Does Ethical Chocolate Taste Better?

Posted on January 14, 2015 by  Lee Mccoy | 1 Comment

The demand for 'ethical' chocolate has surely never been greater. The issue with the marketing of any product is that if you can make it appear more ethical than it may actually be then you're likely to sell more than if you didn't make such claims. The problem when it comes to chocolate is that the quality is ultimately in the consumption. Implying that your enjoyment of a chocolate will be enhanced by its claimed ethical production is a dangerous game to play for makers.

The issue is that it takes an iron will not to be taken in by ethical claims and its certainly one I've struggled with. My own personal bias for truly ethically sourced chocolate undoubtedly alters my perception of its flavour and quality. For chocolate makers the problem is not only creating chocolate that tastes fantastic, but is ethically sources AND pushes the right buttons on consumers before they even buy. For retailers, we've got keep our 'bullshit' detector on at all times.

The recent Cadbury Creme Egg declarable shows this internal struggle in a sharp light. It appears that Mondelēz International have not only reduced the number of the eggs in its packs from six to five but altered the chocolate recipe from Dairy Milk to a 'standard cocoa mix'. The recent Guardian article mentions many instances where 'chocolate' companies over recent years have tinkered with formulas and quantities, in my belief, to make more profit and there is no greater evidence of this than the history of Cadbury as a company from its ethical Quaker roots to a money making machine and it was beautifully summarised by ParcelofRogue in the comments of that article:

I see chocolate makers as often having an ethical, altruistic bent when they start up. They often understand the economic, social and environmental challenges cacao growers. Many have signed up to Direct Cacao whilst others such as Finca and 22 Chocolat go a step further by planting their own crops to harvest in the future and may hope to offer the sort of local benefits The Granada Chocolate company currently offer many people on the island of the same name.

Chocolate makers can source cocoa in four main ways. In the simplest terms, they can purchase the commodity from an opaque market where the provenance is hidden and important information made unavailable - it usually ends up in a big warehouse in Amsterdam or elsewhere and the love is lost. In recent years companies such as HB Ingredients have evolved to make it easier to source cocoa from smallish producers and, I believe, take much greater care of the crop. Alternatively they could buy cocoa direct from the grower or co-operative as supported by Direct Cacao, RaiseTrade and (I include this tentatively) FairTrade. Finally there are makers that actually take direct responsibility for the cacao in terms of planting, tending, harvesting, and the other typical production processes.

For many of the chocolate makers sourcing cacao from the latter two options, I would say the role of the accountant, as ParcelofRogue states is limited. Product development is controlled by the maker him or herself and is directed by the nature of the beans available and how they suit what the maker wants to achieve - what they think will make good chocolate and will sell well.

The role of the accountant has rarely been visible than with one of our great British chocolate institutions: Thorntons. This company, to my mind, has suffered over a generation because it became run by accountants and 'numbers' people playing to the lowest common denominator. Quality suffered as I believe they looked for cheaper ingredients or ones that were easier to work with. As a result chocolate lovers voted with their feet. Thornton's couldn't compete with, at first, the likes of Green & Blacks or Divine and then Hotel Chocolat and now a range of very small makers that started making excellent chocolate.

But does the hard work sourcing ethical ingredients and going about business in an ethical manner actually make the chocolate taste better? I was going to look at the winners of both the International Chocolate Awards and the Academy of Chocolate Awards but then realised that it would be a self-selecting sample. I doubt unethical, bulk chocolate makers would enter products as I'm sure they simply wouldn't expect to win. Furthermore, many small, new makers may feel unable to afford the entry fees or just not have the confidence to do so.

Perhaps, At the margins perhaps there are some new makers that appear to use bulk cacao that may enter, but without a full list of entrants we just don't know the exact nature of the makers that have entered the awards.

Trying to find a solution to this problem I then went over to C-spot and aggregated all of the review ratings by maker and then started highlighting each if they were a member of Direct Cacao, if I knew they were ethical or if I can use my bullshit detector on their websites to establish if any I didn't know where actually ethical:

After a couple of hours of sorting through them all I realised I was on a fool's errand. The data is largely biased towards craft or small-scale producers, although, of course companies such as Bonnat or Pralus can hardly be seen as small. Furthermore, there is very little 'mass-market', low quality chocolate to compare against. What would a rating be for a Dairy Milk and how ethical is the production of that chocolate?

So trying to understand the ethics of these types of companies and take a view on their 'quality' I looked at the Mondelez International website where they have a page about sustainability. It talks about their environmental footprint and that it is investing $400 million over 10 years with the aim of 'empowering more than 200,000 farmers and improving the lives of more than 1 million people.' Last year Mondelez made $3,142,000,000 gross profit so $40,000,000 is just 1.27% of that.

Mondelez actually made a $22 million pre-tax gain by re-measuring the previously-held equity interest in a biscuit operation in Morocco (if I'm reading their report correctly). So from just one accounting move they've recovered half of what they're giving to cacao farmers. What's more, that $40,000,000 is spread over 20,000 farmers which amounts to $200, which given their average wage of around $0.50 a day (so I recall being told) may seem a lot. But they're not given that in the form cash, but in education etc. From the 50p cost of a Cadbury Creme Egg, 0.635p will be going to these schemes. Compare that against the double, tripling or more of the market rate for cacao that buying cocoa direct will benefit the growers. Fair enough, $200 is a fair amount of value for an impoverished grower, but I wonder if the benefit to Mondelez in promoting an ethical stance is worth more than $40,000,000 a year to them?

Going back to my ethics and quality assessment, the problem I have is that I was looking at a small fraction of the overall chocolate market that of  the (relatively) fine chocolate market - one that is naturally, but not always, leans towards ethical chocolate production. It just didn't get an accurate view of the quality of mass-market chocolate. There is no independent, empirical data available to assert that mass-market, less-ethical chocolate tastes any worse.

I take the view that the scale that the world's largest chocolate makers (I should use 'confectionery') companies operate at surely cannot allow for highly ethical production at the point of purchase of the raw ingredients. Furthermore, due to the volumes of cocoa that they purchase, the ethical sourcing along with the transparency, provenance and genetic data cannot be available at a level that would, by the definition of most fine chocolate lovers, be deemed as highly ethical.

Put simply: very small chocolate makers, buying direct ,have a greater ability to source the finest cacao, have a greater ability to respond to the physical nature of each bean than companies that buy cacao in bulk quantities and which have a need to conform to an accountant's requirement of uniformity, low input costs and mass appeal.

So to answer the initial question: does ethical chocolate taste better? On the simplest terms I would say that it does - but if you only focus on the ethical sourcing of cocoa. If you take 'ethical' to the include the treatment of workers, packaging, the environmental impact of production, paying a 'fair' amount of tax, wider social benefits, health factors and the like then the debate could get very messy. But why don't we try?

Worth reading:

Image © UNHCR/ K. Maloney 

Cocoa from Panama

Indonesian Cacao

1 Response

Geert Vercruysse
Geert Vercruysse

January 14, 2015

It sure does for me and lots of chocolate"lovers".

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