Chocoholicism – the liberating addiction
I’m a foodie, not a freedom fighter. More precisely, I’m a chocaholic. Unlike other addicts, however, I have a say in the supply, manufacture and geopolitical implications of my substance abuse.
Being a foodie resigns you to being perceived as some sort of hipster; a coffee-bean sniffing, jargon-spewing wank-snob, yelling at TV chefs the way middle aged pot-bellied footie fans scream advice at the best players in the world. While this is true for some of those perfectly moustachioed baristas and photogenic C-list professional food critics, being a foodie is really about understanding where the food on your plate comes from. The food decisions you make, much like the votes you place, have a real and powerful effect on the environment and people of this earth. We live in a world now where obesity is more prevalent than starvation, where the ingredients are becoming harder and harder to decipher, and where child slavery continues to put treats in our mouths.
Chocolate is my weapon of choice in this fight. I love chocolate. To an almost sexual level. The best chocolate in the world comes from South America – the Criollo trees found deep in the emerald Amazon – though the majority comes from West Africa. The cacao tree is an understory tree that grows in the shade of rainforests. It requires a thick rotting carpet of leaf litter and fruits to grow in, as this is the breeding ground for the midges that pollinate the strange little flowers growing on its trunk. The trees need a delicate balance of the right PH soil, moist equatorial conditions (they will not grow outside a certain latitude) and a stable ecosystem. Good chocolate is the perfect demonstration of why saving the environment is important: once it’s gone, it’s gone. No more real chocolate.
The sacrifices made in creating a hardier breed, Forastero, have drastically impacted quality yet increased production. It has opened up substandard chocolate as an everyday snack, making it a major contributor to obesity. The West African trees are grown in the shadows of banana plantations and account for more than 80% of the worlds’ chocolate. This is where your globally mass-produced bars such as Nestlé or Cadbury come from. The chocolate is cut with palm oil, with a reduced amount of cocoa butter, to make it go further. Stabilizers, emulsifiers, vegetable fats (sometimes palm oil termed as vegetable oil) are added to further increase product yield. The FDA (United States Food and Drugs Administration) does not allow a product to be labelled as chocolate if it contains vegetable fats and oils, including partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, artificial sweetening agents and milk substitutes.
Have you noticed that it doesn’t say chocolate at all on a Hershey’s bar? This enforcement from the FDA is a good thing, although most manufacturers get around this by labelling their products as ‘chocolatey’. This is similar to saying, ‘farm fresh’ or ‘100% natural’ on meat products – meaningless rhetoric that lets you believe what you want.
There is a difference between proper chocolate and candy bars, just as there is a difference between free-range chicken and battery-farmed chicken. There is a difference between shit coffee and good coffee. You know there is. The impact is not just the quality of the produce, or how good it is for you, it is the working and environmental conditions as well. Do we really need to eat two Kitkats or will one ethical bar be just as good? Should we be eating a family bucket of chicken to ourselves? My question is this: is excess luxury?
Child slavery in West African cacao plantations is a huge problem, and one that is not going away.
12 year olds working 14-hour days for no pay, sometimes under armed guard is a real, and seemingly regular, occurrence. This is not an imperial history lesson: these are the tiny hands that make your chocolate bars. As recent as April this year INTERPOL rescued 76 slave children from cacao plantations in the Ivory Coast.
Investigations made by filmmakers Miki Mistrati & U. Roberto Romano in their excellent documentary ‘the Dark Side of Chocolate’ uncovered universal denial that child slave labour existed; from the government of the Ivory Coast to the CEO’s of cacao producers. An investigation by journalist Guy-André Kieffer into corruption between the Ivory Coast and the cacao industry led to his disappearance and probable murder in 2004. His body has never been found. Nestlé, along with the world’s largest chocolate producers, signed an agreement in 2001 stating that by 2005 their products would no longer be made with slave labour, child or otherwise.
I was 12 in 2001. There were kids the same age as me working in cacao, coffee and cotton plantations all across West Africa. There still are now. The agreement was never taken seriously as it affects the bottom line. The slave labourers can’t sue Nestlé in court, because the courts in West Africa can be bought. Recently three young men from Mali won the right to have their case heard in California, 8 years after they first filed to sue Nestlé for their incarceration as child slaves on a farm that Nestlé bought produce from.
This is a step in the right direction, however the confectionary lobby in America is powerful, right up there with the gun and car manufacture lobbies. Nestlé could easily shrug this case off and nothing will change. They are the most boycotted company on the planet and it is still not enough. We, as consumers, must boycott companies like these and invest in those who create change. Buying from those who look after their staff is a good start. Fairtrade has become a brand in itself, although it is a rather murky affair as a result, something perhaps for another article. In the States PETA has fought KFC for years over the treatment of their chickens – battery farmed in nightmarish conditions, drugged, grown so large they can’t walk, throats slit and dropped into scalding water while still conscious – that cannot be a sustainable way for us to eat.
Fast food encourages obesity and cruelty towards produce and employees. The recent fast food strikes across America are good demonstration of this. This is not the way to feed the human race.
You have a punch in this fight. You do not need to eat fast food to survive. It is not your only option for sustenance. You also do not have to eat the weird pulse crap your hippie friend pushes on you at BBQs. Good eating only requires consideration – what am I going to buy, where am I going to get it from, how long will that take. You also do not need to give up treats. Treats are the biggest weapons you have.
Buy good Venezuelan chocolate and you’re rebelling against the chocolate industry. You’re enjoying a treat that is good for you, does not benefit from slave labour and is better for the environment. Many cacao farmers are turning to palm oil as a more profitable crop, which is more harmful for the environment, especially near rainforests. Products like Willie’s Cacao or Hotel Chocolat are great examples of producers who are reversing this trend. Hotel Chocolat pays 30-40% above the world market price for cocoa, within a week of harvest, insuring its farmers are looked after. For me, this is the epitome of luxury: having it all. Luxury is not being able to stuff your face all the time with fake chocolate that’s full of additives. That is an addiction to a narcotic cut with dangerous supplements. Be a chocoholic and feed your addiction with pure, guilt free bliss.
Synopsis: This article is an exploration of why luxury chocolate is not just better for you but for the environment, child slavery and geopolitics as a whole. Consumer choice has so much potential for influencing change within the chocolate industry.