Valentine's Day Chocolates: What sorts of information can you share about choosing more sustainable chocolate? What should I look for in order to make a more mindful purchase? Are there any specific characteristics associated with specific kinds of chocolate (milk, dark, white, etc.?)
Chocolate has received a lot of attention lately — not for its taste, but for the way it's made.
Let's start with the basics: cocoa powder is derived from seeds that grow in large pods on cacao trees. The tree's botanical name, Theobroma cacao, means "food of the gods," but you've got to wonder if the gods would approve of the way cacao is produced today.
U.S. organic chocolate and candy bars sales totaled $94 million in 2007, up 45% from 2006, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.
In its natural state, the cacao thrives in lowland rainforests, growing in the shade cast by taller surrounding trees. Cacao groves help sustain plants and animals, including many pollinating insects and migrating songbirds that escape cold northern winters by heading to this warmer rainforest climate.
Most of the cacao that's made into chocolate comes from plantations in Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon, and the Dominican Republic. There, trees are densely planted and require high pesticide applications to keep them free of disease and bugs. And many of these plantations rely on cheap child labor to make a profit.
Organic chocolate, by contrast, is produced on smaller farms where the trees are planted in the shade of rainforests, not on deforested land. Organic cocoa is also produced according to Fair Trade principles, ensuring that farmers are paid a decent wage for their work and that no child labor is involved.
At natural foods stores, food coops, on the Internet and increasingly at local grocery stores, you can find organic, fair trade cocoa and chocolate. Before you buy, look for two certifications: the U.S. Department of Agriculture's seal that verifies the chocolate has met the standards for organic production; and certification from FairTrade Labelling Organizations International, which documents that workers were treated humanely.
Most natural foods stores will carry a wide selection of organic cocoa along with dark, white, milk and semi-sweet chocolate bars, chips and even truffles. Conventional grocery stores have also begun selling certified organic, fair trade chocolate. If you don't see it on the shelves, ask for it.
Have any favorite fair trade chocolates? Post your comments here.
Diane MacEachern is the author of Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World, and a popular blog, Big Green Purse.