Let’s explore one of humanity’s most famous guilty pleasures …. chocolate!
CHOCOLATE: the rich, the dark, the bitter, the sweet!
What do you really know about the prettily packaged slab of chocolate decadence you’re about to get your hands on? Where did it come from? How did it travel from the factory into the palm of your hand? Who grew the cocoa beans used to produce it? What other ingredients are lurking in the background? What is the story of your chocolate bar?
Before we celebrate, I think it might be a good idea to take a dive into the story of chocolate and unearth the truth behind this commodity that we, nowadays, very much take for granted.
A RICH HISTORY
Let’s take a trip to Meso-America to the time of the Mayan and Aztec empires. This is where some of the first evidence of the use of chocolate can be found, with an archaeological site on the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, Mexico, showing the use of cocoa dating all the back to 1900 BC. Many of the Meso-American people made chocolate beverages, but it was most popular among the Mayan and Aztec people, who believed the cocoa bean had been given to them by the gods, and valued it more than gold. The cocoa beans were actually used as currency among the Aztecs, so for example one turkey would cost 100 cocoa beans and a fresh avo would cost 3 beans.
Cocoa was mostly associated with human sacrifice, especially with blood sacrifices, when achiote, a native shrub with red seeds, was added to the bitter drink to give it a red hue and stain the lips of those that drank it. It was also believed that the chocolate held powerful energy and could strengthen those who drank it. Most famously, the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II supposedly drank litres of the chocolate beverage each day for energy and as an aphrodisiac, and even gave it to the soldiers in his military to increase their strength and war prowess.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that this revered good was brought to Europe and would take on a rather dark twist….
A DARK TWIST
In 1502, on their first journey to the Americas, Christopher Columbus and his son, Ferdinand, raided a native canoe that was transporting cocoa beans for trade. They took the beans back to Spain, where the trend didn’t take off until nearly a century later, when Spanish Friars introduced it to the Spanish Court. The Spanish continued to serve the chocolate as a beverage but went on to add sugar to combat the bitterness of the drink. The trend soon caught on and Europe began importing the cocoa beans as the chocolate craze steadily grew.
This opened up a thriving slave market, for African slaves, during the 1600s, through till the 1800s. Chocolate plantations spread and grew as the Dutch, French and English continued to colonize the Americas.
During the Industrial Revolution, Dutch chemist, Coenraad van Houten, made one of the major breakthroughs in chocolate history, and transformed it to become what it is today. His invention of the chocolate press and the introduction of alkalizing salts meant that people could now separate the fat (cocoa butter) from the cocoa and reduce the natural bitterness. Companies such as Nestle emerged and started experimenting with adding other ingredients such as milk powder, sugar and other additives to enhance the flavour and texture of the chocolate. They started coming out with chocolate bars and other goods, so that the chocolate could be enjoyed in other ways aside from a beverage.
The chocolate industry steadily grew and continues to do so to this day, with the industry now raking in over $50 billion each year on world wide sales and consumption of chocolate.
However this growth has come at great costs to the people, land and the planet….
THE BITTER TRUTH
Roughly two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is produced in West Africa, with the majority of this being produced in the Ivory Coast. According to the World Cocoa Foundation, over 50 million people worldwide depend on cocoa as their means of livelihood and unfortunately the use of child labour is wide spread, with over 30% of children, under the age of fifteen in sub-Saharan Africa, being used as child labour in agricultural activites, most of which include cocoa farming. A 2017 report showing that over 2.1 million children in Ghana and Cote, d’lvoire were involved in the farming of cocoa, using dangerous tools for clearing forests, carrying heavy loads and being exposed to pesticides, with many of these being victims of trafficking and slavery.
As we see with most things, what damages people also damages the planet, and vice versa, so it comes at no surprise that the farming and production of cocoa poses many threats to the environment as well.
Deforestation is one of the major causes of destruction due to cocoa farming. Farmers usually clear more tropical forest to plant new trees, instead of simply using old land that has already been cleared. In the Ivory Coast alone, an estimated 70% of the country’s illegal deforestation is due to cocoa farming.
But the effects extend beyond just the farming practices and all the way into the transportation, shipping, production, manufacturing and even packaging of the final product – the chocolate treat you’re about to reach for.
Since most of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa, but the majority of chocolate products are manufactured in Europe and the U.S, the cocoa has to travel thousands of kilometres before it ends up in the palm of your hand.
Harvested cocoa beans have to first be fermented and dried before they are shipped off to the manufacturer where they are processed into chocolate liquor – pure chocolate in liquid form. The liquor can then be processed into the further two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. And then its time to turn all of this into the bars, candies and confectioneries we see on the shelves of supermarkets.
Its safe to say the chocolate of today most definitely does not resemble its ancient Mayan ancestor. Whilst the Mayans and Aztecs drank pure unrefined cocoa, we are more accustomed to the sweet, smooth, creamy and decadent version of chocolate today. The addition of numerous ingredients, additives and preservatives have changed chocolate from being a so called “strengthening” and “revitalising” drink to a guilty pleasure considered to be “unhealthy” and associated with weight gain, obesity, and even cardiovascular disease.
Chocolate is now loaded with sugars, emulsifiers, flavours, and ingredients such as palm oil that cause further damage to the planet and the people.
By now you’ve most probably dropped that chocolate bar and vowed to never eat another piece of chocolate again – I mean, how could it possibly be okay to consume something so full of dark labour practices, bitter truths, melting (literally!) effects on the planet, and some not-so-smooth health consequences? Chocolate, it seems, could be a lost cause….
But, could there be a shining little sweet tooth somewhere there?
Friends, I have news for all you choc-aholics out there! There might just be a chance that you can enjoy this sweet decadence, without a guilty conscience.
In the early 2000s some chocolate producers started up Fair Trade chocolate initiatives. While Fair Trade criteria can vary among producers, the standard principles that need to be met include, fair labour, fair earnings for the farmers and sustainable farming practices devoid of the use of agro-chemicals and GMO.
There are also many small scale chocolate producers that grow and produce their chocolate with both the planet and the people in mind. From organic farming practices, soil regeneration, and waterway protection, to equal pay for men and women, community development, upliftment and a higher standard of living.
Chocolate can actually be healthy again! By choosing to buy chocolate from local small scale producers you can also be assured that the product you are buying will not come with a very long ingredient list full of additives, sugar and preservatives. Good quality chocolate is high in antioxidants, vitamin and mineral rich, and can have positive effects on your health – perhaps the ancient Mayans and Aztecs weren’t so far off when they defined it as “the food of the gods”, bringing them energy, strength and health!
To conclude, humans and chocolate have had a long dark and rich history together. With much of the world’s chocolate being monopolised by Big Chocolate companies with unethical practices, it can feel a little daunting – how will things ever change? But I’m here to give you some good news. The world is changing and we can continue to create more of that change! Remember your money is your vote, and whenever you buy something you are casting your vote for how you want the world to look. You are casting a vote for what you want. So why not cast those votes for a positive future? You can change the world by eating chocolate – good, ethical chocolate that is!
So, guys it is time to celebrate World Chocolate Day, with some powerhouse sustainable, fair, ethical and good-for-you chocolate! Hop on over to Faithful to Nature and browse through the pages of chocolatey goodness. The best part? You can find exactly what you’re looking for by using Faithful to Nature’s unique filter system, that allows you to select products based on your values. Choose from palm-oil free, vegan, vegetarian, locally made, cruelty free, organic and so much more – ethical shopping was never easier!
ANCIENT MAYAN CHOCOLATE DRINK
This rich and creamy drink is made in the style of the ancient Mayan people. Served black with hints of spice from the cayenne pepper, this drink will make you feel just like a powerful Mayan soldier, ready to take on the day!
Add all the ingredients into a small saucepan and heat on the stove.
Bring to a boil and then pour into your favourite mug and enjoy!