Word is out, and things aren’t looking good: chocolate is facing endangerment. Between the effects of climate change and the Ebola outbreak in cocoa-producing regions, it seems like the future of chocolate could look quite different.
Americans eat on average nearly 11 pounds of chocolate per year, so it’s abundantly clear that cocoa is a national favorite. Since chocolate is so heavily consumed and enjoyed by almost everyone—especially me—this sudden decline in chocolate stuffs could spell disaster for the widespread cocoa-loving community.
Is this the chocopocalypse? Not just yet: science may just save the day. The Ivory Coast is planning to mitigate the issue with a hybrid plant, mercedes, that will grow more cocoa beans per plant.
What’s the catch? The taste we love may take a hard hit.
So with can we do, as consumers? In a time of big chocolate change, this isn’t all bad: it’s a chance to change the industry in a permanent way, to make the chocolate industry fairer and more sustainable. And good news: that doesn’t necessarily mean eating less chocolate.
Despite my unwavering love of all things cocoa, I can’t fight the facts: the chocolate industry is also responsible for the destruction of rainforests, maintaining unethical practices, using child and slave labor, and profiting at the cost of consumer health.
Here are four disturbing facts about the chocolate industry that I hope will change for the better with the evolution of cocoa production:
1. In order to harvest cocoa, child labor and slavery are both common practice.
According to the CNN Freedom Project, over 200,000 children are working in fields on the Ivory Coast to produce my favorite dessert. Some are earning a very meager paycheck to help support their families, while others are trafficked and sold to farmers for free labor. These children are typically between the ages of 12 and 16, but reporters have seen children as young as five. These kids work from six in the morning well into the evening, using chainsaws, machetes and knives to clear forests or cut down cocoa beans. Most of these laborers have never even tasted the chocolate that they work so hard to produce.
And to make matters worse, the brands you love are guilty of this practice: Nestlé, Hershey’s and Mars are all made from beans sourced from West Africa—where cheap land and labor make their low-priced chocolate possible. Although little has been done to combat the issue of child labor, the topic has entered the consciousness of big companies, and sparked useful discussion: Nestlé has developed a plan to eliminate their use of child labor by 2016.
2. There’s lead in your chocolate?
As we all know, lead is not exactly part of a healthy diet. Ingesting lead can lead to serious health problems, affecting the central nervous system, kidneys and immune system.
So it’s disconcerting to hear that in Nigeria, one of the world’s largest producers of cocoa still uses lead-based gasoline. Since the shells of cocoa beans, chocolate’s main and most essential ingredient, are highly absorptive, they’ll easily soak up lead in the air during growth, as well as during processing, packaging and shipping.
While lead does occur naturally in most food and its ingestion in small doses is practically unavoidable, some brands of chocolate have been found to contain nearly 12% the acceptable intake of lead for a child in one serving.
3. Your candy is contributing to rainforest destruction.
Many chocolate companies use palm oil, which requires the clearance of nearly 173,000,000 square feet—or 300 football fields—of rainforest. Because of this, palm oil is largely is to blame for large-scale deforestation, which results in fractured ecosystems, species extinction and of course, climate change. Plus, these destructive practices force many native people from their land and devastate local communities.
But there is some good news about palm oil: though big companies like and Nestle, Hershey’s and Mars use this unsavory ingredient in their chocolate, Nestlé reverted to using traceable palm oil in 2012 and both Hershey’s and Mars have made commitments to incorporate only sustainably sourced palm oil by the end of 2014.
4. Cheap ingredients are costing you taste and health points.
In order to keep chocolate prices at “reasonable” prices, many corporations often resort to using cheap, artificial, unhealthy ingredients.
Sure, a chocolate bar is never really a “healthy option” (no matter how badly I wish it were), but shortcuts to higher profit margins come at an expense. Many lower-end chocolate bars contain artificial sweeteners like maltitol and sucrose—which may lower the calories per bar, but also cut into taste, and can lead to long-term health problems.
All in all, it seems like for now, chocolate comes at a staggering environmental and societal cost.
In light of the frustrations with giant corporations that handle cocoa, it’s easy to feel like you can’t enjoy chocolate at all—or worse, to ignore ethical problems with chocolate because you can’t imagine life without it. But there’s more you can do, while still getting your choco-fix. Here are four labels to look for:
- Fair Trade. The Fair Trade certification does their best to ensure that cocoa farmers are properly compensated and do not use child labor.
- Ethical Trade. This socially conscious label “promotes respect for workers worldwide” by working with companies who make a commitment to provide fair wages, working hours and safety.
- Organic. Most organic chocolate originates in Latin America, where thus far, there has been little record of unfair labor practices. Though buying organic does not guarantee that your chocolate is ethically made, it does dramatically heighten its chances of being so.
- Rainforest Alliance. This little green frog informs consumers that the product has been produced in a manner that respects the workers, the community and the natural environment. Rainforest Alliance is considered by many (including Grist) to be a higher certification in chocolate, as it’s focused on all three interest areas relevant to chocolate production.
Though these labels may yield a more expensive bar of chocolate, ethically and organically produced brands are a grade above your typical Hershey’s bar.
Big companies like Hershey, Nestle, and Mars can’t deny it: the chocolate industry is about to change dramatically. And this means a big opportunity for chocolate lovers and consumers—we can show chocolate companies that ethical standards aren’t optional. It’s our duty to push for ethical standards for the process by which cocoa is produced, so that we can keep enjoying chocolate for generations to come.
Molly Cornfield is a freelance writer, UCLA environmental science graduate, and aspiring environmental health advocate living in DC. In the past eight years, she’s lived in five different cities in three states and on two continents. Her love for chocolate is second to none.