Saturday, February 15, 2014

Happy Valentine’s Day- Are you enjoying your chocolate?

Apparently it is Valentine’s Day. I had no idea.  If we celebrate it here then it has not reached the level of market saturation you see in the U.S.  This evening I had a Skype meeting with my graduate students, who wished me a Happy Valentine’s Day.  If they hadn’t said something I probably would have missed the holiday completely.

I don’t know about most of you, but Valentine’s Day reminds me of one thing- chocolate. In my time as a Hospitality & Tourism Professor I’ve spent a fair amount of time around chocolate.  And I’m not talking about the stuff in the grocery stores.  I’ve had three very distinct chocolate experiences on three different continents.  And they have all led me to one conclusion: I don’t eat chocolate.  I know, shocking, right?  (I will say there are a few exceptions to that rule).
I’ve spent a lot of time in France and Switzerland around chocolate.  Did you know that the chocolate candy you eat, the manufactured stuff, is typically less than 5% cocoa?  Hershey’s, Cadbury, Mars- most of their chocolate bars are chocolate flavored, not true cocoa.  I believe you can determine whether a piece of candy is truly chocolate based on price.  I remember watching a man in Paris at a Chocolaterie agonizing over which types of chocolates he wanted.  He eventually chose six, each about the size of a quarter and each different, costing an equivalent of about $20.  The kind of chocolate candy we have in the U.S. would never be considered real chocolate by any European, who typically have 75%+ cocoa in their confections.

Last year I took my students to Costa Rica.  We visited several chocolate plantations there.  While we didn’t get much chocolate candy, we did drink some hot chocolate.  But, again, it tastes nothing like we have here.  It is very bitter and not sweet at all.  You may be asking yourself, “Well then, why drink it?”  There it is more like coffee, but they don’t drink it with the frequency of coffee.  You often use chili powder to enhance the taste, and of course you can sweeten it, typically with honey or cane sugar.
The real king of chocolate though is West Africa.  West Africa supplies nearly 75% of the world’s cocoa, with Ivory Coast accounting for nearly 35%.  When I was in West Africa I visited a few small chocolate farms.  That’s the way the chocolate industry is organized here.  It is lots of small family farms handed down from generation to generation.  But their products are bought by major corporations through exporters.  The price given for the chocolate is so low that the farmers live at the poverty level.  In order to try to increase production to make their farms breakeven and make some kind of living, the farmers often utilize child and slave labor.  It is estimated that nearly 2 million children and slaves are involved in the production of chocolate in West Africa. Experts suggest that the price of chocolate would have to increase ten-fold in order to provide producers with a reasonable standard of living and make the use of child and slave labor extinct.  $10 Snickers bar anyone?

When I was on those chocolate farms in Sierra Leone I remember asking a farmer if he liked chocolate.  He said he had never eaten it.  I thought about it for a moment and realized I had never seen a chocolate product in any store in the country.  How odd is that to grow something and have no idea what it is really used for?  But I guess I could ask the same question of the consumers.  Have you ever seen real cacao?  Here is a cocoa pod:
Once the cocoa pods are ripe, they are picked and opened with a machete.  Inside is about 30-50 cocoa beans which are removed and fermented and then dried.  Here you can see what the beans look like inside the pod:
I sincerely hope you are all enjoying your Valentine’s Day, and chocolates, if you received them.  As for me, I will pass.


  1. Just want you to know that the few choclates that I purchased( after Feb 14) were from Europe, not the kind made in the US. The better stuff!

    1. Good for you! I normally eat chocolate when I am in Europe, otherwise I just pass. Eat the good stuff or don't bother, that's what I think.