chocolate is open to vistors seven days a week to tours and visits. Taza provides a team of “chocolate guides” who are always savailable to answer questions about the companies process and mission (Taza Chocolate). Taza also hosts community events such as its annual Taza Chocolate Block Party, which features food, music, and art. Taza annually posts a “Transparency Report” on its website, which provides import figures for the years production and features the names of specific farmers the company works with (Taza Chocolate).

Theo Chocolate also offers tours, which provide not only a glimpse into its factory and processes, but teaches visitors about the social and environmental issues relation to cacao and cacao farmers. Theo allows its visitors to witness the company’s chocolate making techniques and provides events ranging from children’s classes to chocolate and tea pairing classes (Theo Chocolate). The welcoming atmosphere advertised by the two companies encourages customers to not only visit but engage with the intricacies of the companies’ chocolate making processes. Theo publicizes its pricing guidelines and claims to strive for “all the cocoa farmers they do business with” to taste the chocolate made from their beans. The transparency of these companies keeps customers informed and holds the companies to their commitment to organic and fair chocolate.

 

The Problem: Sourcing

            The sources from which chocolate companies obtain their cacao is a hot topic of debate because of issues such as child labor, slavery, and the exploitation of small farmers. Many of these workers receive unfair wages, work in harsh conditions, and cannot send their children to school. The discourse on sourcing has been significant for over a century, featuring key figures such as William Cadbury, founder of Cadbury Chocolate. In the earlier 1900s, Cadbury encountered trouble in of Sao Tome, an island from which his company obtained cacao beans despite the regions use of slave labor (Satre 19). Cadbury grappled with the issue of slave labor throughout his career, and today Cadbury chocolate is still a key player in the chocolate industry. Unlike the early, unethical history of Cadbury, Taza and Theo both claim to ethically source their chocolate and pay fair prices.

Taza Chocolate sources its cacao from its “Grower Partners” in the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Haiti. Taza provides a detailed profile for each of its cacao producers which featues information including the country region, number of farmers, duration of partnership, tasting notes which contribute to the terroire of their chocolate, history of the region, and pictures of the farmers with Taza employees (Taza Chocolate). The through information Taza provides truly puts faces to the names of the farmers and displays Taza’s direct and personal engagement with their cacao producers.

Theo Chocolate currently sources its cacao from Peru and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Theo also publicizes the sources of some of its other ingredients, such as their Hazelnuts from Turkey and coconuts from the Philippines (Theo Chocolate). Like Taza, Theo regularly visits its cacao suppliers. Theo directly negotiates prices with its suppliers and provides training on suitable agricultural practices. With its model, Theo claims that farmers know how much income to expect from their harvests. While Theo provides the names of its two suppliers, the Norandino Cooperative in Peru and Esco-Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Theo does not provide the same detailed supplier profiles as Taza.

From “Bean to Bar”

Both Taza and Theo outline Theo outline their chocolate making process. Taza’s process moves from roasting to stone grinding in molinos, to preparing the final product. Theo’s process spans from sourcing fine cacao beans to, to conching, to wrapping the finished product—a bean to bar endeavor.

The Problem: Certification

Taza utilizes its own fair trade certification, known as Taza Direct Trade Certified Cacao (Taza Chocolate). Per Taza, this certification does away with “predatory middlemen and abusive labor practices” (Taza Chocolate). Taza Direct Trade guarantees face to face relationship with producers who respect the environment and fair labor. Taza claims its producers provide the company with the best organic cacao and that it pays farmers prices significantly higher than Fair Trade, including a 15 to 20 percent premium.

Theo Chocolate operates under the Fair Trade system. Fair Trade is an international system that awards certifications which ensures that producers have paid a price to enable positive economic growth for the individual and their region (Theo Chocolate). Fair trade claims that its farmers are better able to provide their families with sufficient nutrition and access to healthcare and education.

Theo’s operations are covered under the Fair for Life Fair Trade certification. This certification means that a third party analyzes the company’s operations and keeps it accountable to the Theo commitments to labor and working environments. This specific qualification certifies ethical labor conditions along the entire supply chain, in particular no forced child labor (Theo Chocolate).Theo claims to earn high scores and demonstrate improvement each year. In addition to its Fair Trade certification, Theo chocolate is USDA organic, Non GMO Project verified, and kosher.

While the certifications of Taza and Theo represent a huge step towards fair chocolate production, the certification systems are not without faults. Fair Trade has been criticized for the limited reach of funds in the developing world, as many small farmers do not actually receive the extra funds from the premiums paid by companies (Sylla 90-91). This problem is exacerbated by the extra fees farmers must pay to participate in the program, and the collateral issue of other farmers who lose competition by not participating in the program. Direct trade is viewed as an alternative to the Fair Trade system, promoting direct communication and price negotiation between cacao buyers and farmers. However, Direct Trade also receives criticism for its limited reach and the fragile, temporary relationships that often exist between buyers and sellers. However, the advertising of Taza and Theo claims to combat these shortcomings by advertising the close relationships between their companies and their cacao producers.

The Problem: Advertising

            Advertising in the chocolate industry is often rife with gendered and racialized stereotypes and tropes, with are only perpetuated by the widespread industry (Leissle 126). An example of such advertising, is the Dove chocolate commercial pictured below. In the ad, a woman experiences a tantalizing sensual experience as she consumes the dove chocolate. The appears to primarily target women, who will seek to emulate the experience of the women in the commercial, while others, primarily men, with be attracted by the sexualized overtones of the ad.

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Dove Commercial

 

Taza’s advertisement focuses almost entirely on their chocolate making process. Taza does not exploit the tropes so often relied on by other players in the chocolate industry. Instead, Taza chooses to provide a glimpse into the bean to bar chocolate production process the company boasts so proudly.

 

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Taza Chocolate Advertisement

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Early Theo Chocolate Advertisement. This video features a message from the company’s founder and describe their commitment to ethical practices.

Today, Theo primarily advertises through its website and the images it features. However, the video above advertises Theo’s win of the title “Heart of Seattle”. The video praises the community values and environmental mindfulness of the company since its founding in 2006. Like Taza, the Theo Chocolate advertisement focuses on the unique qualities of the company, rather than stereotypical advertisement techniques.

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Theo Chocolate Advertisement

Granted one must acknowledge that Taza and Theo are both small companies whose ads are not televised, thus their motives and techniques are slightly different than that of a major company like Dove. Nevertheless, the focus of their websites and publicity are on the good-naturedness of their chocolate and production techniques.

________________

With the prevalence on exploitive and secretive chocolate companies, Taza Chocolate and Theo are a refreshing break from the saddening trends. The two small companies truly engage with the chocolate making process from the bean all the way to the bar, functioning on a primarily local rather than global scale. Theo and Taza exemplify the beginning of ethical practices in the chocolate industry, although the industry still has a long way to go before it is equitable for all.

________________

Works Cited

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

Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on

Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana.” Journal of Development Studies, vol.

     49, no. 8, 2013, pp. 1088–1100., doi:10.1080/00220388.2013.780041.

“Dove Chocolate Commercial – Senses.” YouTube, 6 May 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?

      v=SwPwQ4S4op8.

“Home – Spring 2018.” Theo Chocolate, http://www.theochocolate.com/.

Leissle, Kristy. “Cosmopolitan Cocoa Farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate

Advertisements.” Journal of African Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 2012, pp. 121–139.,

doi:10.1080/13696815.2012.736194.

“Our Story.” Theo Chocolate, http://www.theochocolate.com/blog/our-story/.

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

Univ.Press, 2006.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba. The Fair Trade Scandal Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Ohio

University Press, 2014.

Taza Chocolate, director. Taza Chocolate “Bean to Bar.” Vimeo, 8 Dec. 2011,

vimeo.com/33380451.

Theo Chocolate, director. 2018 Heart of Seattle Winner – Theo Chocolate. 18 Apr. 2018,

vimeo.com/265462354.

Theo Chocolate, director. Theo Chocolate. YoutTube, 27 Mar. 2009,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQZLAKq6LgM.

 

 

A New Cacao History? A Differing Narrative of Cacao Beverages in Pre-Colombian America

While chocolate for most people in the United States gathers images of candy bars, delicious desserts, or even hot cocoa, many are also aware of the more traditional style of cacao beverage produced traditionally in Mesoamerica. These early chocolate beverages made from the traditional process of fermenting the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree, drying these fermented seeds, grinding them, and finally adding water to the ground seeds to form a thick beverage are almost omnipresent in Mesoamerican cultures (McNeil 2009).

Modern equivalent to a traditional cacao beverage, with cacao beans around the mug and a cacao pod in the background.

The earliest discovered vessels containing chemical residue of cacao date back to 600-400 B.C.E. from Belize (Dreiss and Greenhill 2008). Traditionally, academics assumed that Theobroma cacao tree was initially cultivated by humans in order to create the type of beverage described above which involves the lengthy process of fermenting, grinding, and mixing the cacao seeds with water.

cacao tree
Theobroma Cacao with cacao pods

Prominent chocolate scholars Sophie and Michael Coe employ this argument to support the hypothesis that Theobroma cacao was first cultivated in Mesoamerica, rather than South America, as the chocolate beverage described above was highly prominent in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, while in Pre-Columbian South America, this drink was absent (Coe and Coe 1996). However, when examining other traditional Mesoamerican and South American uses of comestibles of the Theobroma Cacao tree, a new theory for the initial cultivation of Theobroma Cacao may emerge (Joyce and Henderson 2006).

 

(Video demonstration of the cacao grinding process into a modern cacao drink below)

While the traditional processed chocolate drink described above may have been prominent in Mesoamerica, other traditional beverages using products from Theobroma cacao were extremely common across both Mesoamerica and South America as well. Although many different types of foods and beverages were produced, one that may shed light on the origins of the multi-step traditional chocolate beverage creation process and the initial cultivation of Theobroma cacao is an alcoholic beverage derived from the fermentation of the pulp and seeds found inside cacao pods referred to as “chicha” (Joyce and Henderson 2006). While this alcoholic drink is typically associated with pre-Columbian cultures in South America, and the nonalcoholic processed chocolate beverage discussed initially is associated with pre-Columbian cultures in Mesoamerica, there is evidence to suggest that alcoholic drinks made from fermenting the pulp of cacao pods were produced in pre-Columbian Mayan and Aztec Mesoamerica as well (Joyce and Henderson 2006).

(Video demonstrating the cacao pulp fermentation process)

As such, the discovery of the production of chicha may paint a new picture for the initial cultivation of Theobroma cacao. It does not make intuitive sense to reason that Theobroma cacao was initially cultivated to make the non-alcoholic chocolate beverage, as it is complex lengthy multistep process without clear initial benefits. It makes more sense to hypothesize that the traditional ground nonalcoholic beverage may have arisen out of the byproducts of brewing chicha, as chicha is a necessary byproduct of creating the nonalcoholic traditional chocolate beverage (Joyce and Henderson 2006). This narrative points to the initial cultivation of Theobroma cacao in order to make chicha. The benefits of the fermentation of the seeds would have then become discovered as a byproduct of the fermentation process to make chicha. In fact, the fermented cacao seeds may have then been eaten as a source of dietary fat, similar to how palm seeds were eaten in Mesoamerica for their rich fat content (Joyce and Henderson 2006). Additionally, cacao seeds would have been impossible to separate from the pulp prior to fermentation due to the gluey texture of the cacao pulp.

AtlasHistory-SanLorezoVessels
Early Olmec pottery cacao vessels found at San Lorenzo

 

This new narrative of the non-alcoholic chocolate drink arising out of the chicha fermentation process possesses further implications for the history of cacao in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. There is widespread evidence of the ritualized nature of serving cacao as a means of social performance (Dreiss and Greenhill 2008). The serving of the traditional cacao beverage utilized special serving and preparing vessels across Mesoamerica. Later pottery vessels from the post classic period (1000-1521 C.E.) are designed with a flared neck in order to facilitate frothing when pouring into cups, a necessary step for the traditional cacao drink to suspend the ground seeds in water in order to acquire the correct consistency (Joyce and Henderson 2006). Older pottery vessels tend to have narrow taller necks, which are not as suited to this frothing technique.

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A Mexican woman frothing cacao in the traditional manner by pouring it from a vessel into cups. This is an early colonial drawing. 

The new flared neck bottle form develops around 900-700 B.C.E. In the social ceremonies in which cacao was served, the hosting party would create social debt to honor guests through the serving a feast prepared specifically for the guests (McNeil 2009). However, a fermented drink such as chicha would have already been in production due to the lengthy fermentation process. Fermented drinks would not have been given the same credit as the specifically prepared feasts for ceremonial occasions. Creating a performance out of serving the beverage would then circumvent this issue (Joyce and Henderson 2006).  These types of drink serving performances were commonplace with traditional non-alcoholic cacao beverages in later Mesoamerican society, with the hosting party adding other ingredients such as flowers or ground seeds at the time of serving (Dreiss and Greenhill 2008).  The process of grinding cacao seeds into a fine meal, may have originated as a method to increase the amount of social debt and honor to guests as the ground seeds were added to fermented cacao beverages at the time of serving. As such, these grounds had to be frothed into the drink at the time of serving creating a performance aspect to the drink. Therefore, this necessary performance aspect of the fermented drink may be the origins of the non-alcoholic varieties made from ground seeds and water which became universal across Mesoamerica (Joyce and Henderson 2006).

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Passing of a vessel containing frothed cacao during a ritual ceremony.

Through examination of the use of fermented cacao beverages, we reanalyzed the narrative of the origin of the cultivation of Theobroma cacao and discovered a potential new and enlightening prelude to the traditional origin story of modern cacao products. Cacao may have been first used in order to create the alcoholic “chicha” beverage which then gave rise to the traditional multistep nonalcoholic cacao beverage as a byproduct of complex serving performances of the alcoholic one during social ceremonies to honor guests.

Works Cited:

Christian, Mark. “A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE.” The C-Spot, www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/.

Coe, Sophie D and Coe Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Dreiss, Meredith L., and Greenhill, Sharon. Chocolate : Pathway to the Gods. University ofArizona Press, 2008.

George, Andy. “Fermenting & Roasting | How to Make Everything: Chocolate Bar.” YouTube,How to Make Everything, 11 Feb. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUJ0heMcE-g.

Gross, Robin. “How to Make Authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate (Chocolate Caliente).” The Spruce, 30 Aug. 2017, http://www.thespruce.com/authentic-mexican-hot-chocolate-4148366.

Joyce, Rosemary A, and Henderson, John S. “The Development of Cacao Beverages in Formative Mesoamerica.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2006.

McNeil, C. L..Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: UniversityPress of Florida, 2009. Project MUSE,

Oneil, Megan E. “Chocolate, Food of the Gods, in Maya Art.” Unframed, LACMA, 27 Oct. 2016, unframed.lacma.org/2016/10/27/chocolate-food-gods-maya-art.

wilmo55. “Preparing Drinking Chocolate near Oaxaca, Mexico.” YouTube, YouTube, 25 Apr.2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlAg7zIR57k.

To chokola’j – Chocolate’s History as a Connector of People

The word “chocolate” potentially traces its etymological roots back to the Quiché Mayan verb chokola’j –  translated “to drink chocolate together” (Coe and Coe 118). While there remains debate over the exact origins of the word, there is no question the processed seeds from the fruit of the theobroma cacao tree that we now call chocolate or cacao has been a unique connector of individuals, groups, and cultures throughout its history. By examining the historical record: Depictions of ancient Maya and Mixtec marriage ritual, vessels from the ancestral Pueblo of North America, and paintings portraying New England and British chocolate houses of the 1600s and 1700s, we will see chocolate’s historical significance as a connector of people.

While the first evidence of chocolate cultivation traces back to the Mokoya and Olmec of early Mesoamerica, it was through the Maya (250 CE to 900 CE) and Mixtec (1000 CE to 1500 CE), where we first see chocolate’s significance as a social connector of individuals and families particularly through marriage ceremony (Presilla 10-11). The first example of cacao’s centrality to marriage can be seen through a Maya ritual called tac haa, roughly translated “to serve chocolate”.  In this ritual, the family of the groom-to-be would “invite the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to discuss the marriage and serve him (chocolate) drink” (Martin “Mesoamerica”). The image below illustrates the communal and ritualistic aspects of the marriage ceremony with a vessel of chocolate clearly at the center.

tac haa
A vessel of chocolate at the center of the marriage ceremony of “tac haa”, illustrating chocolate’s centrality in bringing individuals and families together in Maya culture (Martin “Mesoamerica”).

The next example recorded from the Codex Zouche-Nuttal shows the Mixtec marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent (1051 CE) (Dreiss and Greenhill 64). Lady Serpent holds a cup of chocolate with two hands offering it to Lord Eight Deer as a gesture to cement their marriage union.

LordEightDeerandLadySerpent
From the Codex Zouche-Nuttal, Lady Thirteen Serpent offering Lord Eight Deer a cup of chocolate to seal the marriage union in Mixtec society (1051 CE) (Martin “Mesoamerica”).

A similar example from the Chol Maya elevates the cacao bean itself as a key element of the marriage union. As described by Eric Thompson:

The form of marriage is: the bride gives the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, and also gives him five grains of cacao, and says to him “These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband.” And he also gives her some new skirts and another five grains of cacao, saying the same thing. (Coe and Coe 61)

It is clear through the examination of these Maya and Mixtec artifacts that cacao was essential in knitting together the fabric of early Mesoamerican families and society. As we travel north, we will next examine ancient Pueblo artifacts discovered in pre-colonial New Mexico and Utah that suggest the surprisingly early presence of cacao in North America.

Until very recently, it was thought there was very little interaction between the Maya of Mesoamerica and the Pueblo of southwestern North America but recent chocolate research suggests otherwise. These two cultures may have been more interconnected than ever imagined – with chocolate being at the center of this cultural exchange (Haederle).  In 2009, University of New Mexico researcher Patricia Crown observed similarities between drinking vessels found at the historic Pueblo site of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (1000 – 1125 CE) and those used in Maya ceremony (Crown and Hurst). Crown turned to W. Jeffrey Hurst, a chemist for the Hershey Company, to test for the possibility of cacao residue on the Chaco Canyon vessels. Hurst tested five shards of pottery, three of which confirmed the presence of theobromine – a biomarker unique to cacao (Crown and Hurst).

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The presence of theobromine found on vessels from Chaco Canyon, New Mexico suggesting Maya and Pueblo relationship through trade of chocolate (Crown and Hurst).

Building on Crown and Hurst’s findings, in 2016 University of Pennsylvania researcher Dorothy Washburn examined pottery fragments originating from another historic Pueblo site located at Blanding, Utah. The vessel fragments tested also returned strong traces of theobromine, pushing the potential timeline for Maya and Pueblo interaction back 300-400 years to around 750 CE (Mozdy).

Chaco Canyon Map
Distribution of cacao cultivation in Central America showing closest major areas of production 1,200 miles from Chaco, Canyon, New Mexico CE 1502 (Crown and Hurst).

Considering the closest cacao source at that time was 1,200-1,400 miles away in Mesoamerica, these findings suggest the incredible lengths at which cacao traveled north. Says Crown of the New Mexico findings, “The only way for this material to get [to New Mexico] is [that] either people from Chaco walked down to get it, or it was traded hand to hand from Mesoamerica to Chaco, or people from Mesoamerica came up and traded it” (Haederle). The great distances a delicacy like cacao traveled and exchanged hands between the Maya and Pueblo elucidates chocolate’s connectivity and its social impact. From the ancient Pueblo culture of the southwest, we move next to New England and Britain of the 1600s and 1700s where we find paintings depicting coffee and chocolate houses as a forum for the vibrant exchange of ideas.

In both Boston and London, coffee and chocolate houses were at the center of political and cultural life where men of the emerging merchant class would “gather to discuss the news of the day and dangerous ideas like democracy or things that threatened the political elite of the time” (Martin “Introduction”). In Boston, we find the establishment of the first North American coffee and chocolate house as a political declaration in and of itself. Two women, Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard, successfully petitioned the city “to keepe a house of publique Entertainment for the selling of Cofffee and Chucaloette” (Martin “Introduction”). In London, members of nascent political parties would often gather at these houses and would eventually turn them into a virtual headquarters (Coe and Coe 223). These establishments were so threatening, King Charles II attempted to shut them down calling them “hotbeds of sedition” (Coe and Coe 167). However, equally reflective of the social position these houses had come to have in British society, public outcry prevented their suppression and they continued to grow in importance.

interior_of_a_london_coffee-house_17th_century
17th Century painting underscoring the significance of coffee and chocolate houses as forums for political and cultural exchange (Wikimedia Commons).

In the 1600s and 1700s of New England and Britain, we see chocolate’s fundamental role in society as a reason for communal and political gathering and the debate of important ideas, not unlike the role coffee houses serve today.

Through examining the historical record depicting Maya and Mixtec marriage ritual, ancient vessels found in Pueblo North America, and images portraying coffee and chocolate houses in Boston and London, we see chocolate’s importance in binding together individuals and families, bridging different groups and cultures thousands of miles away, and serving as a reason for people to come together to discuss the important issues of the day. Reverberating from chocolate’s communal past is perhaps a paradigm to best view chocolate’s current social, economic, and environmental sustainability challenges. To chokola’j – to bring together disparate individuals and groups to have meaningful discussion and debate over the important issues surrounding chocolate itself – is perhaps the vessel we drink to in order to secure chocolate’s sustainable future.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Crown, Patricia L., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “The distribution of cacao cultivation in Central America and Mexico in A.D. 1502, relative to Chaco Canyon” Digital Image. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 17 Feb. 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/7/2110. Accessed 28 Feb 2018

Crown, Patricia L., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Evidence of Cacao Use in the Prehispanic American Southwest.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 17 Feb. 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/7/2110. Accessed 28 Feb 2018

Dreiss, Meredith L. and Greenhill, Sharon E. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2008. Print.

Haederle, Michael. “Mystery of Ancient Pueblo Jars Is Solved.” New York Times, 3 Feb. 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/us/04cocoa.html. Accessed 1 Mar 2018

Martin, Carla D. “Introduction.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 24 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 31 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Mozdy, Michael. “Utah’s Ancient Cacao: A Surprising Find.” Natural History Museum of Utah, University of Utah, 4 Aug. 2016, nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/08/04/utah%E2%80%99s-ancient-cacao-surprising-find. Accessed 02 Mar 2018

Presilla, Maricel. 2009 The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press. Berkley, CA. Print.

Unknown. Artist “Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th century”. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. 01 Mar. 2018 http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~sajamato/description.html

Let Us Raise a Vessel to Cacao… Mayan Style!

Do you remember the last time you had a cup of hot chocolate? Was it served in a mug, topped with whipped cream? Or maybe you sipped it from a to-go cup from your favorite drive-thru restaurant. Most of the time we don’t fuss with what we’re drinking our hot chocolate from because we’re too busy enjoying the aroma and experience this time honored beverage provides us. Yet, ancient cultures, alike the Mayans, respected their cacao drinking methods and admired the cup they drank from just as much as they prized the drink itself. In many cases, cacao wouldn’t have been drunk if it wasn’t out of an artistically treasured and symbolized vessel… a far cry from how we view and present our version of hot chocolate today. Nevertheless, this customary beverage and the material in which it was once presented in was systematically ritualized throughout the ancient Classic Maya culture, proving a frothy cup of cacao was more than just something to cheers with.

The Classic Maya period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.) was considered to be the most influential and profound stage of the ancient Mayan civilization. Fabulous accomplishments, such as towering pyramids and vast palaces throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, beautifully decorated ceramics, and a distinguishable writing system flourished during this time. This was also a time when the Maya elite prospered, and their admiration for the finer things in life influenced their daily lives and dietary intake, ritualizing items such as cacao and the vessels they were ingested from. David Stuart, an archaeologist and epigrapher who specializes in Mesoamerican cultures, describes in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, the ways in which the Maya civilization upheld the role of cacao within their society. Stuart suggests, “The importance of cacao in Classic Maya society was not widely appreciated until the decipherment of glyphic texts on ceramics in the 1980s, when it became clear that seemingly countless ceramic vessels were inscribed with a dedicatory formula identifying them as drinking vessels for chocolate” (Stuart 184).

Around the same time those descriptive discoveries were uncovered, much excitement arose when two vessels were found in Guatemala containing chemical remains of cacao (Theobromine), a study that was performed by W. Jeffery Hurst, a chemist at the Hershey Foods Technical Center (Carla D. Martin, Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods,” January 31, 2018). By identifying the Maya word and glyph for cacao (ka-ka-wa), including the remains of Theobromine, archaeologists soon realized the extensive amount of Maya vessels which were artistically depicted with the kakaw glyph, symbolizing the importance of cacao within their culture, alongside the vessels in which they were consumed from (Stuart 184). In most early cases, a vessel that depicted the kakaw glyph was considered to be apart of a Maya elites collection, illustrating the consumption of cacao was reserved for those of importance within the community.

The Kakaw Glyph
Figure 1. The kakaw glyph (ka-ka-wa) in the Dresden Codex. a. The individual syllables of ka-ka-wa. b. The representation of the God of Death holding an offering of a bowl of cacao. Drawings by Carlos Villacorta from the Dresden Codex (1976).

Maricel E. Presilla, a cultural historian, chef, and author of the book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, reviews the ways in which the kakaw glyph was depicted on Maya pots and drinking vessels, and goes on to say, “Dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars, included along with other furnishings in burial chambers, depict chocolate as a crucial, central element of opulent feasts” (Presilla 12). Archaeologists have also come to believe that the vessel in which the cacao drink was drunk from had different levels of significance and cultural value, through the means of the artwork depicted on the cup and the individuals utilizing this piece of material culture (Presilla 12). Realizations as such have contributed to many other professionals from a plethora of academic fields, such as anthropologists and art curators, into the mix, creating a vast amount of research conducted around this specific topic. Dr. Dorie Reents-Budet, an Art Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, describes the functionality of these impressive vessels in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, and considers these vessels, “Function as containers for edibles and also as portable props whose myths-political imagery lent power and prestige to their owners and the event during which they were used” (Reents-Budet 210).

As a result, these elaborate cacao drinking vessels served up a frothy-drink of dualism between the vessel itself and the individual enjoying this influential beverage. Illustrations of exclusive banquets held by the Maya elite were plentiful, and according to Reents-Budet, these elite banquets which included fantastic kakaw serving vessels, “Transcended their primary function as food service wares and were transformed into indispensable status markers and essential gifts; that is, they became social currency” (Reents-Budet 213). The aftereffect of these frequent banquets lead to those creative kakaw drinking vessels to be perceived as social currency and a higher status, and soon after, production of cacao drinking vessels by “highly trained artisans and renewed painters” (Reents-Budet 214) was off and running.

A Late Classic Maya Vase
Figure 2. A Late Classic Maya period polychrome vase for serving chocolate beverages and giving as gifts during elite feasts. Collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K2800).

As a result of this newfound kakaw drinking vessel popularity, the Maya civilization never looked back, and the ideals around this foamy, ritualized beverage flourished for the rest of their reign. Through mysterious circumstances, the decline of the Maya culture happened sometime between the late eighth and ninth century, creating a sense of wonder around this distinguished ancient civilization. While we may never know what truly happened to the Mayans and their artistic culture, the remnants of their treasured vessels and love for cacao has overcome their deterioration, and continues to thrive in our modern day society through academic means and pure curiosity for what was once a fascinating and complex society.

Depiction of a Cacao Beverage Being Frothed
Figure 3. Classic Maya period depicting the aerating of a kakaw beverage by pouring the liquid from one jar to another placed on the floor. Collections from the Princeton Art Museum (acc. no. 75-17, the Hans and Dorthy Widenmann Foundation). Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K511).

References Cited:

Martin, Carla D. Mesoamerica and the “food gods.” Harvard University, Jan. 2018, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XF-lM9Z9iks0cVhUFRJ1QWBokKTRrdvZISwAJVSe_Ag/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_18

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Reents-Budet, Dorie. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 202-223.

Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 184-201.

Dumbledore Loves Chocolate
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Dir. Chris Columbus. Warner Bros., 2001. DVD.

 

Ethnography on Chocolate: Socioeconomic Visual Culture, Mesoamerican Origins, & Contemporary Perspectives

The purpose of this small-scale ethnography is to examine the social significance of chocolate from a cross-cultural perspective. Through interviewing various members of my local community that were born in different regions of Mexico and Central America, I document here their experiences and observances of chocolate.

Experienced through consumption or non-consumption, and observed through their emic perspective, there are underscoring themes exposed amongst the roles in which chocolate has played throughout each of their own lives. Within the context of those personal relationships with chocolate, an interaction between social and economic functions of their state and country may be contemporaneous to their outlook. Although this simultaneity is not always the circumstance, motifs emerge as their uniqueness transpires. Effectually, their contributed insight has actualized a microcosm of chocolates’ socio-cultural diversity and likenesses.

While conducting the interviews with members of my community, the aim was to first listen to their observances, and to then ask questions of clarification to assist in their thought process. The framework of my Q&A was designed this way to acquire a qualitative study, so that this retelling would reflect the individual perspectives of each subject, synchronously providing a glimpse into the societal experience. To depict those experiences through a cultural historical lens, that of which illustrated itself during most of the interviews already, I asked questions about their culture as a whole and how they thought chocolate was generally regarded in their own communities.

This study is not meant to define those relationships, but to highlight multiplicities within these individual cross- cultural accounts. Over reflections of my own and of the human subjects in this ethnographic study, I hope to provide sufficient ­imagery of historic milieu within the functional roles chocolate has played in personal experience and in society.

Origins

Theobroma Cacao, or the Food-of-the-God’s Cacao, is widely accepted by botanists and scholars as indigenous to Mesoamerica. Evidence of its cultivation is indicative of the role it played in ancient civilizations like the Mixe-Zoquean-speaking Olmecs (1500 BCE – 400 BCE). At the famed Olmec archaeological site in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, evidence has been found of the term “Kakawa” used by the Olmec as early as 1000 BCE (Coe & Coe, 1996). See on the map below, San Lorenzo is west of present day Guatemala, and north of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

 

San Lorenzo on the map 2
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is a famed archaeological site, well known for the massive Olmec stone heads excavated there

 

We find in the archaeological record, the ways in which early civilizations illustrated cacao, or “Kakawa” on their pottery. This being a significant attribute to understand the role chocolate played in their livelihoods and rituals. According to Maricel Presilla in her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, “it was the Maya who brought chocolate making to a high art… building on the foundation left behind by other Mesoamerican cultures”, like that of the Olmecs and other sibling tribes (2009).

 

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Buenavista vase, Buenavista del Cayo, Belize

 

See this Classic Maya vase from the seventh century portraying the Maize God in an “unending dance, symbolizing both the creation of the universe and also his cycle of death and rebirth” (Takushi, Pioneer Press).

Maya Classic period (250 – 900 CE) vessels show quite literally the function of cacao as it was for drinking, as well as the relative role it played in Mayan life though various representations of the divine.

This is one of the many Classic period vessels that was found to contain cacao residues inside. We know it was used to hold chocolate because cacao is the only plant in the region with both the compounds Theobromine and Caffeine, “a unique marker for the presence of cacao in pre-Columbian artifacts” (Cheong, 2011). To verify the vessels were used to hold chocolate was an important piece to the archaeological record. It provided contextual knowledge when deciphering the imagery or glyphs depicted on the vessels.

Affirmed in the glyphs of drinking vessels from this period, there is evidence of “well established cacao-chocolate terminology”. On the Buenavista vase shown above, we see “tree-fresh cacao” inscribed.  From the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) of the glyphs you see banded around the top of the vessel, the characters that make the Maya name for cacao, “Ka-Ka-Wa” were deciphered. What strikes me the most about this piece is the seemingly relative “tree-fresh cacao” to the Maize God’s cyclical existence. (Presilla, 2009)

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Buenavista vase closeup: Maya glyphs depicted translate to “tree-fresh cacao”, “Ta-Tsih-Te’el Kakawa” (Prescilla)

I particularly find this vessel so interesting when we look at the role of chocolate in culture because it reflects a cyclical ideology of their ecological relationship to their land; in the sustenance it provides, the concept of time through death and rebirth, and their Gods all-encompassing role within those cycles.

Field Study

A few years ago in 2013 I came to know a few young men and women from the northern Mexican state of Sonora – (follow the link to read a brief history of Seri Indians of Sonora). They were working and studying here on visa’s while we were employed at a busy restaurant in the heart of downtown Boston. What better place than behind the bar to nose around and pick into people’s lives for cultural insights! Just kidding on the nose-picking… but seriously, even minute conversations with guests created thought-provoking observations. During their multiple terms of residency in Boston over the years, these talented intellectual Sonoran natives and I connected on Mexican – American culture alike, and apart. Upon reaching out to ask if anyone would be interested in participating in this modest ethnographic study, my request was received most graciously. They have all elected to omit fully identifying information, so for the purposes of this study, I will refer to them by their first name only. Below I have included their perspectives on the role chocolate has played throughout their lives.

Andrés began by explaining Mexico as a large country where the culture is full of diversity. “Every state has their own culture about everything – food, traditional parties, our dialect and slang”. With that being said, in the state of Sonora where he lives he doesn’t use chocolate and cacao the way he knows it is used in the southern states of the country like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and Tabasco. Andrés has observed the influence of cacao beans in southern Mexico because the cacao growing region produces a lot of recipes that involve cacao and chocolate.

When I asked what he knows about Mesoamerican uses for cacao, he remembers learning from childhood that they used it as currency, and he understood they sometimes would use it in beauty treatments. On that note, I recollect a fortuitous conversation about skin care had between myself and a female of Mexican ancestry I met while servicing wedding hair and makeup to her cousin’s bridal party, circa summer 2015 in East Boston – Indeed, I am not only an aspiring Anthropologist, also a Cosmetologist. My thoughts are usually occupied by anthropological inquiry on a daily basis, which inevitably grants unique opportunity for cultural discussions with the people I meet. Although not a part of this ethnography, she let me know back then about her family recipe for a skin care regimen that contains cacao. Her grandmother and her aunts would grind down cacao beans into a powder, “cocoa powder” minus the hydraulic press. They would mix the antioxidant rich powder with other grinded down local herbs, add water to create a paste-like texture and apply generously to the skin.

“Lather. Dry. Rinse. Repeat.” – she persisted. Yum.

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The Spa At Hotel Hershey seems to know just how to indulge all the senses with chocolate

 

For the purposes of this study, I was curious about chocolate in spa treatments, as I have heard echoes of the luxury before. Take a look at The Spa At The Hotel Hershey or examples of just a few contemporary accommodations created for chocolate in the beauty industry.

Andrés expressed to me that Sonora being just below Arizona, his culture is more- so “American” than the way Mexicans live in the south. It is in his experience and observation the misconception of Mexican culture as being one. I think any educated person understands culture, language, economy, etc. vary across spaces of human population. Yet, for those who generalize a nation’s people by its borders, Andrés and his community experience the bias. He grew up with a collection of influences “by the things Americans do”. For example, one of his earliest memories of eating chocolate was during Halloween. They’re also heavily influenced by “spring break madness”, as he defined the season. He grew up consuming chocolate predominantly made by the big corporations, like Mars. His notable favorites being the Snicker and M&Ms. “In the south they don’t have that influence, they don’t experience American Halloween as we do”.

Carlos V chocolate bars are the Nestlé- proclaimed “# 1 chocolate brand in Mexico with over 70 years in the market!… Because of its unique and mild flavor, it is considered the reference of chocolate for Mexicans.” The Aztec stylized imagery first designed to brand the chocolate before it was bought by Nestlé sometime in the 1980’s was created by Fabrica de Chocolates La Azteca, S.A. de C.V. Jason Liebig on his blog, Collecting Candy chronicles his findings in the L.M. Kallok Confectioners Collection of antique packaging. Most notable about the evolution of the branding is first the Aztec styling alongside the “Imperial Coat of Arms” for “by the grace of God, Carolus V Imperator (emporer)”. Then with the English labeling introduced we see a change in the ingredients as well (which was apparent of each label seen in Leibig’s compilation from the beginning to the end. “A tie-in with the film Toy Story, which tells us La Azteca was still the brand’s sole owner as late as 1995″ is interesting where we see Quaker Oats leaving its insignia on the label by the late 1990’s.

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Not one of the Sonoran’s I interviewed has tried a Carlos V chocolate bar but they have all heard of it at some point in their life through advertisements. Eduardo attests to Andrés’ personal account of diversity from the southern regions in Mexico. Dia de los Muertos is “not celebrated as much as the south, but we do things like going to the cemetery”, Andrés says. Eduardo told me that they celebrate Dia de los Muertos on November 2. “We celebrate in memory of the people who are no longer with us and usually at the tombstones we put special things they liked when they were alive. Chocolates is usually one of them”. Both Andrés and Eduardo did not have a definitive sense of the historical reason for chocolate being placed on gravesites, but they both know it as a long- standing tradition and ritual in celebrating their deceased ancestors. Fernanda, another Sonoran native, added some insight to this practice of memorial. She told me that usually the graveyards are managed by local churches or publicly owned so in contrast to the majority of graveyards that are privately owned in the US, the families play a greater role in gravesite maintenance of their deceased. In this way, chocolate serves a social function in their celebrations.

Interpretations

Shown below, Dr. Martin presented in class this semester some of the ways Maya and Mixtec society visually depicted the functions that cacao played within their cultural practices and belief systems. Royal marriages necessitated the use of currency in the negotiation, so we see in the Codex Nuttall how cacao was a part of the price for the bride. Eduardo remembers learning in school that Mayans used to used the cacao “as a coin to buy everything, from goods to wives”. A relative topic for further study would be in the ways chocolate was introduced to the elite. Diffused out of Mesoamerica first by the Spanish, the Europeans assimilated to its royal regard and used chocolate in the women’s dowry through royal inter-marriages – that of which played a great role in spreading chocolate throughout Europe.

Another example (seen below) comes from the Madrid Codex where we see cacao being exchanged, portraying a give-and-take linkage between their concepts of cyclical time (lunar goddess) and their environment (rain god). I find this imagery especially expressive to their belief of the divine relationship to their human existence and sustenance on earth. Lastly, from the Codex Nuttall we see a royal funerary procession in “Twelve Movements”. Within the tomb depicted at the bottom right of the artwork lies a “vessel of foaming cacao beverage… to ease the soul’s journey to the underworld”. (Martin)

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Eduardo recounts drinking cups of hot chocolate since he can remember. While traveling south to Puebla state he tried their “typical meal, mole, and it’s made of cacao”. What he knows about the Maya and cacao is how they used to prepare beverages and meals like the Puebla “mole”. “We have different tribes and culture but we learned about it in school and I experiences it myself while traveling south. Cacao is still a huge deal in south Mexico.”

 

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“Mole” Ingredients. Presilla, 2009

 

See the dozen or more ingredients to make the traditional “thick, baroque sauce, mole” from Xalapa, Veracruz (Presilla), north of Puebla state in Mexico. Presilla notes that each ingredient is “processed in sequence, each at its own time” (2009).

As the mole is diverse in ingredients, and rich in unique Mesoamerican culture, so too – as these contemporary perspectives have illustrated, are the people of the region diversely interwoven with it’s history and unique place on Earth’s sphere.

***

 

Sources:

Campbell, Lyle & Kaufman, Terrence. 1976. A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs: American Antiquity, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 80-89 Published by: Society for American Archaeology http://www2.hawaii.edu/~lylecamp/LC%20Lx%20look%20at%20Olmecs%20JSTOR.pdf

Cheong, Kong (Powis, T.; Cyphers, A.; Gaikwad, T.W.; Grivetti, L.) 2011. Cacao use and the San Lorenzo Olmec: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 108(21):8595-600 · May 2011 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51110764_Cacao_Use_and_the_San_Lorenzo_Olmec

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996] The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson

Johnston, Bernice. 1997. The Seri Indians of Sonora Mexico. The University of Arizona Press http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/onlinebks/SERIS/HISTORY.HTM

Liebig, Jason. 2012. Carlos V – Building a history for the King of Chocolate Bars http://www.collectingcandy.com/wordpress/?p=2958

Martin, Carla. 2017 AAAS E-119 Lecture Slides. February 1st, pp.23, 47, 53, 57

Mintz, Sidney. 1986 [1985] Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books

Morton, Marcia and Frederic. 1986 Chocolate, An Illustrated History Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, NY

Nestlé. 2017. https://www.nestle.com.mx/brands/carlos-v

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology: Harvard University. 2017. https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/node/287

Presilla, Maricel. 2009 The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Smithsonian Institute. 2017. Olmec Stone Heads photo: http://anthropology.si.edu/olmec/english/sites/sanLorenzo.htm

Takushi, Scott (Pioneer Press). 2013, December 17. Museum of Belize and House of Culture: NEWSEUM Blog Spot: Belize’s Maya Collection on Displayhttps://mobnmoc.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/belizes-maya-collection-on-display/mayaex1/

Unknown photographer; featured image. 2016, October – November. Nexos. https://americanwaymagazine.com/cacao-route

Unknown photographer; chocolate as beauty regimen image. 2017. The Spa At The Hotel Hershey. http://www.chocolatespa.com/treatments/signature/chocolate.php

Sweet Medicine: The science of chocolate and health

 

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Chocolate had used as medicine since its inception. The Aztec king Montezuma is said to have consume anywhere from 20 to 50 glasses in order to remain virile. In more recent times, scientists have been looking into whether there are some medical treasures hidden in this scrumptious treat. Naturally, scientists have been zooming in on what it is in chocolate that gives it its health benefits. Scientists now believe these compounds in chocolate, called flavanols, have antioxidant properties and could help treat a variety of conditions and fight a variety of diseases. This has led to a lot of good research being done. There have been studies done that look at chocolate’s impact in fighting heart disease, diabetes, and cancer[1]. There have been studies looking at chocolate’s effect on cognitive function, memory, and blood pressure.  However, before you run to the pantry to self-medicate with chocolate be forewarned; this research, like all medical research, in fact like all science, has caveats. This particular group of research has a good deal of caveats, though not every study has the exact same caveats. Those depend on the strengths and failings of each individual study.

There is one caveat though that applies to this entire group of research; all the chocolate in these studies is all dark chocolate, that is to say to that it is at least sixty percent cacao solids. Milk chocolate is not included and for good reason. US law states that chocolate only needs to contain ten percent cacao in order to legally qualify as chocolate, the rest is mainly sugar, fat, and a few other things such as milk. According to professor Carla Martin, lecturer at Harvard University and director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, “A Hershey’s Kiss typically contains about, I think, 11 percent cacao content”. To put that in perspective, if you had a bar of typical milk chocolate that weighed one hundred grams (about the weight of an iPhone 5S[2]), then the actual amount of chocolate in the bar would be only about ten grams, or the weight of two nickels. The fact that milk chocolate has barely any actual chocolate means that milk chocolate has barely any of those cacao flavanols that are thought to provide the health benefits. Thus, anyone, scientist or otherwise, looking towards chocolate for health benefits has to look towards chocolate with a high cacao content.

Chocolate flavanols table
Figure 1

 

There are many pitfalls a research study can fall into. One of these is having a limited and/or small sample size.  Multiple studies on the effect of chocolate on health have had sample sizes of less than a couple hundred people. One such study, the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study had only ninety participants. The study found that regular cocoa flavanol consumption can reduce some measures of age-related cognitive dysfunction, but given such small sample size it is difficult to draw any large generalized conclusions for the general population, since there is a wide variety of differences across populations. Moreover, the CoCoA study limited their sample size in an attempt at prove clearer causation; because this was a study on aging all the participant were elderly, and the study also excluded Current smokers, habitual users of antioxidant supplements (including vitamins C and E), habitual consumers of chocolate or other cocoa products (daily consumption of any amount), or individuals prescribed medications known to have antioxidant properties (including statins and glitazones) or to interfere with cognitive functions (including benzodiazepines and antidepressants). This means for populations outside the participant group, the research has limited application, since the researcher did not look at how cocoa flavanol intake affects people with these additional variables. It has to be remembered that studies like this are jumping off point, they prove that there is something there that needs to be looked into, but further research is required in order to the proper applications and implications of the initial research.

Continue reading Sweet Medicine: The science of chocolate and health

There is No Pleasure in Guilty Chocolate!

Why do you love chocolate? Because it is good! It tastes good and makes you happy. It is all that is good in the world wrapped in a beautiful candy bar. What if you learned that your delicious candy bar is a by-product of something bad, the output of someone else’s suffering?  A child’s suffering? Would you enjoy it just the same? Eating is not just a means to satisfy hunger; it is also an emotional and psychological experience.  We like to eat, and we like to eat good food without any negative connotations. Chocolate does not taste as good when it is served with a side of guilt. Chocolate tastes better when you wholeheartedly know that it came from a good place and produced in an ethical and social responsible manner.

Did you know that the global chocolate industry is nearly $100 billion dollars a year? The United States alone spends a little over 18 billion dollars in chocolate (2015), and that the average American consumes approximately 4.3 kilograms / 9.5 pounds of chocolate a year (2015). In comparison, beating the Americans at chocolate consumption are the Swiss who consume approximately a little over 9 kilograms / 20 pounds per person, then tied for second place are the Germans and the Austrians who approximately consume 3.6 kilograms / 7.4 pounds per person (Satioquia-Tan). Chocolate can be found anywhere around the world and is affordable to the masses especially to those who live in the developed world. Chocolate can be found in candy bars, truffles, fudge, cakes, muffins, biscuits, breakfast cereals, pancakes, health bars, sauces, drinks, in your café mocha, and anywhere you can sprinkle chocolate syrup. You can buy it in a specialty shop, supermarket, mini-market, drugstore, or any corner street gas station.

The majority of chocolate eaters are rather naïve in knowing the history and the current nature of the chocolate-making business. They simply eat it because they love chocolate without really knowing what it is, where it comes from, who makes and how; or any related social issues. For those consumers who are more aware of the social and economic impacts of the chocolate industry are a little more selective in choosing and enjoying their chocolate. To fully appreciate food is to experience it through all the possible senses, the physiological and psychological (Stuckey 13). Only twenty percent of what we physiologically taste happens in our mouths, the rest of the tasting experience happens through our remaining senses of sight, smell, touch, and sound. We, also, want to psychologically feel good about what we are eating. We want to know about the origins, the farming practices, and the ethics of what we are tasting (Stuckey 14). We want to know the context, the beautiful story, of what we are eating so we can enjoy it fully. The other option is to choose to remain a little ignorant of the subject as not to sour our chocolate taste, however this pleasure would be more superficial and would not represent the fullest appreciation of what we are eating. To fully appreciate today’s chocolate, we will have to fully experience it with the body and mind in full awareness of its origins, present journey and social impacts.

  1. What is Chocolate?

Cocoa is the main ingredient for all chocolate recipes.  Cocoa derives from cacao seeds, or more commonly referred to as cacao beans, which grow on the Theobroma Cacao tree.  Cacao trees are finicky trees that can only bear fruit in hot and humid tropical climates,twenty degrees from the equator at a specific altitude. These trees are highly dependent on midges, an insect, for its flowers to pollinate and bear fruit (Coe and Coe 19-21, 27). Cacao beans grow inside a fruity, pulp filled pod, approximately 30-40 beans grow inside one pod. Unlike most trees, where fruit grow dangling down from branches, cacao pods sprout directly from the tree trunk. In raw form, cacao beans constitute half its size in fat, cocoa butter. When cocoa butter is extracted from the cacao bean, what remains is the cocoa (or cocoa powder), the main ingredient of all chocolate (Coe and Coe 27). Before cacao beans turn into chocolate, cacao fruit is first farmed.  Upon harvest, fruit pods are removed from trees and cracked open to extract its beans with machetes. Cacao beans are then fermented, dried, sorted, roasted, transported, winnowed (deshelled), ground to a liquor, pressed (to remove the cacao butter), conched, and then what remains is added to chocolate-making recipes. Chocolate is the result of a labor intensive and highly processed food.

  1. Where Does Cacao Come From?

Cacao is native to the New World, the South American’s amazon basin region (Coe and Coe 25), and the Mesoamerican native cultures of the Mayans and Aztecs and predecessors were the first peoples to ever make chocolate dating back as far as 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe 33). Cacao was precious and a sacred food reserved for the elite, special occasions, and sacred rituals. Mayan and Aztecs Gods often appear alongside or in the form of cacao trees in their native hieroglyphs and surviving art (Coe and Coe 42). So precious, cacao beans were even used as a means of monetary currency. In 1545, documented is the commodity price of a tamale: one tamale equals one cacao bean (Coe and Coe 98-99). Upon colonizing Mesoamerica, the Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to discover and spread the taste of chocolate to Europe starting in the 1500’s (Coe and Coe 108). At the beginning of the chocolate history in Europe, chocolate was rare, expensive, and for the upper class.  Then as time passed and soon after the industrial revolution, chocolate became relatively common and affordable to the masses.

Amazon Basin
Amazon basin (based on Wikipedia, Amazon basin article, by Kmusser, using Digital Chart of the Word and GTOPO data)

After the end of the American colonial period, in the late 1800’s, the Spanish and the Portuguese introduced cacao to West Africa. Due to favorable climate conditions, cacao flourished in West Africa.  Today, approximately seventy percent of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa (Wessel and Quist-Wessel 1). The Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two major countries that supply cacao.  There are 2 million, small (3 hectares acres in size), independent farms (Ryan 52) in West Africa that supply three million metric tons of cacao per year (World Cocoa Foundation).

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West Africa, Ivory Coast depicted in orange and Ghana  depicted in green (based on Wikipedia, Ghana-Ivory Coast Relations article)

  1. What Are the Social Issues Involving the Chocolate Industry?

Since the first Europeans, the Spanish conquistadors, landed in the New World, the cacao industry has been tainted with slavery and forced labor since 1650’s (Berlan 1092). Upon colonizing Mesoamerica, the Spanish forced the natives to pay tribute in labor and cacao to their new Spanish Crown.  After millions of natives died of diseases, the Spanish, like other colonists in the Americas, resorted to using chattel slavery from Africa to extract New World resources (Presilla 24, 33). Chattel slavery officially ended in 1884, however it continued in disguise in Portuguese West Africa well into the 1900’s in the cacao industry and some reports state that it persisted until 1962 (Berlan 1092).

Today, cacao farmer incomes are very volatile for it depends on operating profits, and since cacao is a commodity, the market price.  Farmers need to sell their cacao at a high enough price in order to pay off their operation expenses which includes labor, a major expense, just like most businesses. Unexpected operating expenses and / or a fall in market price can be devastating on farmer revenues/incomes. Cacao farmers, per capita, constantly live without the security of a reliable living wage. In 2015, cacao farmers earned 50 to 84 cents on the American dollar a day (Cocoabarometer). As it is, cacao farmers barely break even, and there is little economic incentive for them to stay in the cacao farming business.  Due to local poverty and lack of other options, farmers continue to grow cacao under pressure to lower operating costs and often resort to desperate means to make a profit, break even, or just enough to pay for rice and cooking oil (Off 5).

In more recent history in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, a wave of newspaper stories and documentary films exposed the existence of child labor, trafficking, and slaves in West African cacao farms which caused much consumer outrage. The media graphically showed the world the extreme poverty and hard lives of cacao farmers in West Africa and the desperate measures farmers take to lower operating costs by using child slave labor (Berlan 1089).

The documentary, Slavery: A Global Investigation (2000), especially shocked viewers by showing how easy it was to find child slaves working on cacao farms and how the local people seem to accept the practice as a way of life. On camera, journalists were able, with relative ease, to overtly interview real child slaves and get first-hand testimony about their hardships, a farm owner who openly admitted to having slaves and in how to get them, and a local official who confirmed as matter of fact that at least 90% of the Ivory Coast farms use child slave labor.  Ninety percent implies the existence of hundreds of thousands of slaves (Ryan 118). A 2000 US State Department report estimated that 15,000 Malian children worked on Ivory Coast cacao farms and that many of were under 12 years old and sold into indentured service (Off 133). Two of the local documentary crew even demonstrated how easy it was to buy slaves, posing as buyers, they went to the marketplace and were able to purchase two boys for the total of forty British pounds (approximately $40) within thirty minutes. Economics, low cacao market price, was credited as being the main reason why these farmers resorted to using slavery.  With such low cacao market prices, farmers cannot afford to pay employee wages and still make a profit, and they have no other income options. In contrast, in a free and mature economy, if a business is not profitable it goes out of business, and one can start a new business or find a new job, this is not the case for the West African cacao farmers.

Since the West African child labor scandals, there has an increased awareness and legislation attempts to eradicate forced and most hazardous child labor. Child labor in general is so embedded into the West African culture, not all children who work on farms are slaves or working with hazards. Most children work as part of the family on their family farms. It was deemed impossible and impractical to create a law that would abolish all form of child labor, however a voluntary agreement, The Harking-Engel Protocol, was signed among the Ivory Coast and the International Chocolate and Cocoa Industry in accordance with the International Labor Organization to end the worst forms of child labor in 2001 (Ryan 44, 47). Because of extreme poverty and lack of options, there are children who are better off working for they will at least have access to some food. Today, consumers are more aware, corporations have put efforts in demonstrating social responsibility in self-certifications, and nonprofit/advocacy organizations, have emerged and increased advocacy. There is still much poverty among cacao farmers, and many children  are still working on farms and some are still suspected of being forced to work against their will.  The child labor problems still exist today.  We, the world, hoped for that the state of child labor in West Africa would be better, however it could be worse.

It is natural that corporations would seek to do business with a poorer and less mature economies so to benefit from cheaper labor costs, but there should be limits when business practices violate human rights and the ability for workers to make a livable wage. It is evident that cacao farmers need more money so can they afford to hire farm workers to help cultivate their labor intensive cacao farms. In the least, the cacao market price needs to go up. It may mean that consumers would have to pay a little more for their chocolate treats. Would you be willing to pay a little more for your candy bar if it would end child and forced labor?

I realize that blindly throwing more money at the problem will not necessarily fix it if local corrupt governments and other stakeholders are still there to scheme away the extra money intended for the cacao farmers. This is a complex issue which requires multi-approach solution. We, the consumers, the governments, NGOs, the corporations, the media (or lack of media), the farmers, are all part of the problem, and we could also all be part of the solution. West African farmers and their children need special consideration for they are the most powerless demographic group in the chocolate food chain. The ones with the most power in the chocolate food chain by default have the most ability, and therefore the greater responsibility, to effect change. Wealthy companies and consumers are in the best position to invest and apply influence in the solution. We, the consumers, should expect that our chocolate companies to conduct business in an ethical and social responsible manner or make better consumer choices if they do not.

Here, in the first world, we would not accept the practice of child labor or slavery in our backyard, and we should not accept it elsewhere and in the products that we use and the foods we eat.  The West African modern-day slave issue is especially heartbreaking for it involves children in producing sweets that we all so enjoy so much. If we all knew that children were being kidnapped and forced to cultivate cacao, we would all enjoy the taste of our chocolate a little less. As consumers, we need to be more conscious about what we eat and learn as much as possible so we can make better consumer choices, maybe write a customer complaint to your chocolate provider or your congressman to influence change in law.  There is no better tasting chocolate than the one that is free from social guilt. In the end, we should all have the right to enjoy good and good-tasting chocolate.

Works Cited

Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana. The Journal of Development Studies, vol. 49, no. 8, 2013, pp. 1088-1100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2013.78004.

Cocoa Barometer 2015 report, USA Ed. Cocoabarometer.org. http://www.cocoabarometer.org/International_files/Cocoa%20Barometer%202015%20USA.pdf

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

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