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Nibbling on chocolate satisfies our need for comfort, distraction and perks throughout the day. Chocolate lovers always keep a bar of their favorite treat within arm’s reach in case a sudden craving arises. Made from the dried and fermented seeds of the cacao tree, cocoa is the primary ingredient of chocolate. Its potent flavor comes with numerous health benefits — from stress relief to antioxidants. But chocolate has a dark underbelly, and the cocoa industry and chocolate companies are not as sweet as you might think.
When we buy from chocolate brands like Hershey, Nestle and Mars, which account for 35 percent of all chocolate on the market, we support some really bad practices. Chocolate production depends on child slave labor. As many as 2.1 million child laborers work in West Africa, where half of the world’s chocolate is produced. These children are often forced to work in unsafe conditions to produce the sweet treats that many of us find so divine.
Chocolate also contains ingredients grown on clear cut rainforest lands. Rainforests in West Africa, Ghana and along the Ivory Coast are cut down to make room for growers to plant more and more cacao plants. Large cacao plantations also rely heavily on environmentally harmful pesticides and fertilizers. The second source of rainforest deforestation in chocolate is its use of palm oil as an ingredient. Palm oil crops are a major deforestation driver in Asia, Latin America and Africa. In addition to harming the local environment, deforestation threatens wildlife, including endangered species.
The best way to confront these global issues is to educate ourselves and change our habits. Ethical chocolate producers combat these problems in a variety of ways, and switching to these companies is an excellent way to enjoy your favorite cacao-based snacks without supporting the unethical practices of many large chocolate producers.
Ethical chocolate companies often certify their products with labels to indicate fair trade practices (Fair Trade and Fair for Life), rainforest protection and sustainable farming (Rainforest Alliance and UTZ) and chemical pesticide-free farming practices (USDA Organic).
There are a few issues with labels on chocolate bars. For one, it’s really expensive for companies to certify their businesses, so some small-scale companies follow sustainable practices and produce ethical chocolate, but can’t afford the label. Next, the standards required for these labels are not always as high as you’d expect. The Fairtrade Foundation used to require 50 percent of a product’s ingredients to meet Fairtrade standards, but they lowered this ratio to 20 percent in 2011. So, while they’re helpful, labels don’t always give the full picture of a chocolate bar, and fair trade chocolate isn’t always as ethical or eco-friendly as consumers are led to believe.
Another trend for ethical chocolate producers is to manufacture the chocolate from “bean-to-bar.” This means the same company that makes the chocolate grows the cocoa beans and markets the product.
Bean-to-bar chocolate’s entire supply chain, from cocoa farmers to consumers, has one responsible brand. This single-origin process cuts out the many middlemen involved in chocolate production. Having a complicated supply chain reduces a company’s transparency with regard to labor and environmental practices.
Another common claim chocolate makers use to express a similar concept is “direct trade.” Again, this means fewer middlemen. The only issue with these labels is that there are no standardizations to verify these claims, so just about any company can say they produce bean-to-bar or direct-trade chocolate regardless of whether the claim is entirely true.
Vegan chocolates promise animal and cruelty-free chocolate. However, just because a chocolate’s ingredients are vegan or plant-based doesn’t mean it eliminates the other harmful practices listed above. Vegan chocolate can still be made using exploitative labor practices and cocoa beans grown in regions that have suffered deforestation. It’s best to do some research to understand a brand’s overall approach to chocolate production.
For the sake of biodiversity conservation and animal production in rainforests, it’s important to buy chocolates that don’t use palm oil as an ingredient. Look closely at the ingredient label to make sure your next chocolate bar doesn’t contain palm oil.
Organic, fair trade, bean-to-bar, non-GMO
One of the original bean-to-bar concept chocolate companies and the first Fair Trade Certified chocolate factory in the U.S., Theo was founded in Seattle in 2006 and it has developed partnerships to improve the chocolate industry and the lives of its workers. Theo works with organizations like the Eastern Congo Initiative, the Jane Goodall Institute and the World Bicycle Relief. Its chocolate bars are delicious and made from ethically sourced organic ingredients.
Vegan options, palm oil-free, organic
Locally owned in Ecuador, Pacari works directly with small farmers to raise their standard of living. They use organic and biodynamic farming and they have a high reputation for their commitment to social and environmental responsibility.
Vegan options, palm oil-free, bean-to-bar
Madécasse produces all of its chocolate in Madagascar and employs and supports 200 people to improve their livelihoods through training and fair wages. This is a huge achievement because only one percent of the world’s chocolate is produced in Africa. That low percentage sounds even more shocking when you learn that 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is grown in Africa. Rather than exploiting the land and its people, Madécasse aims to build strong communities and provide safe, fair working conditions for its employees.
Shawn Askinosie started his Missouri-based company to create bean-to-bar chocolate that focused on improving the lives of the community where they source their chocolate beans through profit-sharing and other local development activities. The company has been named one of Forbes’ “Best Small Companies in America.”
Organic, non-GMO, Rainforest Alliance certified
A familiar ethical chocolate brand, Dagoba focuses on preserving the biodiverse regions where it sources its cacao by supporting farmers and cocoa farms that use sustainable farming practices.
Beyond Good chocolate comes from Madagascar and Uganda. The company produces single-origin dark chocolate (and vanilla) and sources its cocoa directly from local farmers. Farmers in Madagascar sell their cocoa to Beyond Good at a premium price. Then, the beans are turned into chocolate at the factory in Madagascar.
Organic, fair trade
Alter Eco strives to produce food that restores the earth rather than depleting it. It touts its chocolate as the cleanest and greenest on earth and is made from high-quality organic ingredients purchased from small-scale, fair trade farmers. In addition to milk chocolate and dark chocolate bars, this company also offers chocolate truffles, granola, quinoa and a variety of other products.
Organic, fair trade
Equal Exchange started with a mission of building long-term trade partnerships that are mutually beneficial for farmers and consumers. The company also abides by environmentally sound practices and focuses on sustainability. A proud supporter of fair trade, it works directly with small farmers and co-ops to support local communities spanning the globe while producing high-quality chocolate and other food products.
Many more chocolate companies have an ethical mission, so choose wisely next time you indulge in a tasty bar of chocolate. Happy snacking!
Then, follow it up with this review of the best vegan wines.