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Around the World in Search of Chocolate

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Paul Richardson munched his way around the world and wrote about it in Indulgence: Around the World in Search of Chocolate, part travelogue, part chocolate fetishism, and part British childhood nostalgia. I love reading books like this, and even if information scrutinized from big choc companies isn’t up to snuff anymore since the book is from 2003, working my way through Indulgence left a bitter taste in my mouth. That’s not because of the writing skills, but because of the questionable industry practices laid bare that many chocolate enthusiasts might be unaware of.

We Belgians love our chocolate. Yet, depending on the statistics source, we don’t appear in the top 5 of most chocolate consumers per capita. Unsurprisingly, Switzerland & Austria are first (8.8 and 8.1 kg/yr), followed by Germany, Ireland, and Great Britain (7.6 kg). We’re tenth, consuming 5.6 kg a year—in 2017, that is. To get an idea of those numbers, take a look at your average chocolate bar: that’s 100 g neatly divided in 10 pieces. In Belgium, roughly one and a half piece of that bar disappears into people’s stomachs daily—without counting the chocolate in store-bought cookies, ice cream, chocolate spread, pralines, … In Switzerland, a little less than two and a half of those pieces are melted away. Heavenly.

Yet Belgium is the most important player in the international chocolate market: it exports an amount of 2.55 billion U.S. dollars yearly—Poland and The Netherlands follow suit, followed by Canada and the U.S. (1.68 bn). I presume this includes Mars bars, and having grown up around proper chocolate, I don’t trust anything chocolatery that comes from America. But what about Switzerland, you ask? More than 50% of their exquisite chocolate doesn’t even leave the country! (0.85 bn). A gargantuan amount of cacao pods arrive at our Belgian docks, get conched, sweetened, molded, wrapped, and leave via those same docks.

You’d expect Belgians of all people to be well aware of the chocolate making process, the many chains and painful hickups in the market involved, but you’d be wrong. Most of us just mindlessly drop bars of Callebaut (gobbled up in the Swiss Barry-Callebaut) or Cote d’Or (owned by American multinational Mondelez) into the supermarket cart. Both giants are regularly accused of blatantly ignoring the conditions farmers have to work in. Mondelez is even known for replacing cacao butter with cheaper fats that endanger even more rain forests such as palm oil. And what is milk powder doing in a bar of dark chocolate anyway?

It turns out that even with famous Belgian Pralines, such as the here well-respected Godiva (bought by a Turkish/Korean holding??), is one of the most deeply unethical cacao processors in the world… After reading Richardson’s Indulgence, I started paying (even) more attention to the ingredients and labels on those chocolate bars, and I’m sorry to say, but I mostly prefer Dutch chocolate.

There, I said it.

Tony's Chocoloney, a Dutch Fair Trade brand.

The story of the Dutch brand Tony’s Chocoloney is very interesting. I’ll let Wikipedia do the explaining here:

In 2002, Dutch television producer and journalist Teun van de Keuken began producing programs about the abuses within the cocoa industry on his show Keuringsdienst van Waarde after discovering that almost none of the chocolate produced at the time was slave-free. Along with this, he also requested to be prosecuted for knowingly purchasing an illegally manufactured product, although the prosecutors chose not to do so. After three years of unsuccessful attempts to change the industry through investigative efforts, van de Keuken decided to start producing chocolate bars himself. The product quickly became a success […].

My wife and I always muttered about the irregular and weird shapes the chocolate bars come in. Their website provided the answer: things in the cacao industry aren’t neatly divided either, so why should we do the same for our bars? I found this to be a very nice touch, although we didn’t get it at first.

Traceability of cacao is key in keeping the process fair for everyone involved. Since I have yet to come across a chocolate bar that dutifully describes the origin of the pods including the types of cacao used, I tried investigating where the cacao comes from in Tony’s bars. That’s not too hard: the site mentions 6 co-operations: 2 in Ghana and 4 in Ivory Coast.

It’s great to see a bit of transparency here, but as I wanted to tread in the footsteps of Paul Richardson and also get a taste of different cacao varieties, I still had no clue what kind of trees they were growing. Of the three varieties (Theobroma Forastero, Criollo, Trinitario), 99% of our chocolate comes from Forastero subspecies. In his book, Richardson praised the yellow-greenish Criollo pods that contain white flesh and are usually grown in Central America. Criollo is the “mystic king”: hard to get, exquisite taste, grown in small numbers.

Yet there is no information for the consumer as to what cacao species was processed. Consider yourself lucky if the brand, like Tony’s, is transparent about the geographical origin and ethical qualities. The Belgian brand Ethiquable also focuses on Fair Trade products and has a promising sounding “Grand Cru cocolate” line, also working with smaller co-op organizations across Africa and America. Their stuff is also very good, but again, it completely lacks information about the cacao pods used…

The Ethiquable bars are great for another reason: a minimal amount of ingredients. The sugar used is always organic cane sugar, also coming from plantations where the farmers earn more than usual. The Nicaragua bar I’m working my way through contains exactly three ingredients: cane sugar, cacao mass, and cacao butter. Wonderful. Here’s the ingredients of a random Cote d’Or we have lying around: (nondescript) sugar, cacao butter, glucose syrup, milk fat, emulsifier1 (soy lecithin), “aroma” (hmmm!), stabilizer, low fat milk powder. Wow.

I hope you, as a responsible consumer, will start wondering by now: “how do I know if a chocolate brand is ethically correct?” That’s where organizations come in that verify and summarize findings into reports:

  • UTZ Certified cacao producers (boring, confusing, and long)
  • The Chcolate Score Card which announces a “Golden Egg Award” yearly and grades companies based on transparency & traceability, living income of farmers, child labor, deforestation & climate, agroforestry, and agrichemical management. Currently recommended: Tony’s, Whittaker’s. To avoid: a lot! (Barry-Callebout, Unilever, Puratos, Godiva, Kellog’s, Stork, General Mills, …)

You see, a certificate stamped on the chocolate bar doesn’t say everything. Besides, what about white label products of the Carrefour, Aldi, Lidl, etc, which aren’t part of the above Score Card? You’ll have to do a lot of digging yourself, be mindful of the ingredients, the amount of cacao used, where it’s coming from, … I hope by then your appetite hasn’t been completely squandered.

Thanks to Paul Richardson’s Indulgence, I now became a picky chocolate eater that perhaps ultimately eats less chocolate instead of more, as I now try to pass up as many unethical products as possible—which is, unfortunately, the bulk of our cacao-based confectionery.

We didn’t even talk about the shady nut harvesting and processing practices that usually accompany chocolate (spreads)… It’s extremely frustrating to see so little work done in at least clarifying the ingredients and origin of our food products in supermarkets. I know our willpower is limited, but I can only end with the following: when buying anything food-related, please be mindful. What ends in your stomach should have landed in others' that need it much more.

  1. Tony’s also contains emulsifier and “regular” sugar—the latter being cheap Belgian beet sugar to lower the production cost, I reckon. ↩︎

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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