Healthy Beginnings

BITTER TRUTHS: The dark side of the chocolate craze

When you hear people talk about chocolate, those who enjoy it, tend to use words like “addict” and “obsession” and “craving” when describing their relationship with this exotic treat. Indeed, Theobroma Cacao has a long history of being one of the most revered and coveted commodities on earth. There are those who praise the healing benefits of cacao, and ours is hardly the first culture to be obsessed with it. It is rumored to be an aphrodisiac, and has practically become a symbol of romance, a favorite gift for Valentine’s Day.

Cocoa pods grow in hot, rainy tropical climates. Cocoa pods weigh nearly a pound a piece, each one contains between 20-50 beans. About 400 dried beans make a pound chocolate. Once removed from their pods, the beans are fermented and dried, usually in the sun, but sometimes through artificial means.

The health benefits attributed to cacao include improved cardiovascular heath. This is especially associated with dark chocolate and raw cacao, in which the flavonoids are still intact. Studies also show term benefits in LDL cholesterol linked to chocolate consumption.

When we think about cacao and chocolate, we often forget that this ingredient is riddled with controversy. Perhaps our passion for chocolate has made it easy to overlook some unsavory truths. The first is that not all nutritionists and health studies support the healing benefits of cacao. In fact, some studies suggest there are troubling health problems associated with cacao consumption. Another little discussed fact: much of the world’s cacao is exposed to highly toxic pesticides and herbicides. Combine that with the deforestation that must occur to make room for cacao plantations, and this creates negative environmental consequences and adverse health effects. As if this weren’t enough, the most troubling aspect of cacao production, which receives very little acknowledgement in the US is that fact that much of the world’s chocolate is a product of slave labor and child trafficking.

West African nations, including Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire produce as much as 70 percent of the world’s chocolate supply. In 2005, it was reported that the Ivory Coast alone had more than 200,000 children working on cacao farms. These children are forced to work with toxic chemicals, without protective clothing. They are subject to dangerous wounds from the machetes they must use to cut open the cacao pods. Their growing bodies are crippled by the heavy sacks of harvested pods they must carry on their backs. It is estimated that up to six percent of these children were brought to these farms against their will by human traffickers. Some of these enslaved children have been taken from Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo. In many other cases, the extreme poverty in the region, and the plunge in cacao’s trading price, forced many families to pull their children out of school to work on the farms full time. Many of these parents are promised that their children will earn a good wage and send money home, but often the conditions these children work in resemble slavery. Some have worked for years without pay, have been beaten regularly and threatened with violence if they try to leave.

Major chocolate producers, such as Hershey and Nestle, buy cocoa at commodities exchanges where Ivorian cocoa is mixed with other cocoa and sold at low prices. The Ivory Coast government blamed multinational chocolate companies for keeping prices low, and farmers in poverty. The Ivorian prime minister, Pascal Affi N’Guessan said the price would need to increase 10 times to ensure a good quality of life for the farmers and their families.

In recent years, several organizations put pressure on manufacturer’s to stop sourcing cheap chocolate at the expense of human rights. Many major chocolate producers promised to phase out their chocolate sourced by child labor. Many even signed on to the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which was designed to end child labor on cocoa farms completely by 2010. Independent auditors at Tulane University’s Payson Center for International Development showed that in September 2010, their efforts had not even come close to meeting this goal.

This Valentine’s Day, take a moment to consider what goes into making that “romantic” gift you received. But, before you despair completely, there are increasing numbers of fair trade sources of cocoa and raw cacao. By purchasing fair trade chocolate and cacao, you will help reduce the risk of consuming chocolate sourced by child labor. Certified organic cacao has not been exposed to dangerous chemicals, and neither have the farmers. See this month’s “Ingredient Watch” column for more information on choosing high quality, ethically produced cocoa.

Below, you will find a list of resources for finding fair trade, organic, chocolate and cacao. These companies either use 100 percent fair trade ingredients, or have a stated goal to reach 100 percent with the majority of ingredients having fair trade sources. The more we choose sustainably and compassionately grown cacao, the more pressure it puts on the “Big Chocolate” industry to clean up its act.

Fair trade sources of Chocolate and Cacao:


1. Bremness, Leslie. Dorling Kindersley Handbook: Herbs. Dorling Kindersley, London, 1994.