As Halloween approaches, I am reminded of the childhood propensity to collect as much chocolate (and other candy) as possible and save the best for last, although the last always ended up in the trash. This time of year truly magnifies our country’s obsession with chocolate, evident in an excess chocolate supply that leaves too many of us victim to overconsumption and/or food waste.
Over fall break, I went to the New England Chocolate Festival in Boston, where the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute educates chocolate enthusiasts about how chocolate is made and exposes them to many small New England chocolate businesses that value the bean to bar process of creating chocolate. Beyond experiencing an extreme jolt of energy from so many chocolate samples, I learned how chocolate has become so essential to our culture that constantly celebrates the bounty of products supplied by major confectionery companies whose Halloween candy has cluttered stores since August.
U.S. consumers spent $22 billion on chocolate in 2017, which is approximately 12 pounds of chocolate consumption per person.1 Nevertheless, cacao, the base ingredient in chocolate, was once foreign to most of the world. The cultural and economic importance of food and more recent industrial advancements have accelerated the expansion of the chocolate industry throughout history, but the dominance of worldwide confectionery manufacturers has minimized the consumer’s understanding of where the chocolate comes from. Chocolate has transformed from a precious, handmade good to an abundant result of mass production. The joy of simply eating chocolate diminishes our awareness of supply chain inequalities, but the recent growth in appreciation for organic chocolate brings new value to cacao itself and the process of creating chocolate.
What is Cacao?
Cacao is a tropical tree, native to the Amazon River region, that thrives within twenty degrees north and south of the equator, bearing football-sized pods filled with seeds that are fermented, dried, and roasted to develop the flavors of chocolate.
The Mayans were one of the first civilizations to treasure cacao and discover that the seeds could be turned into a liquid, creating a drinkable form of chocolate far from what we know today. Cacao was a Mayan cultural offering, and the roasted seeds were used as currency, exemplifying the extent that the Mayans valued cacao, even calling it “food of the gods.”2
When Spanish colonists arrived in Latin America, they instituted the encomienda system to use the labor of the natives for crop production.3 The cacao crop quickly became an export crop within the triangular trade. The use of slave labor during the transatlantic slave trade greatly expanded the cultivation of “drug crops” (cacao, sugar, coffee, tea, and tobacco), revolutionizing global capitalism and trade, as luxury products could be consumed out of pure enjoyment by those wealthy enough to afford them. Through the Columbian Exchange, cacao made its way to West Africa, where 75 percent of the world’s cacao now originates; however, the majority of chocolate is consumed in the United States and Europe as a result of the development of luxury products during colonial times.1
The Chocolate Bar
Boston was known in the 17th and 18th centuries as a cultured place for wealthy merchants to indulge in chocolate and coffee drinks and discuss their disgust for the British crown. These shops encouraged merchants to explore new tastes, as most of their customers had no idea how chocolate was supposed to taste. Because the sugar crop was booming in the South, sugar was gradually added into chocolate production, and chocolate became how we know it today by the late 1800s.1
Since the Mayan period, the list of ingredients on most chocolate products has expanded far past simply cacao. Companies have reduced the cocoa content to decrease the cost of production and increase chocolate’s shelf life, making the once very valuable delicacy an abundant good with limitless variations. The mass production of chocolate was made possible through industrial developments in the 1800s that mechanized many of the traditionally labor-intensive tasks involved. Chocolate became more affordable, so the number of consumers rose rapidly.4
As demand rose, cacao became a commodity crop, easily traded in the bulk commodity market from West Africa to the major chocolate producers for mass manufacturing. Just five companies control over 50 percent of the chocolate industry, and 99 percent of that Halloween candy on the shelves was produced months or even years ago by just three companies. The drive for corporate profits transformed chocolate from a cherished treat to an everyday snack for many Americans and Europeans. Our cravings for chocolate are easily fulfilled because chocolate is available in excess at all times. While these companies earn 43 percent of each chocolate bar sold, cacao farmers receive only 3 percent, living harvest to harvest on the weight of the cacao they produce. The cacao supply chain leaves many farmers impoverished, imagining how their crop could be consumed by a class of Americans and Europeans ignorant of how their beloved chocolate reached local supermarkets.1
The recent developments of dark chocolate into a superfood have brought health-conscious consumers to the chocolate market looking for alternatives to the sugary stuff. The organic chocolate you’ll find at health foods stores will likely not be sourced from West Africa, but may come from the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, or Panama. Artisans craft this chocolate on a small scale and are typically transparent about the sources of their cacao and sugar, paying more for raw materials than the West African bulk commodity market price. They can afford to purchase ethically sourced cacao to produce their bean-to-bar chocolates because consumers will appreciate the ethical sourcing and purchase the chocolate they want, despite the price. Our society is too dependent on chocolate to just ignore the suggestion that it could be good for us. We are what we eat, after all.5
It is rare that I can survive an afternoon without a little chocolate, and I will likely eat it whether it’s healthful or not. I will continue to seek the momentary pleasure of indulgence, appreciating unique cacao flavors as well as the sugary candies of childhood, for the love of chocolate. Happy National Chocolate Day!
1Martin, Carla. “Chocolate 101.” Lecture, New England Chocolate Festival, Boston, MA, October 13, 2018
2Festa, Jessica. “History Of Chocolate – Mayans – Guatemala.” Epicure & Culture. October 13, 2015. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://epicureandculture.com/history-of-chocolate-guatemala/.
3Pilcher, Jeffrey M. “Latin American Food between Export Liberalism and the Vía Campesina.” In Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History, edited by Freedman Paul, Chaplin Joyce E., and Albala Ken, 120-41. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw3tn.12.
4“Industrial Revolution? Chocolate Revolution!” Chocolate Class. March 13, 2015. Accessed October 24, 2018. https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/industrial-revolution-chocolate-revolution/.
5Shapin, Steven. “‘You Are What You Eat’: Historical Changes in Ideas about Food and Identity.” Historical Research87, no. 237 (2014): 377-92. doi:10.1111/1468-2281.12059.