Tag Archives: whole foods

How Easy it is to Falsely Sway the Average Chocolate Consumer

Chocolate, today, is one of the most beloved treats in the world with an estimated 7.7 million tons of chocolate to be consumed in 2018/2019 alone (“Consumption of Chocolate Worldwide,” Statista). However, even with such interest and demand for chocolate, the average consumer does not necessarily have any strong understanding around chocolate—from what makes certain chocolate better quality to what is a fair price for chocolate. In order to gauge a deeper understanding of what drives chocolate decisions and views, I decided to conduct a small study in Harvard Square with blind taste tests in order to get to the root of how the average consumer with no prior educational or personal experience with the chocolate industry rates and evaluates chocolate. By looking at how consumers blindly view chocolate bars and how they view chocolate packaging it will become clearer that brand stereotypes, the exploitation of certifications and labels, and the use of distinct flavors and fillings all lead the average consumer to falsely attach a certain quality or price to chocolates. It can also be argued that feeding on the surface level understandings of the average consumers could be a fruitful strategy for chocolate companies when trying to grow their brand, customer loyalty, and profitability.

The Study

Before diving into the findings of this blind chocolate taste test, it is important to set up what exactly happened during the taste test. I conducted a study involving ten people around Harvard Square who each sampled twelve unique, distinct chocolates. In my study I bought four different chocolate bars of varying flavors, price points, and qualities from three stores near Harvard Square—CVS, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods. Next, I had each of the ten willing participants sample a square from each bar without knowing anything about the bars, including not seeing the packaging, and then have them detail out the flavors, texture, and quality as well as guess as to where I purchased the bar between the three stores available and how much the chocolate was worth per ounce. After detailing out the experience around eating each piece, then I would show the participants the packaging that the bar came in and have them describe the packaging as well as give them an opportunity to update their guesses on where I purchased the bar as well as the price per ounce. Finally, after this part was completed, I would then reveal where I actually purchased the bar and what the price per ounce was for the respective chocolate bar, taking note of any surprised reactions to my reveal. A list of all chocolate bars used as well as the stores they were bought at and the price per ounce for each bar are listed at the end of this blog post.

Stereotypes Around Big Chocolate Brands and Store Brands

A consistent finding throughout the process of tasting all the chocolates was that when there was a bar that had a logo pressed into the piece then that logo held a large swaying power over what the perceived quality and price of the bar was. For example, one of the chocolates sampled was a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar which has the infamous “HERSHEY’S” pressed into each bite. When the volunteers went to sample this bar and saw the logo, the reactions were immediate with people shouting that they already knew this bar and knew it would be very low quality and cheap. People guessed on average that the Hershey’s bar would value at around $0.40/ounce which—based on all the bars surveyed—would be considered incredibly cheap and lower than the $0.59/ounce it actually costs. Surprisingly, though, for such a considerably low-end, mass-produced chocolate bar, most of the participants genuinely loved the taste and “tongue-melting” quality of the texture. Overwhelmingly, the response was favorable because the bar was consistent with their expectations and past experiences. This same response followed with other well-known chocolate bars, including Cadbury and Dove. The fact that these brands are well known and branded so strongly led most participants to associate the chocolate with a lower price point and perceived lower quality, but still the flavor was desired and left people wanting more.

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

This response to the mass-produced chocolate bars in this study is not necessarily surprising given chocolate’s rich history. With Van Houten’s invention in 1828 “on a process for the manufacturing of a new kind of powdered chocolate with a very low-fat content,” he gave birth to the ability to bring chocolate to the masses in a cheap, low quality, fast production form (Coe and Coe, 234). The importance of this chocolate history is that for almost two centuries cheap, mass-produced chocolate has been growing in popularity and has become a common staple in most American’s lives, which is directly correlated with why the average consumer has such a positive association and appreciation for the distinct tastes of such bars. However, given the history, the average consumer also assumes that these bars are very cheap because their brands are specifically generic enough to present an affordable front. Also, interestingly, because these large chocolate companies are linked with affordability and lower quality, they are viewed to be sold at cheaper, more generic locations too. For example, for each of the bars tested that are more mass-produced (Hershey’s, Cadbury, and Dove) the overwhelming responses from taste testers was that these bars were purchased at CVS because similarly that store is also associated with more affordable products when compared to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. The stereotype of the chocolate does not end at the bite of the bar but instead carries itself through the branding of any logo in the chocolate, the packaging for the bars, and even the stores that sell the chocolate.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the chocolates tested that instead had unique designs in the chocolate pieces were more likely than not to be viewed as being purchased at Whole Foods because that store seems to carry the stereotype (at least amongst the participants) to be pricier and more connected to unique, well designed products and produce. In the scope of this taste test, the participants on average would guess that high quality, nicer looking bars came from Whole Foods, any decent tasting bars came from Trader Joe’s, and all generically mass-produced bars came from CVS. It became apparent that the value the average consumer attaches to the chocolate bar does not stop at the flavor and bar’s packaging but extends to where the bar is sold.

The branding these chocolate companies and the stores have crafted completely impacts customers’ responses, no matter what the reality is. For example, all participants assumed that every bar sold at Whole Foods must be expensive, but the group was shocked to learn that one of the bars tasted from Whole Foods—Chocolove’s Orange Peel—was essentially the same price per ounce as Dove’s bar from CVS. These reactions are telling of the expectations and the preconceived notions people link the stores to as well as the chocolate.

Strategic Uses of Certifications and “Earthy” Messaging

Beyond stereotyping mass-produced bars and stores based on their histories and assumed values, the use of certifications and labels as well as “earthy” messages overwhelming sway the average consumer to associate higher value to the products. In this blind chocolate tasting test, participants would frequently hold strong views and preferences after tasting some of the chocolates and sometimes rank the bars as lower quality, lower price, but these same people would then completely change their view after seeing the packaging if it had labels—such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, etc.—or was announced to be organic, vegan, etc.

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

For example, when the participants were sampling the Endangered Species Chocolate’s Caramel Sea Salt + Dark Chocolate bar, many of the guests absolutely despised and detested the bar because they felt it was too salty and felt cheap in quality compared to some of the other bars sampled already; however, the moment they all saw the bar’s packaging, most of the participants then associated the bar to be high quality because it has certifications that claim the product is “Non GMO Project Verified” and Fairly Traded—not to mention the wrapping claims that ten percent of the net profits are used to save the wildlife. All of a sudden a bar that was unsuccessful in this test group, considered to be bought at CVS, and guessed to be worth roughly $0.70/ounce was then shifted into a luxury bar that must have been bought at Whole Foods and priced around $1.50/ounce—which would place it in an expensive bar category. This is just one example from this taste test that illuminates the importance of perception and the use of labels and how these elements can lead to false views of the product that was just tasted and disliked.

When a product does have such certifications or labels front and center, the average consumer assumes these labels are linked with better quality and more expensive chocolate. However, when asked to the group of people involved if any of them knew what it means to be Rainforest Alliance certified or to be Fairly Traded none of them felt confident to explain what they mean but positively associate them to mean doing good. Interestingly, though, many of these certifications that were created to benefit farmers and create more clarity into the process have actually opened “the door to decrease transparency around trade terms” (Leissle, 147). So instead, the average person who does not know what such labels represent is blindly trusting that having any label means better quality. Ironically, though, even some of the mass-produced bars have labels too—with Dove claiming to be Rainforest Alliance certified and Hershey’s claiming to use farm fresh milk—yet consumers do not necessarily associate these well-known brands to be high quality, suggesting that stereotypes around brands supersede stereotypes around certifications and labels.

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

Similarly, bars that announced on their packaging that they were organic, no soy, vegan, etc. had a comparably positive leap in the perceptions of this test group. For example, Hu’s Cashew Butter + Pure Vanilla Bean Dark Chocolate bar (one of the overall favorites from the taste test) left the participants overly impressed after witnessing the packaging of the chocolate. This bar when blindly tasted was widely enjoyed by the participants, for they seemed to enjoy the nice complexity of flavors and unique inner filling that stood out from other bars sampled; however, even though the group already considered this bar to be valuable and high quality, there was a general lift in appreciation and value after reading the packaging: “organic house-ground cacao, vegan, paleo, no palm oil, no refined sugar, no cane sugar, no sugar alcohols, no dairy, no emulsifiers, no soy lecithin, no vanilla extract.” The seemingly never-ending list of characterizations for the bar seemed to check off boxes the participants did not even know were there—almost setting a new standard for what should be expected of chocolate bars and food in general. With each new “no” read by the participants on the package it seemed to raise the price and quality slightly, even though the consumer could not taste the fact that these ingredients were missing—they had to be told on the wrapping. While, yes, creating a bar that checks off so many different items is most likely expensive and higher quality than a mass-produced bar, the use of presenting these feats on the packaging greatly resulted in the average consumer in this taste test increasing their price and standards—maybe falsely because none of the items presented on the packaging were things the consumers could taste or rather not taste.

Companies that take use of certifications, labels, and “earthy” messages seem to be trying to tap into a pathos and logos approach of swaying consumers into purchasing their products. Such identifiable items on the chocolate bars’ packaging more times than not successfully added more value and clout to the bars overall, whether or not the bar was actually enjoyed by the participants—suggesting that the addition of these elements might be a strong business model for producers in order to gain appreciation and profitability.

Flavors, Fillings, and Cacao

Another major finding and revelation that became prevalent during this conducted chocolate taste test was that bars that used complex flavors—such as fruits, nuts, espresso—, forms of fillings within bars, or higher percentages of cacao contents all left participants at large attributing higher qualities and higher price points to the chocolate bars whether or not they liked the bars.

With flavors, it is not that bars without any non-chocolate flavors are low-valued, but there seemed to be a common, underlying belief in this taste test that the addition of flavors must mean that the bar was more expensive than maybe expected. Interestingly, the use of flavors did not necessarily alter whether participants considered the bars to be higher quality but only dictated the pricing per ounce category. For example, Madécasse’s Sea Salt & Nibs Dark Chocolate was generally appreciated amongst guests but almost everyone was held up by the fact that there seemed to be some type of nut (which was actually nibs) in the chocolate. Even before seeing the packaging for the chocolate bar, participants already were guessing this bar was worth roughly $1.50/ounce, with many of the reasonings being the use of some type of nut that the guests assumed would have cost more.

Additionally, the participants added on a higher price per ounce for Trader Joe’s Cold Brew Coffee Chocolate Bar because of the velvety, rich inner filling filled with easily distinguishable espresso. The sharp, strong use of espresso as a filling left the participants excited by the fact that there was a filling and immediate reactions that espresso is expensive at coffee shops so it must be expensive in chocolate bars. Similarly, this notion led many of the people to also assume the bar was purchased at Whole Foods because of the strong general consensus that unique flavors must be only sold at high-end stores like Whole Foods. Ironically, history shows that the addition of fillings with different nuts or flavors was actually a great way to lower the cost of manufacturing the chocolate. This can best be seen with the Milky Way bar that had “malt-flavored nougat” as the main ingredient, allowing for the candy to be “much bigger, tasted just as chocolatey, but cost much less to produce” (Brenner, 54-55). Therefore, even though the consumer might associate fillings with higher price, they might be actually helping attribute to lower costs for the chocolate.

Finally, there was also a strong positive correlation that suggested that as the cacao contents raised in percentage so did the value and quality—claiming the product was more “natural” and “raw.” This became clear with the chocolate bar that had the highest cacao contents of any of the bars, sitting at 85% cacao. Valrhona’s Le Noir Extra Amer 85% Cacao from Trader Joe’s was considered by most in this taste test to be too dark and bitter in flavor, yet there was a unanimous agreeance that this bar must be a luxury bar sold at Whole Foods because of its clearly bitter taste that many guests assumed also meant higher cacao percentages. While they were correct in guessing this bar had high cacao percentages, the group was incorrect in estimating a price per ounce because the bar was $0.85/ounce—not the $2.00/ounce the participants were averaging in guesses.

In all three situations—whether it be non-chocolate flavors, fillings, or cacao percentage—the participants found themselves assuming that the addition of these contents must yield a higher price, yet many were very surprised to find that their assumption did not always turn out to be true. Studies have shown that people cannot actually taste any of these flavors, fillings, or cacao contents by just placing the chocolate on their tongue; instead, it is now assumed that there is “no real flavor” until one smells and sees the chocolate too (Coe and Coe, 261). Chocolate producers are taking advantage of these “neurogastronomical” researches in order to sway consumers. These additional elements in a bar, therefore, successfully fooled the average consumer in this taste test into attributing higher price and assumed value for the product, falsely swaying opinions on chocolates whether or not they were actually liked for their tastes.

What is the Take Away?

While there were a lot of great findings from the taste test that was conducted with ten people around Harvard Square with no extensive experience in the chocolate industry, this study is by no means a conclusive evaluation of how the average consumer values and experiences chocolate. However, this taste test is a chance to better evaluate how some consumers make decisions based on taste, packaging, and stereotypes.

At the end of the day, average consumers are just that, the average majority of people indulging in the chocolate bars being sold globally, and there are many falsifications that lead and sway people into attributing higher or lower quality and price points to bars—from the use of stereotypes, certifications and messaging, and flavors and contents. One general consensus was that no one could properly guess the price for any of the chocolate bars, showing that chocolate producers can maybe take advantage (and already do) of the fact that the average consumer does not have a strong background in what price different qualities of chocolate should be or is fair. The use of stereotypes, labels, and flavors all have a strong ability to falsely lead the average consumer away from the actual value of the product and instead make them willing to spend far more or far less for a product than it is actually worth.

Companies might be doing these things and playing to the fact that the average consumer does not know much because it allows for companies to grow in customer loyalty as well as dictate the pricing for each bar and grow their profits and popularity. Consumers can try to take some of the learning responsibility and conduct their own taste tests to find what types of chocolates they actually enjoy, first, then consider what the price point in reality is because often times our tasting experience or package viewing experience filter how we price and value chocolate.

Chocolates used in this Blind Taste Test

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Multimedia Sources

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

All other images provided by author of this blog post.

CVS vs. Whole Foods: Convenience or consciousness?


CVS versus Whole Foods Market? Many, to include myself, would say hands down, there is no comparison or competition. Considering the distinctive customer, core values, accessibility of brands, ingredients, and price tags of chocolate displayed in each establishment, Whole Foods stands as bar none (no pun intended). According to Nielsen’s Global consumer study, which conducted a survey on snacking with a poll of 30,000 online consumers in 60 countries to identify what attributes were most important to them–in regards to consumption, confection (led by chocolate) accounted for $20 billion USD in sales (Nielsen 5). Furthermore, in a span of 30 days, 64% of global respondents consumed chocolate (6). Moreover, consumers chose chocolate second to fruit out of 47 snacking options as their favorite (6). Thereby, results concluded that in addition to chocolate being favored by consumers through mass consumption: chocolate is big business.

As one who adores all things Whole Foods, frequenting the store no less than ten times a week, yet also familiar with the convenient trappings of CVS, I tasked myself with curiosity in my search to examine the differences between these consumer giants more critically. In addition to online research of their histories and ethics, I perused the aisles to investigate their chocolate products, price points and distinctive experiences of each visit. Among obvious differences, my findings revealed incongruencies in the mission and ethics of one giant, and a resolve to the question of why each giant may serve a valid purpose beyond health consciousness.

History and Mission

For centuries chocolate has represented a broad range of symbolisms–including wealth, delicacy, medicinal healing, religious rituals, and pleasure. Over a period of the 16th through 20th century, Europe and New Spain produced 100 medicinal uses for cacao/chocolate, which included treatment of anemia, exhaustion, bowl dysfunction and skin irritations (Dillinger et al. 2057S). Today, we consume chocolate mainly for the purposes of pleasure and indulgence. This pleasure and indulgence is heightened by the allure of marketing and availability of chocolate products produced by manufacturers who have industrialized their brand for affordable global mass consumption and maximized profits. This industrial mass globalization of products were well represented in my visit to CVS, where I found the allure of chocolate advertisements and products to be excessive. In comparison, Whole Foods displayed a much smaller and more refined chocolate section.

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CVS Chocolate aisle

CVS Chocolate products

Whole Foods Chocolate section and products

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Consumer Value Stores (CVS), now CVS Health Corporation, was founded in 1963 by two brothers, and became the first store to sell health and beauty products, later expanding into pharmaceuticals and health management in 1967. CVSs mission statement reads: “Millions of times a day, close to home and across the country, we’re helping people on their path to better health” (CVS Health, Our Story).

With a closing revenue of $41.1 billion USD in 2015, a first quarter revenue of $20.1 billion USD as of March 2016 (Marketwatch), and the recent acquisition of Target’s pharmacies and clinics (CVS Health, History 2010s), CVS stands as the top national retail pharmaceutical company nationwide. Apart from their financial success, ethically I find their choice to sell Hershey, Nestle and Mars chocolate brands–all produced by GMO and child slave labor–where children are forced to pick cocoa beans to be sold to companies, beaten, abused and denied compensation for their work–to be deplorable and incongruent with their mission statement. From this, I can only assume that CVS is either ignorant to the truth that “better health” is not limited to pharmaceutical drugs and healthcare, but include the standards of ingredients of the food we consume. Moreover, “better health” should include and extend to the environmental conditions and treatment of labor workers who are responsible for creating chocolate for retail profit. The alternative possibility is that CVS just doesn’t care about the bean-to-bar process, rather reserving interest in chocolate reaching their shelves and retail portfolio. Overall, I find these possibilities to be the most disparate among these two giants.

In 1980 Whole Foods Market was founded by four local businessmen/women during a time when fewer than six natural food supermarkets existed in the United States. Their goal was to integrate the natural foods industry into a supermarket experience (Whole Foods Market, History). Today, Whole Foods Market closed 2015 with sales of $15 billion USD and reached $3.7 billion USD in sales the first quarter of this year. Their mission statement reads: “[H]ealthy means a whole lot more… [b]eyond good for you, to also encompass the greater good. [W]e offer a place for you to shop where value is inseparable from [our] values.” In line with their mission, they provide a list of unacceptable foods that contradict their values and standards, which they refuse to sell to their consumers.

Unlike CVS, Whole Foods value system is committed to creating health from a whole perspective, to include food consumption. Whole Foods prides the purchase of their chocolate through ethical sources (Whole Foods Market, Why Your Chocolate Choices Matter). In addition to their Organic Standards, which confirm a product has been produced through approved methods and met specific USDA verified requirements prior to labeling (Whole Foods Market, Organic), the foundation of their value system largely exists on Whole Trade. Whole Trade is a program which highlights their commitment to ethical trade, the environment and quality products sourced from developing nations (Whole Foods Market, Whole Trade). Many of the chocolate bars are also certified by Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit organization, and third-party certifier which audits and certifies transactions between domestic companies and their international suppliers, to ensure that farmers and workers are paid fair prices and wages, work in safe conditions, protect the environment and receive community development funds to empower and improve their communities (Whole Foods Market, Fair Trade).

In further alignment with their mission and values, in 2012, Whole Foods ended their relationship with Scharffen Berger Chocolate, a high-end product of Hershey’s, over child labor abuses (International Labor Rights Forum). As Hershey provided no evidence to disprove their use of child labor abuse in producing their product when requested, Scharffen Berger was removed from Whole Foods shelves nationwide. Although this move was considered just and honorable by many, Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, thought it to be contradictory. According to Gearhart, in more than one instance Whole Foods has “turned a blind eye” to the conduct of other suppliers who violate workers’ rights, by refusing to hold them equally accountable as Hershey (International Labor Rights Forum). Although there are arguments and critiques of the fairness involved in Fair trade, one being the exorbitant costs to farmers to attain certification for which they lack resources, I still view Whole Foods choice to partner with organizations and programs that pay attention and care about both the workers that produce the product, and the product ingredients, to be ethically honorable and socially responsible.

In data retrieved from Nielsen’s Global consumer study, respondents reported to care more about the ingredients which create their chocolate and preferring to “stick to the basics” (Nielsen 9). Nature-based ingredients scored 45% (9), but it was the environmentally conscious consumers that counted sustainability and organic among the most important in their snacking [experiences] (9). Based on these results, why do we continue to purchase chocolate from CVS?

Products and Price

In my visit to CVS, I had no challenge locating chocolate. From the registers near the front of the door leading to the aisle, I was surrounded by daunting quantities and advertisements of chocolate. Upon first observation, the magnitude of sale stickers and value buys that were gifted with increased quantities of purchase, were distracting. Noticeably leading in options were the Big Five chocolate competitors: Cadbury, Ferrero, Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle (the “Big Five”). The Big Five were the top five chocolate brand competitors who waged a chocolate war in China during the 1980’s – 90’s, with the purposes of introducing the then new product to Chinese consumers by creating a dominating brand presence. In the end, Mars emerged as the superior battle champion.
In CVS, the average cost of a chocolate bar was $2.50, with promotional sales for Buy 1- get-the 2nd 50% off and 2-for-$3.00. The lowest priced bar by Hershey’s Chocolate, cost $1.19. Shockingly, there was only one health conscious brand available, appearing to the far right: Endangered Species Chocolate. The Endangered Species Chocolate label advertised Fair Trade, Non-GMO Verified, Gluten Free Certified and Certified Vegan, at a modest price of $2.99 for 3 ounces. As socially conscious as Endangered Species Chocolate brand appears to be, with products rated at nearly five stars by consumers, I was disappointed when visiting their website that they chose to use an image of a young African child’s face to appear in connection to the phrase endangered species. Is there no consideration or awareness of how this image connotes racist beliefs about people of color? Moreover, is it their responsibility to be aware, or our responsibility to know the history of chocolate to bring awareness?

In my visit to Whole Foods, along with overwhelm and oversaturation of choices and products found at CVS, noticeably absent were the beloved Big Five. Available brands were Taza Chocolate, Icelandic Chocolate, Lake Champlain Chocolates and Whole Foods 365 Chocolate (to name a few). Though unfamiliar, I felt an instant attraction to these brands mainly due to the simplicity and sophistication of their wrappers and refined ingredients. Aesthetically and logistically, Whole Foods displays their chocolate in a small section–nestled amongst other products, with equal promotion. As there were sale advertisements on select chocolate products, similar to CVS of 2-for $3, the quality of chocolate was healthier and certified Fair Trade.

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Whole Foods sale advertisement for Organic and Fair Trade chocolate bars

El Ceibo Fine Dark Chocolate Organic bars, $6.49.

The average price for a chocolate bar was $4.00 for 3 ounces. The most inexpensive bar was their Whole Foods 365 brand, boasting a label of Whole Trade and USDA Organic certifications at $2.49 for 3 ounces. The most expensive was $7.99 by El Ceibo, a fine dark chocolate brand from Bolivia. Although Ceibo’s label did not promote the popular certifications (e.g., Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, etc.) of their less expensive competitors, their core driving principle is environmentally sustainable production and respect for life, cultures and the environment. While fine chocolate is expected to be more expensive, do higher prices equal a better product?… According to Clay Gordon, creator of the chocolate lover’s website, The Chocolate Life, and internationally recognized independent authority on all things chocolate: Not so. Gordon states that “[although certain] bars might cost significantly more than… [CVS at] $7 [plus] per bar, [it is] because [you are] paying a fair price that actually accounts for the labor, shipment, and processing of the beans, instead of one artificially subsidized by abusive practices” (Shanker, 2013). Nevertheless, the ingredients of both bars pictured below bare clear distinctions of unknown ingredients, versus whole ingredients available in our kitchens and local supermarkets.

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Cadbury Daily Milk Chocolate bar,  $2.19.


Cadbury Daily Milk Chocolate label ingredients, most artificial

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Whole Foods 365 Organic Dark Chocolate Almond bar, certified Whole Trade and USDA Organic, $2.49.

Whole Foods 365 Organic Dark Chocolate Almond bar, certified Whole Trade and USDA Organic label ingredients, all localized and natural


In conclusion, I am left to wonder if the most overlooked distinction between CVS and Whole Foods is the why and how we choose to consume chocolate? A trip for snacks is usually a quick in-and-out venture that can happen anytime of the day or night. Avoiding the possibility of long lines at the grocery store is a deterrent. Nielsen reported 58% of consumers do not plan their snack purchases (Nielsen 13) and prefer them at arms-reach (15); with 31% purchased at the check-out counters; and 43% on sale (13). While chocolate sales do not affect my purchase choices, I admit that as much I love Whole Foods, when my sweet tooth aches for candy, I don’t immediately consider healthy options. Instead I beeline for convenience and the uber unconscious Snickers with Almonds, Raisinets, Almond M&M’s and Tootsie Rolls (not all at once, promise) – which are all available at CVS. However, on the days when I am more health conscious about my chocolate choices, I intentionally visit Whole Foods for my favorite Dark Chocolate and Almonds Bar with Sea Salt by Chocolove. I admit that there is a difference in how I feel when I purchase and indulge in my beloved Chocolove bar in comparison to Snickers and Kit Kat from CVS. In addition to taste and quality, the most important difference is that purchasing from Whole Foods feels more deliberate and rewarding–knowing that my investment in my personal wellness extends to the social, economic and financial wellness of others.

Both CVS and Whole Foods hold clear and distinct ideas and values on health, wellness and integrity. However, I count leading a company whose integrity corresponds with the brands they market and sell to their consumers as the greatest distinction. As a supermarket, Whole Foods has not limited their product offerings to just food; medicinal and healthcare products are also made available to their customers. In view of that fact, why does CVS limit their offerings of health and wellness to pharmaceutical products and healthcare? Perhaps as we continue to rise socially and globally to the occasion of conscious responsibility for our wellness and environmental safety, CVS will revisit their mission and branding to fully align the practices of chocolate manufacturers’ with their intent to “… help people on their path to better health.” In the meantime, I will continue my occasional beeline visits to conveniently fulfill my moments of unconscious consumption.


CVS Health. Web. 9 May 2016.

“CVS Health Reports First Quarter Results; Confirms 2016 Adjusted EPS Guidance.” Marketwatch Online, 2016. Web. 9 May 2016.

Dillinger, T.L. et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition 130 (2000): 2057S-2072S. Web. 9 May 2016.

Nielsen. “Snack Attack. What Consumers are reaching for around the world.”  September 2014. Web PDF. 9 May 2016.

Shanker, Deena. “A Guide to ethical chocolate.” Grist, 13 Feb. 2002. Web. 9 May 2016.

Whole Foods Market. Web. May 2016.

“Whole Foods Drops Hershey’s Scharffen Berger Chocolates Over Child Labor Abuses.” International Labor Rights Forum. Press Releases, 2012. Web. 9 May 2016.

Whole Foods and the Tanzania Schoolhouse Project

Whole Foods Market stands out in America as an antithetical supermarket chain, committed to purveying foods free of artificial additives and of organic origin. While Whole Foods products cost significantly more than their counterparts at other supermarkets, the company caters to those willing to pay more for food they deem healthier or of a more ethical origin. Among the many official designations for organic and equitably sourced goods, Whole Foods has created a standard called “Whole Trade Guarantee,” which claims to share a greater percentage of profits with producers, as well as to undertake various community service projects in the poverty-stricken areas the producers live in. One such item boasting the “Whole Trade Guarantee” seal, along with many others, is the Tanzania Schoolhouse Project Chocolate Bar.


To preface my critique of Whole Foods’s advertising of the chocolate bar, I must first say that Whole Foods is undoubtedly doing good in the world, especially compared to other supermarkets. What this advertisement makes me question, however, is how much of that good transpires at the consumer end, rather than the producer end? In other words, might Whole Foods’ social impact be mainly on the end of those who feel themselves morally righteous or at least pat themselves on the back for buying a more expensive, but seemingly virtuous chocolate bar?

The Whole Trade Guarantee

My argument arises first from the rather blatant advertising of the chocolate bar, but also from the rather nebulous terms laid out in the above hyperlink about the “Whole Trade Guarantee.” Perhaps my quantitative background makes me unduly skeptical of Whole Foods’s workings, but my main critique concerns the lack of numbers in the presentation of the “Whole Trade Guarantee.” The fact that Whole Foods seems to create many of its own internal standards rather than being certified by Fair Trade, for example, is also problematic, and serves to set the stage further for my argument about perceived good versus actual good. To establish a more concrete portrayal of their social charity, I propose a simple advertisement that delivers impact on the basis of facts, rather than blurrily defined actions.

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While the numbers presented in my advertisement are speculative and not necessarily true for Whole Foods, the essence of my advertisement is to present consumers the real consequence of buying the chocolate bar. For example, Taza Chocolate pays a 15-20% premium on chocolate it buys from local producers. Taza also practices Direct Trade, in that the company purchases cacao directly from producers, eliminating profit-siphoning middlemen (Taza, 2015). In the case of Whole Foods, an ad that forces consumers to visualize actual data rather than an ill-defined commitment to build schools in Tanzania serves multiples purposes. First off, it would force Whole Foods to be transparent with their producer relations, as Taza is. Whole Foods’s income is huge, and they could very well only be donating minuscule fractions of their profits to build the indeterminate number of schools proposed. Second, we might learn more of Whole Foods’s self-given labels, such as “Whole Trade Guarantee” and “Fair for Life,” which do not mean much unless independently verified. Third, the Tanzania Schoolhouse Project could be seen to perpetuate the “harmful binaries” endemic to the West’s view of Africa (Leissle, 2012). The Schoolhouse ad directly plays on consumers’ sense of social duty, and by buying a bar of chocolate it can make them feel as if they’ve done concrete good in a poverty-stricken country. While this isn’t necessarily bad, it could blind consumers from considering how much Whole Foods actually helps. Then again, the framing of education as supported by chocolate bars casts significant shame on the efforts of Tanzanians themselves. In considering the civilized/primitive binary, the idea that an American, simply in purchasing a chocolate bar, accomplishes what Tanzanians could not do for themselves raises flags regarding stereotyping of “traditional” cultures.

Pushing further with the concept of the data driven ad, and assuming that Whole Foods does indeed pay significant premiums to producers as Taza does, I would suggest a more radical design. While this probably would not be a successful ad, I believe it would be very thought provoking to the consumer.

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The impact of this ad lies in forcing the consumer to realize still how little local producers and farmers are paid for their products. Even significant percentage premiums paid by companies practicing equitable trade practices do not result in that much more money being paid to producers. While it can be argued that such small increases have greater bearing in Africa or other poor nations where cost of living is cheaper, I still feel that actually including numerical values for what portions of profit go to producers should startle consumers into realizing the inequity inherent in international trade of agricultural products with developing nations (Sylla, 2014).

My purpose in critiquing the Whole Foods ad is not to accuse Whole Foods of false advertising practice, but rather to examine the way information regarding fair trade practices travels to the consumer. I very much admire, for example, the Taza Transparency Report. Thus, I feel that an ad that emphasizes numbers rather than proposals, such as the Tanzania Schoolhouse project, would both hold companies accountable and cause consumers to consider the inequities still inherent in retailer-producer relations.

Multimedia Sources

First image: Whole Foods. (2012). “Company News: Chocolate Choices Matter.” Digital Image. http://media.wholefoodsmarket.com/news/chocolate-choices-matter.

Second and Third Images: Produced by Carlo Bocconcelli from the first image.

Hyperlink: Hsia, Winnie. (2012). “What is the Whole Trade Guarantee?”


Healy, K. (2001). Llamas, weavings, and organic chocolate: Multicultural grassroots development in the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Leissle, K. (2012). Cosmopolitan cocoa farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate advertisements. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 24(2), 121-139. doi:10.1080/13696815.2012.736194
Sylla, N. S., & Leye, D. C. (2014). The fair trade scandal: Marketing poverty to benefit the rich. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Whitmore, Alex, et al. (2015). “Taza Transparency Report.”

The White Consumer’s Burden: Whole Foods Chocolate Marketing and Commodified Benevolence

Like a movie, a clothing boutique, or an advertisement, each grocery store has a target audience. Most grocery markets will try to appeal to as many different groups of people as possible — easy, considering everyone needs to eat — but they all place certain values over others. Some look to make themselves extremely affordable, some specialize in bulk, and some boast luxury items or health foods, or in the case of Whole Foods Market, both. Established in 1980, Whole Foods has taken its place as the token health-food grocery store in the American consciousness (Whole Foods…). As natural, organic, and local foods are generally more expensive, Whole Foods’ target audience is clearly the upper-middle class, especially those with anxieties about health and food quality. The chain also boasts quirky and luxury food items, also in line with the upper-middle class target. Whole Foods Markets, however, have taken on a marketing strategy far different from most health food stores, and especially most luxury food stores. Instead of simply focusing on health or quality, the company sells an exaggerated, often empty sense of social conscience to its primarily well-off American consumers. This essay looks to explore Whole Foods’s tendency for self-righteous, often racially othering heartstring-tugging through an examination of the contents of the market’s chocolate display.

First, to get some perspective on the luxury chocolate market, I visited Cardullo’s in Harvard Square, a well-known spot for luxury and imported foods. Browsing the chocolate section, I noticed (as expected) a variety of international chocolates and candies, and also well-known luxury brands such as Chuao, Green & Black, and Lake Champlain Chocolate.



(Photos taken by me)

Each chocolate brand boasted a fancy name or a special flavor combination, but none claimed to be anything more than delicious and of high quality. Cardullo’s appears to not have any qualms about looking snooty and upscale, which might be a little easier for the little shop, being an independent luxury store in the middle of a wealthy area, that is, Harvard Square.

Whole Foods is an entirely different story. The store itself, introduced with blooming flowers and full of hand-written, hand-carried, handpicked charm, is designed so that its aesthetic lets us know “that what’s before us is bursting with freshness” (Lindstrom). Sure, any grocery store is going to want to give that kind of impression of freshness, but Whole Foods has a particularly farm-to-table feel to it, even though the market is a chain and therefore gets much of its produce the same way the other supermarkets do. Upon approaching the large, well-organized chocolate display, the difference between Cardullo’s and Whole Foods becomes strikingly clear. While the rack is punctuated by the occasional row of Chuao, Green & Black, or Lake Champlain, it’s mostly filled up with brands that boast “organic” or “fair trade” chocolate. But many of these bars also boast something else, something that seems positive but is in many ways problematic. There’s Equal Exchange chocolate, a decidedly fair-trade company, which tells the story of Ramon, “from Conacado Co-op in the Dominican”, who supposedly contributed to the making of your bar, on the wrapper. There’s Alter Eco chocolate, claiming to give you a “taste of Ecuador”, and which boasts a commitment to “foodie, farmer, and field”. There’s Theo and Newman’s Own, both of which are organic and fair trade. Whole Foods also has two different store-brand chocolate bars on the shelf, both of which sport interesting labels in an attempt to match their brand name competitors:



(Image source: first- http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/products/whole-foods-market-organic-dark-chocolate-bar-tanzania-schoolhouse-project
second –  http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/products/organic-dark-chocolate-almonds)

The packaging on each bar has the official USDA organic seal, and then a strange, clearly non-official seal claiming “WHOLE TRADE GUARANTEE”. The Whole Foods brand bar sports images of a rainforest as well as a group of smiling non-white people, and the 365 bar has an odd stamp on it declaring that the chocolate within is imported from Italy. Clearly, the Whole Foods store brand bars are attempting to keep up with the socially- and environmentally-conscious campaigns of their competitors, but haven’t even done enough of what the packaging and framing claims to do to even merit more than the USDA organic official seal. Still, even though their store brand isn’t the prime example, it still contributes to the main, somewhat troubling theme of the entire display.

On the Whole Foods Market website is a list of Core Values, including “We Serve and Support Our Local and Global Communities”. The description of this value contains a description of Whole Foods’ commitment to working “towards poverty alleviation in developing-world communities where Whole Foods Market sources product” (Whole Foods…). Looking over the chocolate shelf, a large proportion of these chocolate brands advertise not only a delicious product, but one that helps someone across the globe, most notably someone working in the chocolate industry, and therefore, ostensibly, living in some kind of poverty. It’s also extremely important to note that most of the people “helped” by these chocolate brands are not white. The company seems to be making an attempt to play to what the Whole Foods CEO calls “the powerful altruistic impulse that is a key aspect of what it means to be human” (“‘Conscious….'”)

On the same page as the company’s mission statement about alleviating poverty is this image:


(Image source: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/mission-values/core-values/we-serve-and-support-our-local-and-global-communities)

It may look like something you’ve seen before, maybe on Facebook, maybe on someone’s blog. A usually young, white person poses for a picture with a large group of generally non-white people in an African, Central American, or Southeast Asian country. This white person, like the woman above, might be wearing the traditional or popular clothing of the region. This, I argue, is Whole Foods’ consumer target. What’s problematic about this is that images like the one above, as well as much of the language used in products promoted by Whole Foods, sell well-off white Americans a sense of cultural connection, pride in personal benevolence, and exoticism which doesn’t actually exist, or at least doesn’t do what it claims to. With this, many of these products also sell a kind of racial othering that paints the “conscientious American consumer” as the guardian of the “poor, quaint inhabitants of x country”. For this reason, I call the image above a “white man’s burden image”. Compare the sentiments expressed by that photo to this cartoon, drawn during the height of Western imperialism.


(Image source:  http://politicalwhereabouts.blogspot.com/2013/04/colonialism.html )

The cartoon is obviously extremely racist and extremely explicit, depicting two white men, one American and one English, carrying the poor, childlike and ignorant foreigners over the treacherous road of  “superstition”, “brutality”, and, more notably, “oppression”. The Whole Foods photograph in no way says any of the things this cartoon says directly, but when paired with the site’s text, it creates a strange sense of almost paternalistic benevolence on the part of the white, American Whole Foods consumer — she must be helping those traditionally-dressed Southeast Asian women, or at least “experiencing a different (and often depicted as more primitive) culture”. Consumers buying chocolate from Whole Foods are given the idea that they are doing both of these things at a distance. They operate on the notion that “It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away”, but the impact of this ideology when used to market a product usually results in great relief for the consumer, little relief for those the product claims to help, and a strengthened racial and cultural divide between consumer and beneficiary (Singer). Two brands on the Whole Foods rack I found to be especially guilty of this marketing ploy of commodified benevolence are Madecasse and Divine.

On the one hand, I would consider Madecasse’s campaign severely problematic.



(Image source: http://cocoarunners.com/explore/maker/madecasse/#)

The company boasts unique, more open, rougher packaging, reminiscent of a burlap sack, adorned with rough designs that look hand-drawn. The words “BEAN TO BAR IN AFRICA” adorn the bottom of the package, indicating that while the chocolate is from Madagascar, the rest of the processing probably occurs in some other part of Africa. The problem with Madecasse’s marketing, as well as its connection to the marketing campaign of Whole Foods Market, lies in the mission statement that gets printed on the back of the wrapper. The one I picked up began with “We were peace corps volunteers…” and some other bars were printed with this:


(Image source:  http://www.madecasse.com/our-story/ )

Who is “we”? Why, the American peace corps volunteers, of course. The brand blatantly puts the non-African entrepreneur on the high horse, claiming that their benevolence (and, by association, the consumer’s) has the power to “change the world” through a “better” bar of chocolate, both in flavor and moral value. Everything about the brand’s packaging culturally appropriates and caricatures an African aesthetic, but nothing about the brand’s mission statement alludes to any agency from any African cocoa farmers.

Another company, Divine, advertises their product with this video clip:

The problem with this video is not truly the seemingly caricatured depiction of the process: it’s the happy, everything-is-alright tone combined with the sequence of images about schools, sanitation, water, etc. While Divine does seem to do a better job than Madecasse in depicting its cocoa farmers as “real” people, this advertisement once again plays to the idea of the “benevolent white folk”, in that it’s implied that the white people eating the chocolate at the beginning are helping the black African people throughout the video to obtain improvements in schools, sanitation, etc. Not only that, but this tone of happy helpfulness turns images of what should seem inadequate and appalling (hand pumps, one-room schoolhouses) into a quaint sign of improvement, that no matter what the situation looks like now, it’s better than it would have been without the consumer.

On a lighter note, here’s a good example of a video by Africans (whose country of origin is unknown) responding, not to the Divine video itself, but to the  to the same type of cultural simplification taking place there:

While Whole Foods does appear to have organizations in place to actually help “alleviate poverty” and assist struggling communities, the company’s use of this as a primary marketing ploy leads to less-than-earned relief and benevolent pride in upper-middle class American consumers and a widened gap between those consumers and the human beings they believe they are so kindly helping. Although Divine chocolate (and Whole Foods itself) would like you to believe you can, you can never really use a chocolate purchase to “indulge in a cause”.

Works Cited

“‘Conscious Capitalism’: Q & A With Whole Foods CEO John Mackey”. Int. Esha Chhabra. Forbes. 3 Jan 2013. Web. Accessed 6 May 2014. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2013/03/01/qa-with-whole-foods-ceo-john-mackey-about-conscious-capitalism/

“Divine Story”. Divine Chocolate. 2011. Web. Accessed 7 May 2014. <http://www.divinechocolate.com/us/about-us/divine-story>

Lindstrom, Martin. “How Whole Foods ‘Primes’ You To Shop”. Fast Company. 15 September 2011. Web. Accessed 8 May 2014. http://www.fastcompany.com/1779611/how-whole-foods-primes-you-shop

“Our Story”. Madecasse. 2014. Web. Accessed 6 May 2014. <http://www.madecasse.com/our-story/>

Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”. Philosophy and Public Affairs. 1972. Web. Accessed 8 May 2014. <http://www.utilitarianism.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm&gt;

Whole Foods Market Website. Whole Foods Market IP. L.P., 2014. Web. 5 May 2014.