My Valentine's Day Chocolate and How It Got Here
by Elizabeth “Betsy” Ellis
The synthetic fibers of the plush toys brush across my hand as I reached past them for a small box of chocolates. All of them destined for some household as a token of affection. The shelves are covered in pink, red, and so much sweetness that even Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf would be saying “Hold the sugar”. Most of it I don't bother with, but I do have a real fondness for chocolate: Classic Hershey's kisses that remind me of childhood, delicate Guylian hazelnut filled seashells which momentarily make me feel like royalty, Cadbury Flake bars that melt in a seemingly impossible way, and so on.
When thinking about chocolate, I find it entirely bizarre that most of the world's cacao is sourced from countries close to the equator but not eaten in them. Were I ever to find myself in or around the equator, I would likely find it necessary to enter into some agreement with a small farmer for a supply of cacao during my stay. I assume the non-consumption of chocolate is a matter of economics for the subsistence farmers, but what about the upper classes in those economies. Do they not crave chocolate like the rest of the world?
Perhaps they are happier than us already. They have the sunshine and the serotonin; perhaps they do not need the chocolate and the dopamine. However, the Happiness Index tells us that the equatorial countries are not naturally happier. The Happiness Index in fact shows that cold climates can indeed be quite happy, with Finland, Denmark, and the chocolate producing and consuming capital of the world Switzerland topping the list. So if you are lucky enough to be able to produce cacao... why not consume it?
Theobroma cacao, the cacao or cocoa plant is indigenous to Central and South America . Colonization and globalization allowed the cultivation of the crop to spread throughout the growing zone which is widely accepted to be 20 degrees north to 20 degrees south of the equator (Leissle, 2018).
The Smithsonian Magazine's 11 Feb 2015 article “Economics of Chocolate” informs us that almost all of the world's cocoa is grown in developing countries and almost all consumed by industrialized countries. The top four producers at the time of the article were the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, & Indonesia. Apparently, the relative volatility of cocoa futures as compared with corn or wheat is quite high because of the small geographical area in which the crop grows well. Market analysts are keenly aware of weather factors, political factors, and long term climate change (Leissle). In fact, the US has only one state that is able to grow cocoa: Hawaii. So if you are a fan of isolationism, say goodbye to your chocolate.
The good news is that chocolate has annual sales nearing $150 billion. Consumption continues to grow with the market expanding 3.2% in Asia-Pacific from 2016 to 2021 (Wunsch, 2021). Comparatively in 2016, the value of all traded cocoa was about $12 billion (Leissle).
In understanding why chocolate is so different from wheat or corn, it is worthwhile to understand the nature of the tree, and how chocolate is made. The Theobroma Cacao tree grows underneath the cover of other trees which makes the areas in which it grow look more like jungles than orchards. Seed pods are cut off of trees when ripe; Farmers cut open the pods to reveal 30 to 50 beans covered in a sticky white pulp. Beans when exposed to air, ferment. It is the fermentation and roasting process that gives chocolate the taste we know. Farmers allow the beans to ferment for 2 to 8 days, dry the beans, clean, and ship to chocolate makers that roast the beans (Quinn).
Back to the origins, equatorial cocoa farmers are poor. Many cocoa farmers live below the World Bank poverty line and have never tasted chocolate as we know it. Our beloved milk chocolate melts in the heat and would not fare well in the equatorial environment, but we wouldn't be eating chocolate if someone in one of those climes had not discovered its use first.
According to Cocoa: an exploration of chocolate by Sue Quinn, chocolate remained almost exclusively a drink until the mid-nineteenth century, when it was turned into a mass produced snack in Europe.
The cacao nut was first encountered by Columbus when on his fourth voyage he encountered a Mayan trader , but at the time it received no interest from the courts of Europe (Coe). Europeans first encounters with the drink described it as bitter and unpleasant.
The cocoa nut was first referenced in writing by Europeans in Hernan Cortes', Cartas y relaciones (Fattaciu). Cortes observed the drinking of a beverage called xocoatl at an Aztec Court of Montezuma where it was regarded to have religious significance. The drink was made from dried and roasted beans which where ground into a gritty liquid and mixed with spices and maize. In 1528, Cortes would write to Charles I about xocoatl. The Spanish court added sugar and the European love of chocolate was born (Dand, 2011).
The history of chocolate is inextricably linked to colonization and slavery. But because of the unusual nature of the cacao tree itself, it is not easy to mechanize the harvest and labor issues remain. In 2001, chocolate and cocoa industry representatives signed an agreement developed by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) to eliminate child labor in the growing and processing of cocoa beans. In 2011, eight companies in the industry including ADM, Barry Callebaut, Cargill, Ferrero, Hershey Company, Kraft Foods, Mars Inc., and Nestle pledged $2 million to a Public-Private Partnership with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to combat child labor in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
Some have posited that chocolate as a drink did not catch the attention of other cultures such as the middle east because those cultures already had coffee firmly rooted as their beverage of choice. But the advent of chocolate solids changed the way in which we consume chocolate. While the farmers themselves are not chocolate consumers, chocolate sales are still rising as middle class consumers emerge in developing nations and become more able to afford luxury items such as chocolates (Rossolillo, 2021). One such example is the only more recently accessible markets of China. Lawrence Allen in his book Chocolate Fortunes describes how the largest international chocolate companies have been taking advantage of the tremendous changes in China's economy from 1978 to present to enter the market, and the challenges to estimating the size of the Chinese consumer market for Chocolate.
In 2022, US financial analysts predict that established companies dealing in chocolate are expected to have steady gradual growth due to continually expanding markets. Growing markets is good news indeed. I am in favor of fair trade chocolate for everyone!
Allen, Lawrence. Chocolate Fortunes. Amacom, 2010.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. True History of Chocolate, 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson
Dand, Robin. The International Cocoa Trade 3rd Edition, Woodhead Publishing, 2011.
Fattacciu, Irene. Empire, Political Economy and the Diffusion of Chocolate in the Atlantic World, Routledge
Gross, Daniel A. Economics of Chocolate, Smithsonian Magazine, 11 Feb 2015
Leissle, Kristi. Cocoa, Polity Press, 2018.
Quinn, Sue. Cocoa: An exploration of Chocolate, with recipes,
Rossolillo, Nicholas. Investing in Chocolate Stocks, 7 Dec 2021
Sheth, Richa. Why does chocolate make us happy?, Sather, 20 February 2014
Wunsch, Nil-Gerrit. Global Chocolate Consumption per capital in 2017, by Country, 17 May 2021