Chocolate Labels, Part 1

“Organic”

“Local”

“Single Origin”

“Fair Trade”

“Rainforest Alliance”

“UTZ”

“Direct Trade”

What do these all mean and which ones should you pay attention to when you’re choosing your chocolate? Good question! Some relate to labor practices, others relate to the environmental circumstances surrounding the farming.

Here at Root Chocolate, we’ve discussed where cacao farmers fit into the picture, the complications of importing cocoa beans, the benefits of slowing down our interaction with food, and the importance of supply chain, and the relevance of genetics. Now let’s talk about the external certifications that can factor into your decisions around chocolate purchases and consumption.

I’m not going to claim that one certification is better than another or that any one of these means your chocolate is sustainably produced and sourced, but let’s go into what each of them mean.

Organic

“The organic standards describe the specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled USDA organic. Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” Read more about the definition on the National Organic Program page of the USDA.

There are quite a few regulations involved in obtaining and maintaining this certification, including fees, inspections, and a waiting period, among others. The processes can be onerous for very small family farms, which is where most fine chocolate is grown. That said, many small farms refrain from using expensive pesticides and are considered “de facto” organic, even if they do not have official certification.

Learn more about organic chocolate and organic processes here:

Local

Eating local chocolate is a difficult concept for those of us who do not live within 20 degrees of the equator. Cocoa beans traditionally come from tropical places close to the equator. The only US state that naturally produces cacao is Hawaii. For chocolate to truly be local, its beans must grow in the same place as the chocolate production, which would all be the same place as the consumer taking that delicious bite of chocolate. You can find truly local chocolate at a few places, including the following:

Alternatively, you can buy chocolate from local chocolate-makers, even though the cocoa beans may come from halfway around the world. For example, if you live in Portland, Oregon, buy local chocolate from Cocanu, Woodblock, Treehouse Chocolate, Pitch Dark, or Mana Chocolate.

Single Origin

Single origin chocolate is another label that you may find on your favorite chocolate bar. This means that the cocoa beans that constitute the bar you’re eating all come from the same country. They may even come from the same region or co-op or farm, but those parts are not guaranteed. Remember that the genetics vary even within the same cocoa pod? Well, there’s also wide variety among beans from a single country, not to mention region.

Valhrona made this concept popular more than two decades ago. The trend is still going strong! In fact, one of our favorite chocolate-makers, Dandelion, makes purely single origin bars. The logic behind single origin bars comes from the concept of terrior, borrowed from the wine industry. Beans take on a flavor based on the environment in which they grew, fermented, and dried.

Learn more about single origin chocolate here:

Look for Chocolate Labels, Part 2, coming out later this week, where we’ll go into depth about Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, and Direct Trade!

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Why does supply chain matter?

For my loyal followers who received a draft of this post in your emails on Thursday, I apologize – that was not the final version. WordPress glitch! Here’s the official final post:

That shirt you’re wearing right now – do you know which country the fibers came from, where they were processed into cloth, or who stitched them together before arriving at your favorite clothing store? Do you know how much the farmer receives for the cotton he grows, what impact the transportation of the materials and then the finished product had on the environment, or whether the entire system is sustainable?

I don’t mean to make you feel guilty and I certainly am not an expert on clothing sourcing. That said, I do think it’s worth considering the path our stuff takes before it arrives on our doorstep, on our skin, or in our mouth. And I wouldn’t even consider mine a new or radical point of view. The Story of Stuff came out more than 5 years ago and the story translates to food through documentaries like Food, Inc., FRESH, and Forks over Knives, as well as the many masterpieces of Michael Pollan.

“How does this relate to your chocolate?” you might ask. Fair question. This question goes to the name I’ve given this website – Root Chocolate. That name was meant to bring to mind two roots: the simplified process of making chocolate from its core ingredients, and the idea that chocolate doesn’t arrive in this world as a whole. It touches many lives, environments, and even countries along the way as it transforms from Theobroma cacao to the bar you bring home. In fact, the documentary, Black Gold brings the supply chain issue to the coffee fields that often sit adjacent to the cocoa farms we’ll discuss in future posts. And as part of my personal mission, I intend to bring awareness to chocolate-lovers everywhere about the path that the components of your chocolate take before they end up following a sip of wine down your throat after dinner. Just on Friday the S.F. Gate published an article on the implications of slave trade on cocoa beans!

There will be many articles to come on the process of farming the cacao pods, fermenting and drying the beans, shipping them to a manufacturer (no matter how small or large scale), and then the process of processing the beans into an edible chocolate creation. Supply chain has environmental, socio-economic, and systemic implications. Today, though, I want to focus on my personal connection to supply chain, which falls mostly into the socio-economic realm.

In college, I spent a semester in Brazil with the School for International Training, which turned into a much more than a typical study abroad experience for me. My focus of the semester was to conduct independent research on my topic of choice – contemporary slavery. It is a difficult concept to grasp that slaves still exist when we are taught as early as elementary school that the United States of America abolished slavery in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment. Worldwide, slavery lasted slightly longer, and Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to terminate the classic system of slavery with the Áurea Law in 1888.

brasilMaranhao

However, I spent the fall of 2006 in Açailândia, Maranhão in the Northeast of Brazil, where I conducted field research consisting of observations and interviews with former slaves and those struggling to help them, which illuminated the system of exploitation, a system that I once believed had died out long before I was born. The memories that still ring clearest in my mind from that semester are the interviews I held with former slaves, who had worked in coal fields and lumber yards without pay. This subject consumed me for the next year and a half and led me to publish a book on my findings, Contemporary Slavery in the Northeast of Brazil: The Social and Economic Manifestations of Coloniality. You can read the initial (unpolished) report I produced at the end of my semester here.

Now, as a result of my experience on the ground with individuals exploited at the bottom of the supply chain, I pay special attention to the sources of my stuff and my food. It’s not easy, but those companies with transparent supply chains are the ones with less to hide. Resources are now available that show exactly that:

We may not be able to trace the origin of every product in our lives, but it’s worth a try. So, let’s all do our part to source our food and stuff responsibly and pay attention to where it’s coming from, cocoa beans included!