Chocolate Unwrapped

A glimpse into the lesser known aspects of the chocolate industry.

Courtney Seigel


Three years ago I began eating dark chocolate every day after reading about its many health benefits. My grandma had just recently died of Alzheimer’s and I was paranoid that my brain would follow the same path. So each day, I eased my worries by eating a serving of 85% cocoa dark chocolate and telling myself that the powerful antioxidants it contains would protect my brain from future deterioration. While I will never know if my chocolate consumption has actually had the impact I desire, I do know that dark chocolate has become a big part of my life. I jokingly call myself an amateur chocolate connoisseur and I can tell the percent cocoa by taste. I am ashamed to admit that for all of the dark chocolate that I consume, I did not bother to learn much about the chocolate industry until very recently. And there was a lot to learn. While chocolate itself is amazing, the process behind its production is much less so. Beyond the nice labeling and wonderful chocolate taste lies deception and a history of slavery, child labor, and environmental impact.

Science and Health of Chocolate

Farmer holding a yellow cocoa fruit.

Before I discuss the chocolate industry, it is important to understand the science of it and how a plant can lead to the packaged chocolate that we buy in the stores. Every piece of chocolate has its origin in a cocoa pod, which is a fruit that grows on trees in tropical regions near or on the equator. Within each cocoa pod, there are seeds that are commonly called cocoa beans (Cocoa, 2015). After these seeds are harvested, they go through an extensive process of fermenting, drying and roasting, all just so that they look like the cocoa beans most consumers are used to seeing. There are two parts to a cocoa bean: the shell and the meat. The meat is referred to as cocoa nibs, and it is the part of the cocoa bean that is actually consumed. The cocoa nibs undergo a lengthy refining process in which they are ground into a chocolate liquor, which can be separated into cocoa butter and cocoa solids. The cocoa solids are what people typically eat and the amount of cocoa solids in chocolate is how percent cocoa is measured. There are three main types of chocolate: dark, milk, and white. The term dark chocolate is typically reserved for chocolate containing 50-90% cocoa solids, milk chocolate for 10-50%, and white chocolate for anything less than 10% (Dark, 2019).

Most health benefits lie within the category of dark chocolate, which has been shown to protect against heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of developing diabetes, protect against sun damage, and even improve brain function (Gunnars, 2018). It is also loaded with nutrients such as fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, phosphorous, zinc, and selenium (Gunnars, 2018). Many of these health benefits arise from the presence of antioxidants and high levels of vital nutrients in chocolate. … the health benefits have all but been removed for superficial reasons.When I began my chocolate obsession, the health aspect was my priority so I tried to educate myself on how to maximize the benefits. I quickly realized that this was not as straightforward as I had anticipated. Cocoa products are frequently treated with alkali, also known as Dutch-processing. This process removes a large portion of the healthy flavanols, an antioxidant, from the chocolate (Dark, 2019). It is primarily done to make chocolate products more flavorful and attractive, but rarely is the negative effect of it noted on packaging (Dark, 2019). Because of this, most consumers are oblivious to the fact that the chocolate they are purchasing has had many of its healthy qualities removed. Treatment with alkali is especially common in milk chocolate and lower percent dark chocolate, but it even occurs in otherwise high quality dark chocolate. This has resulted in a disconnect between producers and consumers because many individuals buy dark chocolate with the intent of introducing a nutrient-rich food in to their diet, oblivious to the fact that the health benefits have all but been removed for superficial reasons.

Ever since I learned of this disconnect, I have diligently scanned the packages of all chocolate I purchase. The dreaded words, “processed with alkali”, can usually be found hidden somewhere in the ingredients list. Sometimes even as a footnote. Upon finding a few brands that I could confidently purchase, I thought I had become a responsible chocolate consumer. As my time in college progressed, however, I gained a healthy amount of skepticism regarding American consumerism and the business practices of many companies throughout the world. Alongside this awareness came the necessary acknowledgment that my comparatively cushy life-style in the U.S. likely contributes to a decrease in wellbeing of other individuals. I started to wonder if my love of chocolate was good for anyone other than myself and the companies I buy it from. What about all of the people involved in the lengthy transition from cocoa pod to chocolate?

Child Labor and Slavery

Young child chopping down a cocoa pod.

Not only is the labeling of “health” chocolate deceiving, but chocolate production frequently involves the exploitation of those who work to produce it. The bulk of the world’s chocolate supply originates from farms in West Africa, most of which are owned by incredibly impoverished farmers (Cocoa, 2015). As the farmers themselves struggle to get by, they turn to the cheapest forms of labor they can find. Unfortunately, this has led to usage of child labor and slavery. A 2015 report revealed that at least 2 million children were being put to work on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast and Ghana (Cocoa, 2015). Often, these children are working on farms with their families, which would normally be okay (Cocoa, 2015). However, the problem lies in the unsafe working conditions and the fact that many of these children do not receive an education (Cocoa, 2015).In some cases, children are even trafficked in from nearby countries and used as slaves on cocoa farms, receiving no pay and sometimes beatings (Child Labor). Over the past few decades, promises have been made to put an end to child labor and slavery in the chocolate industry, but it appears that little success has actually been had (Child Labor). Widely known chocolate companies like Hershey, Mars, and Nestle likely still have some degree of slavery or child labor in their chocolate production (Kravits, 2019). However, transparency is not a strong suit in the chocolate industry as the lack of regulations in the Ivory Coast make hiding unethical practices far too easy.

Environmental Effects

Aside from the frightening presence of unethical labor in the chocolate industry, there are also many negative environmental impacts. The regions in which cocoa can be grown are traditionally covered in sprawling, diverse forests. However, many of these forests have been decimated in order to make room for cocoa plants. One report found that “10% of Ghana’s tree cover has been replaced by cocoa monocultures” (Harper, 2017). When put into the context of how large these forests are, this is an immense amount of land. Even more frightening is the fact that many chocolate companies have begun to push their way into protected environments to make room for cocoa plants. Of all 23 protected regions in the Ivory Coast, at least seven have been deforested for the sake of cocoa (Harper, 2017). As these trees are lost, valuable habitats and biodiversity suffer alongside humans as there are fewer trees to filter the air we breath. It does not need to be this way though. There have been multiple chocolate companies that have come up with ways to produce cocoa while also minimizing negative environmental impacts. The problem is not that sustainable cocoa production is impossible. It is that not enough companies are embracing it.

The problem is not that sustainable cocoa production is impossible. It is that not enough companies are embracing it.

As I processed all of the information I discovered, I was shocked and overwhelmed with sadness. How could I have allowed myself to be so blissfully ignorant for all of these years? After one particularly depressing article, I went straight to my pantry, gathered up all of my chocolate bars, and began researching the companies they were produced by. Fortunately, I quickly discovered that most of the chocolate I buy is ethically sourced, but this did not alleviate my feelings of discomfort. How can there be so much wrong with the chocolate industry and it not be talked about more? So I started the conversation. After talking to upwards of twenty fellow students and all of my family members, I quickly realized that my level of ignorance was the norm. When I asked if they were aware of any negative aspects in the chocolate industry, the overwhelming answer was no or “yeah, I know there are unethical practices, but that is the extent of my knowledge”. Mind you, there were a few students who were well aware of the specifics, but they were extremely passionate about sustainability.  If only those who have chosen to study sustainability are aware of the unethical side to chocolate, then public awareness is not nearly as widespread as it should be. Also worth mentioning is that not a single person was previously aware of the effect that processing chocolate with alkali has on the health aspects of chocolate. Even my fellow chocolate connoisseurs weren’t confident in their answers.

As the demand for chocolate continues to grow, the amount of unethical labor and damage to the environment continues to increase as well. However, it is not a lost cause. When it comes to chocolate, consumers are especially powerful because chocolate is technically a luxury. No matter how much I want my daily chocolate, I don’t actually need it. Nor does anyone else. Chocolate consumption is a choice and when consumers have more say in what they purchase, the producers will be pressed to listen. Many chocolate When it comes to chocolate, consumers are especially powerful because chocolate is technically a luxury.companies have already gone to great lengths to ensure that their chocolate is sustainably sourced and that all people involved are treated fairly and paid well. Slave Free Chocolate, a grassroots organization dedicated to raising awareness,  has spent years researching the practices of chocolate companies in order to raise awareness about the ethics, or lack thereof, in the production of chocolate. Their website contains a list of companies that use only ethically sourced cocoa. In a perfect world, consumers would only purchase from these producers and eventually all others would be forced to change or else risk being pushed out of the industry. This may not be realistic, but raising awareness and individual consumers choosing to buy from companies that are trying to put an end to the unethical practices is. Guilt is a powerful force especially when it comes to consumerism. It is incredibly difficult to remain guilt free and purchase chocolate that might have been produced at the hands of child slaves. Awareness can be both a blessing and a curse.

My love of chocolate began as something relatively straightforward, but it has become something much more complex. It is now a representation of my relationship with consumerism and how I have changed over the years. My perspective of both consumerism and chocolate began shrouded in blissful ignorance. I never stopped to ponder the dark side to either of these things. But as college professors have pushed me to question my preconceived notions and think of things from multiple perspectives, I have grown to have a much more complicated relationship with consumerism in its entirety. I can no longer turn a blind eye to all of the complexities, many being negative, that surround almost every purchase I make. It is a bittersweet thing to realize that something you love isn’t as wonderful as you had imagined, but if anything is ever going to change, we must learn to search for the hidden truths that most would rather ignore.


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