The Dark Side of Chocolate

It’s not as sweet as you think

This Valentine's day, you’re probably getting, and receiving, the most popular sweet in the world — chocolate.

Whether it's for your partner, or for yourself (self love is 💯), chocolate is a wonder that plays an important role in our world and culture, universally used in baked goods, milkshakes, pastries, even pasta.

People make videos eating expensive chocolate, break records for the world's largest chocolate fountain, and cover just about anything in chocolate.   

The past year has been a game changer for the chocolate industry: from staying in and baking desserts to roasting s'mores by the fire, consumers are treating themselves. Hershey's sales were 40% to 50% higher in areas with an increased number of Covid-19 cases than areas that were lower, go figure. 

In this special V-Day edition, we'll be unwrapping the process of making chocolate from bean to bar. 

At a Glance

58 million pounds of chocolate are consumed by Americans during Valentine's day week. Why? 

Quick history lesson: The Mayans first associated chocolate with love. Word on the street spread about chocolate, and soon a bunch of European innovators crafted chocolate to sell. In 1861, Cadbury was the first company to produce a heart shaped box of chocolates in time for Valentine's day. Since chocolate is still the top gift on Valentine's day for over 2 centuries, we'll call that a corporate win. 

Chocolate evolved into a $103 billion dollar industry with 4.85 million metric tons (11 billion pounds, or 550 Eiffel Towers) produced every year. Prices range as inexpensive as $0.88 to as expensive as $200

Most of the world’s chocolate comes from countries along the equator, as cacao trees require regions with consistent warm temperatures, high humidity, and lots of rainfall. But, as temperature increases with climate change, it could have a significant impact on rainfall and humidity levels, slowly shrinking the amount of land available for cacao trees to grow. 

It’s also well documented that the chocolate supply chain uses child labor to work in the cacao farms, posing large human rights issues.

Environmental Impact 

1 single chocolate bar has a greater far reaching impact than you would think. But before we dive into that, let’s take a deep look at chocolate’s star ingredient —  cacao, sourced from the beans of the fruit of the cacao tree.

70% of the world’s cocoa beans are harvested from the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil and Ecuador, and 90% of the cacao beans grow on small 10-acre family farms plantations

Each cacao tree bears 20-50 cocoa beans per pod and about 20 to 30 pods per year. It takes about 3-4 cocoa trees to produce one pound of chocolate. For 11 billion pounds produced yearly, that's a lot of trees. 

Deforestation has accelerated dramatically in the past decade, with places like the Ivory Coast losing an estimated 80% of its forests over the last 50 years, as smaller farmers clear land to try and grow their plantations. 

For many, growing cacao trees is their only source of income, with farmers annually averaging $1900. It's a shame that education and yield have not been fully capitalized on, with farms in Colombia holding the potential to produce 1,800 to 3,600 pounds per acre compared to the 180 to 270 pounds per acre produced today. 

This low productivity on cacao farms comes as a result of:

  • Poor agricultural practices: Lots of maintenance required to monitor the weather, disease and pests as cocoa pods ripen at different times.

  • Poor nutrient soil: Deforestation —> Soil Erosion —> Less fertile soil. And the cycle continues.

  • Old cacao trees: Takes 3-5 years to become a fruiting tree, and farmers don’t have time to waste.

If education and yield were invested in, farmers would have less reason to clear land, ultimately reducing deforestation.

With the rise in climate change, these farms are planning on experiencing a 3.7°F increase in temperature by 2050, while rainfall will still keep the same, causing lowered humidity levels and decreased viable land for cacao production.

Human Labor

Let’s take a look at the steps required for people to move cacao beans before they’re processed: 

  • Growing: Cacao trees produce pods where they are harvested with a machete and beans are removed from the pods. 

  • Fermentation: Beans are placed in large banana leaves or shallow trays to be heated by the sun, taking about five or eight days for beans to turn brown.

  • Drying: Beans are dried on trays and laid out in the sun for a week.

  • Packaging: Beans are cleaned off and stored in cocoa sacks before they are sold to large cocoa industry owners.

  • Transportation: Industry owners deliver beans on freight ships and trucks to grinding companies.

Grinding companies then take these sacks of unprocessed beans and get to work breaking the bean shells, roasting the beans and grinding them up. This results in cocoa liquor —  the base for your chocolate bar.

Most of the people sourcing your chocolate bar ingredients are 5-16 year old migrants. They are forced to work, often without pay and met with physical violence if they try to leave.

A Washington Post reporter went to visit a farm on the Ivory Coast and asked one of the boys how old he was. Since his supervisor was around, he said 19 (the legal age to work), but as the supervisor walked away, he wrote a different answer in the sand: 15. 

Despite the booming industry, cacao farmers earn less than $1 a day, receiving 6% of each chocolate bar's sale price while manufacturers and retailers pocket 80%. At least 2.3 million children work in chocolate production in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where they are:

  • Vulnerable to trafficking, slavery and other violent labor practices.

  • Exposed to long hours and toxic chemicals used in pesticides.

  • Denied education and left hungry. These kids don't make enough to feed themselves. 

The world's leading chocolate companies (Hershey's, Nestlé, Mars, Unilever, etc.) have missed deadlines to uproot child labor from their supply chain 3 times —  2005, 2008, and 2010, clearly indicating the low priority they have toward eradicating child labor. 

What’s most surprising is representatives from large chocolate companies could not guarantee they use child labor because they cannot identify the farms where all their cocoa comes from, let alone whether child labor was used in producing it.

Ingredients to Watch Out For

When it's time for manufacturers to make and package the chocolate bar, they include some ✨ extra special ✨ ingredients to make their products last longer and cheap to produce:

  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS): GMO sweetener that’s cheaper than sugar.

  • Soy lecithin: Emulsifier (additive that helps 2 liquids mix) from GMO soy that makes manufacturing easier and the chocolate less pure.

  • Artificial flavors: A generic ingredient with little to no information. From a manufacturer perspective, the less we know, the better.

  • Vanillin: Imitation vanilla, which can be made from petrochemical precursor guaiacol. Can you pronounce that?

  • PGPR: Another emulsifier that increases shelf life. It's made from castor beans, decreasing the need to use pricier cocoa butter. Chocolate without cocoa, what a concept.

  • Vanilla: Disguises the potentially inferior flavor profiles from bad fermentation or poor harvest of cacao beans. You can tell if the vanilla is an intentional enhancer if the label highlights vanilla as a component of the bar.

The Future of Chocolate

Despite the cacao industry’s challenges, there are many major initiatives in the chocolate industry that can improve farming techniques, focusing heavily on raw materials. 

Here are a few groups that identify companies with sustainable and ethical practices in chocolate:

Some of the big areas chocolate companies are focused on improving are:

  1. Reducing forest deforestation with improved farming productivity.

  2. Using sustainable ingredients in chocolate products.

  3. Removing child labor from the supply chain.

  4. Providing financial and educational support for small farmers.

  5. Modernize all outdated equipment and processes.

Because of the large task at hand, some tech companies are reaching out to help small farmers with data analytics to track the meticulous cacao tree growth. Tech companies are also trying to ensure women gain more involvement in the cacao tracking and growth, especially given their knowledge of the harvest, post-harvest and transportation phases.

At the same time, others are committed to helping improve the supply chain by mimicking the coffee supply chain, hoping to drive similar success. We do want to call out that one often overlooked area is the air pollution caused from transporting cacao beans.

Current Alternatives 

Fortunately, there are a lot of ethical, fair-trade and sustainable chocolate companies that make it easy for you (and your wallet) to buy chocolate. 

Here are some chocolate companies that are making chocolate a little more guilt free. All of these options mention sustainability and labor practices, unless stated otherwise. Note: We are not sponsored, but wanted to list a few of our favorites.

What You Can Do 

Okay, okay! Let’s now see how you can find chocolate to keep your mind at ease:

  • Check the chocolate labels. Look out for Fair Trade Certified and Fair for Life to name a few. Always check on the company’s website if they address sustainability and labor efforts.

  • Consider buying dark. The more cocoa in the beans, the more money goes to cocoa farmers.

  • Buy direct trade chocolate. Some certifications can’t fully be trusted so the “bean-to-bar” approach is a new favorite.

  • Learn more about the impacts of chocolate through the links in this article.