Bitter Chocolate - An Introduction

The basics

Contrary to the sweet nostalgic taste of chocolate, the cocoa industry has an undeniably dark side that you're going to want to know about. Bitter Chocolate is an ongoing Sustainable Soapbox series (ahem, my first - how exciting) to expose the unethical and unsustainable facets of cocoa farming and production. I will make no attempt to hide my intent to completely draw you into this particular series because I'm convinced that we in the West are quite blind to what we're getting our teeth into (literally) when we bite into chocolate.


Does anyone feel angry that I'm taking on chocolate? Let's be honest, it wasn't too hard giving up plastic straws. My life didn't change all that much - I wasn't even using them often. But chocolate? That's a different story. Chocolate is so accessible and normalised for us that our grocery stores literally line shelves with the stuff for your last minute convenience. If you think about it, our Western culture is full of annual celebrations and traditions that centre around chocolate. On Valentines Day we'll give boxes of chocolates to our nearest and dearest. On Halloween children will knock door to door and have chocolate and candy handed to them. In fact, the Christian calendar isn't exempt. For Easter we'll celebrate Christ's resurrection with handing out and hiding chocolate eggs. For Christmas, we'll anticipate Christ's birth by daily opening paper flaps to reveal a small chocolate. Chocolate isn't much of an extravagant treat anymore, but the truth is that there are children in tropical parts of the world picking cocoa pods who have never tasted chocolate in their lives. So here I am, teetering upon my soapbox, telling you that we in the West mustn't let our culture dictate how we relate to chocolate.


Let's start with the basics; the ABCs of the cocoa industry. Knowing how chocolate is grown and produced stokes a bit of appreciation for all of those individual bars.

Chocolate is a product of the cacao bean (commonly referred to as cocoa), a bean-like seed which looks like a pod growing off trees. These trees take around five years to grow their first beans and will typically produce a large number of pods for twelve more years. Harvesters go into wild bush where cacao trees grow, climb the trees and hack down these pods. The pods are cracked open to reveal about 30-40 seeds which are extracted, dried in the sun and then bagged for sale. The cocoa is then transported and processed into different forms, like chocolate powder or chunks or cocoa butter.


Cacao beans grow primarily in the tropical climates of Western Africa, Asia, and Latin America. More specifically, 70% of the world's cocoa comes from just two countries: Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast). These West African farms supply the majority of chocolate companies, including Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestlé.


The Netherlands is the world’s largest importer of cocoa beans, followed by the US, Germany, and Malaysia (with the UK at seventh place). The Netherlands leads in imports of beans; the US leads in imports of powder (in production of cocoa complementary food products), and France leads in chocolate preparations (one of the biggest chocolate consumption per capita markets).