Tell me what chocolate you eat, and I’ll tell you what kind of consumer you are!
In Mesoamerican cultures, cacao was central to both religion and daily life. The pods were used as currency. The beans were consumed as a drink, spiced with chili peppers, and mixed with cornmeal for texture. The tree was worshipped as a sacred plant.
In the 1500s, cacao arrived in Europe. With the addition of sugar, it became a complex luxury good appreciated by the few that could afford it.
If chocolate was so venerated in European and Mesoamerican societies, then what happened?
In the late 1800s, Hershey and Cadbury became successful with a new kind of chocolate – milk chocolate. Large amounts of milk powder and sugar were added to the recipe. They needed less of the expensive cacao beans to produce large quantities, which means they could charge a price so low that everyone could afford their candy bars. It also meant that the flavor of the cacao beans had less importance. Thousands of years of careful breeding for diverse flavors were disregarded. Now farmers would favor trees with high yields and better resistance to diseases. Heirloom chocolate was forgotten, replaced by industrial chocolate candy bars. Most of the chocolate candy bars you find on the market contain only about 10% chocolate. The other 90% is sugar, milk powder, and other fillers (that are not necessarily good for you).
Since everybody could now afford chocolate, demand grew fast. Unfortunately, the supply chain couldn’t follow the increasing trend. Farmers received less for their beans since they represented such a low percentage of the final product. Besides, the quality of the beans required was of lower importance. To stay competitive and earn a living, farmers had to turn to unsustainable ways of growing their beans. On one side of the supply chain, an ever-increasing demand for cheap labor, land space, and insecticides. On the other side, decreased accountability, and a focus on profit. The foundation for the current issues in the industry was set.
In the mid-1990s, we began to see a resurgence in chocolate-bar makers. Confectioners would use the pre-industrial small-batch technique of old Europe. The search for the highest quality cacao beans around the globe was on. Seeking to discover the distinctive flavors of beans from a single origin or single estate was trendy again. This became known as the “bean-to-bar” movement. Today, bean-to-bar chocolate makers seek to create relationships with cacao farmers. Chocolatiers are willing to pay more for high-quality beans. It empowers the farmers to grow the tastiest varieties and produce high-quality crops.
How to find high-quality chocolate:
The purchasing power has now completely shifted to be 100% in the hands of the buyer. The internet and technologies like search engines allow today’s buyers to be informed. In a simple search, you now have access to worldwide solutions to your problems. You can also find information on companies, their competitors, and the industry standards. Buying goods and services must be a deliberate and informed decision.
First, ask where does the chocolate come from? If it isn’t on the bar or website, they might not want you to know, and you probably don’t want to know either.
Be careful with greenwashing and misleading labels. Two cases apply here. The company might not want to take accountability, because they profit from mindless consumers and reap benefits at the expense of farmers. Worse, the company is not aware of the harm it is doing, less probable yet possible. In either case, it is our duty as consumers to support ethical companies over those who are not. Direct Trade is a practice that empowers both farmers and manufacturers. It does this by offering better traceability of products, and it is a sustainable way to promote cruelty-free chocolate consumption.
Direct Trade connects suppliers (farmers) with buyers (manufacturing companies), without any intermediaries, in a way that they become dependent on each other’s success, ethics, and professionalism. Direct Trade depends on sharing the value created by the products sold by the company.
Second, buy chocolate with fewer ingredients. Pure dark chocolate has only two ingredients: cacao beans and sugar. Some add a small amount of an emulsifier -soy lecithin- and this is fine.
To be able to appreciate its nuanced flavors, buy chocolate with a percentage marked on the bar. 60% means 60% cacao 40% everything else. The higher the number, the darker the chocolate.
Third, you want to pay more for high-quality chocolate. The perception we have of chocolate is twisted. It is a luxury good. Appreciate that you can get the very best chocolate in the world for $10 to $20 per bar. Compare that to the price for the very best wine or the very best cheese in the world. It is an affordable price to pay for a product that has a beneficial ripple effect.
Fine chocolate is the most delicious healthy product on the planet. Let’s change the way we feel about chocolate, for its future, for our health, and the Earth.