The cacao tree, scientifically known as Theobroma Cacao, being native to Central America and parts of South America, produces large and beautifully coloured
pods containing raw cacao beans, the key ingredient in chocolate, and it is here where the rich history and cultural significance of chocolate originates.
The Aztecs and Mayans were the first civilisations to cultivate cacao and develop the process of chocolate making as far back as 3900 years ago.
Very different from the chocolate we produce now, they would harvest the pods, extract the beans, and then roast, grind and mix them with water and spices to create a bitter elixir, known as "xocoatl" or "chocolatl", frequently used in religious ceremonies. This knowledge of cacao, its divine properties and chocolate making soon spread across Europe during the Spanish conquest where this ancient beverage was further refined becoming popular among the elite. Over time, the bitter tasting infusion which served as the foundation of chocolate was transformed with the addition of sugar and other ingredients into the sweet and creamy chocolate we have come to know and love.
Fast forward to today and chocolate, which comes in many forms, is a global phenomenon and multi-billion dollar industry, worth £5.9 billion in the UK alone in 2022. The modern production and manufacturing processes adopted by the worlds largest producers to meet consumer demand have made chocolate a far cheaper and therefore much more accessible commodity, which has altered it from once being considered by many to be a high quality, luxury treat, to one of a vastly reduced and varying quality which has made its way into the every day diets of an ever growing population worldwide. Sadly though, this cheaply mass produced bulk chocolate has several drawbacks and has led to concerns regarding the quality of ingredients and health considerations, unethical sourcing and questionable transparency and, environmental impacts and the effects on the cacao farming industry, all with serious and potentially irreversible consequences for those affected.
- Quality of Ingredients and Health Considerations: To drive down production costs large chocolate manufacturers replace the cacao content of chocolate along with its naturally derived health benefits with much cheaper alternatives like vegetable fats and milk powders and introduce much higher levels of additives such as sugars, artificial sweeteners and artificial flavours resulting in mass produced chocolate being a far cry from how a good quality chocolate should taste. This is almost always reflected in the absence of a distinct flavour notes and the presence of a soft or crumbly texture which melts quickly in your hand. Some ingredients used are also a major health concern being intrinsically linked to obesity and diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart conditions.
- Ethical Concerns & Lack of Transparency: Industrially mass produced chocolate is often associated with unethical practices including issues such as forced labour, child labour, low wages and poor or dangerous working conditions among farmers and workers in the cacao industry where the importance of profit and corporate greed are placed above the welfare of people and the planet. Tracing the origin of cacao beans used in mass chocolate production can be challenging as large scale manufacturers have limited transparency regarding their sourcing practices and often simply deny knowledge of any wrong doing identified within their supply chains. Some widely recognised certification schemes, requiring only minimal efforts on the part of manufacturers to effect positive industry changes to meet member standards, are cleverly used in brand and product marketing as a smokescreen to convince consumers that they are buying from an ethical business. This makes it difficult for consumers to identify the good from the bad and for the wider industry to ensure that producers are following ethical and sustainable practices.
- Environmental Impact: The impact of mass produced industrial chocolate on the environment involves irreversible damage caused by unsustainable farming practices including deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats, intensive and high yielding mono-culture farming leading to the excessive use of pesticides and soil degradation, and the overall and irretrievable loss of biodiversity within our ecosystems. However, there are many small cacao farming cooperatives now forming partnerships who recognise the destructive impact that cacao farming can have on the environment and who are working together to bring about change by educating farmers to cultivate their cacao using sustainable agricultural practices which promote reforestation and biodiversity conservation and in ethical and socially responsible ways which improve the livelihoods of the people involved.
By buying from smaller artisanal chocolate makers you're not only guaranteeing yourself a superior chocolate experience, you are supporting a cacao industry dedicated to change and having a positive impact on the livelihoods of those within it. Whilst you may pay a little more for this pleasure you can also rest assured that it wont be costing the earth.