Chocolate is a L.U.X.U.R.Y. food, and nothing less, ever.
The making of chocolate, from the cocoa tree all the way to the delicious bar we get to enjoy, is an extraordinary process! Unfortunately, with the ever-increasing demand for cheap chocolate, the industry has strayed far from sustainable standards.
There is a dark side to chocolate that has nothing to do with cocoa percentage on the label.
A brief history and description of the chocolate making process will give you a glimpse into what it takes to get this wonderful food on store shelves, and how it’s actually quite unreasonable and shocking that the price of a 4oz chocolate bar is less than $3.00!
Read on to learn why!
Cocoa 101: A brief history
Cocoa originates from Mesoamerica. Ancient civilizations like the Mayans and the Aztecs used it as currency for trading. There are myths about counterfeit pods, filled with soil.
Aside from its economic value, cocoa also had a great symbolic value. The Aztecs believed the plant was of the gods. Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, would have brought cocoa trees from heaven. The scientific name of the tree is Theobroma Cacao, from the greek θεός (theos), meaning “god”, and βρῶμα (broma), meaning “food”. To honour the gift, cocoa had to be shared with all people. It was consumed as a daily drink, spiced with chili peppers and mixed with cornmeal for texture. They would pour the drink from a height to create a froth on top. This drink was thought to have healing properties among others. Nobles and warriors would have solemn rituals surrounding it.
Chocolate derives from the Aztec word xocolātl, which means “bitter water”. When they got introduced to the drink, the Spanish conquistadors did not like it. Yet, they understood the great value cocoa had for the native civilizations. They decided to bring samples of cocoa pods back to Europe. The cocoa was then mixed with products unavailable in America: sugar, vanilla, honey…it was the beginning of chocolate as we know it today.
Chocolate started as a well kept secret in Spain. Anne of Austria introduced chocolate to the French Court when she married Louis XIII. From then, demand for chocolate grew. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Europeans transmitted a wide range of diseases. As the amerindian population decreased, the local workforce died with it. Europeans started to transplant the cocoa trees in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil. Then, to match the demand from the success in European Courts, the trees were exported to Asia.
Later on, in the 18th century, the industrial revolution induced a boom in the chocolate industry with two innovations:
- The hydraulic and steam chocolate mills which processed chocolate faster and at a lower cost.
- The cocoa press by Coenraad Johannes Van Houton which produced cocoa powder by removing the fat from the seeds. This new ingredient allowed chocolate makers to create chocolate in different forms.
These technological advances revolutionized the way chocolate was made. As supply grew, prices dropped, and demand rose. The demand for raw beans quickly outgrew the supply which led to the introduction of the cocoa tree in Africa and other European colonies. It also generated a black market. The many shortages led to the smuggling of illegal cocoa as cocoa was a prized raw material.
The miracle of Theobroma Cacao
To grow, cocoa trees need heat and humidity. Today, about 45 countries produce cocoa. All are located between the tropic of cancer and the tropic of capricorn, right around the equator.
Human intervention is essential to the perpetuity of cocoa cultivation. Unlike other fruits, the pod does not open itself when ripe, and it does not release its seeds. No seed, no tree, so it is rare to see a wild cocoa tree grow. Cocoa seeds must be planted within 24 hours after being extracted, otherwise the germ is dead.
For a fruit to be born, a female flower must be fertilized by the pollen of a male flower. Usually, the pollen is volatile and attaches easily to insects or lets the wind disperse it. Flowers do everything to attract insects for plants: growing in bright colors, and emitting strong aromas.
The cocoa tree however, has a more complicated process. The pollen of its flower is pasty. Its flowers are dull and have no flavor. The few midges that get attracted must be quick because the flower does not live more than 48 hours. In the end one flower out of 500 will give a fruit. Even with only a few fruits growing on one given tree, the cocoa tree does not produce enough sap to feed all of its fruits. Some of them will dry on the tree well before they even get ripe.
Finally, to add to the difficulty of cocoa farming, the trees have a limited life expectancy. It dies of age after about 40 years.
Every cocoa bean produced is a miracle. Unfortunately R&D as well as technology did not follow the growth of the cocoa farming industry. As you now understand, cocoa is a much more valuable ingredient than we are led to believe.
When we enjoy a cheap bar of chocolate, it is the other end of the supply chain, a more hidden one, that is paying for the luxury we are taking for granted. To meet demand for cheap chocolate, the big cocoa traders lobby the market prices down so much it results in extreme poverty in our cocoa farming regions. The lack of resources available to the farmers results in unimaginable horrors like child labor, a growing slave-trade, and environmental destruction.
So what can we do?
As a consumer, you can choose to only buy direct-trade chocolate. Do your due diligence on the company you buy from and make sure the chocolate is grown and processed sustainably. Burying your head in the sand and denying the issues the chocolate industry faces is what causes these problems to grow. Consumer demand is the only reason the large cocoa traders get away with everything they do.
As a chocolate-making company, Rosie’s Confections choses to only support like-minded businesses. Sustainability is so crucial for the future of fine chocolate, and we will never cut corners and source cheaper ingredients to increase profit margins. We follow direct-trade practices whenever possible, and when we can’t, we buy from businesses who do. This is the only way to secure a brighter future for chocolate, for Theobroma Cacao.
Help us on our journey! Let’s change the world, one delicious bite at a time.