The Bittersweet Truth About Chocolate

By: Drew Silverthorn

Now that Valentine’s Day has passed and over $1 billion worth of the sweet stuff has been sold in the U.S. alone, let’s chocolate!talk chocolate.

As a pastry student it would infuriate me when people would profess themselves as “chocoholics” but shun dark chocolate. From a quality and artisanal standpoint, milk chocolate is often less superior in flavor and texture as milk and dairy byproducts are often used as cheap fillers to reduce ingredient costs. I would often respond to these “chocoholics” with, “No, you don’t like chocolate. You like dairy and sugar.”

The quality shows in the price difference too – dark chocolate is usually significantly more expensive than milk chocolate. However, as more palates are becoming adjusted to the rich depth of flavour provided by dark chocolate, chocolate may soon be out of reach for the average person.

The demand for chocolate has increased dramatically across the world. In China, chocolate sales have doubled over the past decade. By 2014 global chocolate sales are expected to reach a record $117 billion.  This increase is expected to continue at an alarming rate that could cause a cocoa shortage by 2018. Other projections suggest that the price of chocolate will double by 2020 and the average consumer will no longer be able to indulge in chocolate as frequently due to the high price point.

The increase in dark chocolate consumption, specifically, is leading to a greater demand for cocoa bean production. While the average chocolate bar only contains about 10% cocoa mass, darker varieties contain 70% or more. So, not only has the demand for all forms of chocolate increased, but so too has the demand for more pure chocolate that requires greater amounts of cocoa intensified.

Increased appetites for the bittersweet stuff have resulted in dramatic impacts for the environment. Cocoa farms are mostly small, family owned and managed operations, and thus, farmers have been finding shortcuts to meet increased market demands.

Cocoa trees are traditionally grown in the shade as they thrive in nutrient-rich, moist, and deep soils usually found in the understory (vegetation beneath the forest canopy) of rainforests. Increased demand for cocoa has forced farmers to clear cut forests so that they can grow more cocoa trees in open fields and increase their outputs. This has resulted in a high-yield, low-quality hybrid plant that relies on the heavy usage of industrial chemicals to facilitate growth in an unnatural environment. The resulting consequences have led to monocropping, erosion, reduction of wildlife and their habitats, and increased occurrences of disease by infestations like witches’ broom.

Another tactic that some cocoa plantations have employed to satisfied Western appetites for chocolate is the use of child labour. In West Africa, child workers are subject to extremely long workdays, prolonged exposure to poisonous agricultural chemicals, injuries from work tools (most commonly machetes), beatings, isolation from family, and horrifying living conditions. By driving down their labour costs while increasing production outputs, plantations are able to offer competitive prices that meet global buyers’ thirst for cheap chocolate.

By now you’re probably wondering what the solutions to these problems are. Do we, as consumers of the global north, give up chocolate all together? Or should we just reduce our chocolate consumption? What about the local economies in the global south that rely on our cravings?

The answer is simple: purchase and consume better chocolate. By “better” I don’t mean according to taste, but rather chocolate that is sourced from environmentally friendly companies that support human rights, sustainability, and equity through their sourcing and production practices. It’s easier to do then you think!

Ottawa is home to one of the world’s finest chocolate producers: the La Siembra Co-operative.  These fine folks produce my all time favourite chocolate under the brand “Cocoa Camino.” There’s a whole host of reasons why you should be devouring their chocolates and not the mass-produced plastic passed off at chocolate on convenience store shelves. Listed below are the top 5 reasons why we love Cocoa Camino:

1. All products are Fair Trade camino

This means that family farmers receive fair prices, premiums are paid to improve social conditions in the farmers’ communities, no forced labour is used in the cocoa production, and sustainable farming practices are supported and emphasized! What’s not to love about that?

 2. All products are Organic

By sourcing organic ingredients, La Siembra Co-op ensures that the cocoa they are sourcing comes from farms that do not practice monocropping, the usage of  heavy chemical pesticides, or clear cutting of forests. It’s actually the reverse! Many farmers that La Siembra Co-op sources from have diversified their harvests through traditional shade canopy methods.

3. Use of Recycled Materials

La Siembra Co-op uses recycled materials wherever possible. This includes packaging, office supples, and promotional materials.

4 . Their Employment Standards

La Siembra Co-op emphasizes “meaningful, dignified employment” as a pillar of their co-operative. Who doesn’t want meaningful and dignified employment?!

5. Their Big Hearts!

They were kind enough to donate to us during our Foodies Fair! The event attendees raved about the chocolate. If you weren’t able to attend or grab a sample, then rush to the nearest health food store or major grocery retailer and get some stat! Seriously… you need to try this stuff.

For more information, check out their website here.

P.S. That’s our staff in the photo loving their Cocoa Camino chocolate! We couldn’t keep people’s hands off of the bars at the event.

Helpful Resources:

The Good Chocolate Guide  – a guide to all the ethical chocolate available in Canada

Cocoa Supply Chain – an interactive and fun tool for learning more about cocoa production!

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