I know, I know...excuse that awful pun! But it really is World Chocolate Day, and I can't help but get excited to talk about my favorite ingredient to prepare and eat: cacao! All the chocolate treats we make at Nüssli118° are crafted using fair trade, organic, raw cacao powder. (Not to be confused with cocoa powder, which is a highly processed food derived from cacao but devoid of any real nutritional value.) In its raw state, cacao is actually considered a superfood because it contains the highest concentration of magnesium and flavonoid antioxidants of any food on the planet! That’s one of the reasons why I choose to buy cacao powder made from beans that have been fermented, sun-dried, and cold-pressed - never roasted. (Read about the cacao we use here!) I also care deeply about the environment, quality over quantity, and human rights which, believe it or not, are all issues we actively take a stance on when we bite into our favorite chocolate bar. Here’s why it’s so important to choose your chocolate carefully:
Unsustainable farming practices are very common in cacao production. This is primarily because 90% of the world’s cocoa is grown on six million small farms in West Africa and South America. These farmers (most of whom are living in poverty - more on that below) are often forced to prioritize high yield over the health of the land. Intensive farming wears out the soil, and new, more fertile grounds are constantly being deforested to grow the next crop. The overuse of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in cacao farming can also seriously contaminate local water sources and the biodiversity of the surrounding land.
In 2017, the chocolate industry collectively voiced their support of the Cocoa and Forest Initiative, which is dedicated to ending cacao-related deforestation. Sadly, in the years that followed, deforestation actually increased in Africa’s top two cacao-producing countries, Ghana and the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire.
Quality Over Quantity
To meet the demands of billions of chocolate fans world wide, large chocolate companies treat cacao beans as a “commodity product.” That means they buy the beans in massive quantities at the lowest possible price. In other words, quantity over quality. They don’t deal directly with cacao farmers to source their beans, but rather a “complex supply chain process” that puts several middleman between themselves and the farmers they source from. That’s how a single, large chocolate producer may end up sourcing their beans from hundreds or even thousands of farms in several different countries (even different continents). How do they monitor the quality of so many tons of beans coming from far and wide? The short answer: not closely. And they don’t have to. Years of mass production have proven that infested, moldy or otherwise “bad” beans that go unnoticed don’t effect the end product… Not when enough sugar, milk product and “natural” flavor is added to cover it up, that is.
By now you may have guessed that the chocolate industry doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to human rights. Far from it, I’m afraid. In West Africa, which grows 60-70% of the world’s beans, many cacao farmers make less than $1.90 a day. Living in poverty, they receive no support or incentive to practice sustainable farming, to grow higher quality varieties of cacao, or to protect their laborers. Human trafficking and child labor are serious problems in cacao production everywhere, not just historically but to this very day. The complex cacao supply chain I mentioned earlier does more than provide cheap product to chocolate companies. It also protects those same companies from having to take responsibility for the abhorrent practices being used on their suppliers’ farms.
Much like the issue with deforestation, cacao-related child labor has also increased from 30% to 41% over the past 10 years - despite large-scale chocolate companies pledging to reduce it by 70% during that time.
Have I convinced you to care where your chocolate comes from? I hope so! Yes, the problems I’ve discussed here are big. But the solutions are surprisingly simple:
- Research your favorite chocolate companies. Do they openly discuss where their cacao comes from? Down to the country, the region, even the specific farm? Do they promote living wages, fair/direct trade, sustainable farming and quality over quantity? The best chocolate companies out there talk about these topics in depth on their websites!
- Pledge to buy the best. It’s easy to let all that research go flying out the window when jumbo Hershey’s bars are on sale at the supermarket for $1. But remember that your decisions truly make a difference. The price tag may say $1, but the real cost of that cheap chocolate is being paid elsewhere, in West Africa or South America. Choose a company that’s part of the solution instead.
- Share this post! Along with any of the linked sources here that really surprised you. I bet there’s a chocolate lover in your life who will be just as surprised and grateful to know the real story behind cacao!