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    Chocolate’s Secret Heart of Darkness … and Its Better Angels

    Chocolate – what’s not to love? Especially now that the evidence is piling up for the health benefits of this mood-lifting food of the gods. The ancient Aztecs prized cacao seeds so highly they used them as a form of money.

    And money is the dirty secret behind this luscious confection. While the big chocolate brands make billions, most unprocessed cacao is grown by subsistence farmers in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Indonesia, who are paid almost nothing for their raw product. Most frightening, the use of forced child labor is common and on the rise. The U.S. Department of Labor commissioned a study by Tulane University which revealed more than 2 million children working on cocoa farms under hazardous conditions in the Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, an 18% rise between 2008 and 2014.

    We Are The Answer

    Consumer choices are a powerful way to alter the economic landscape. We reward those who employ forced child labor when we buy their products, but fortunately, we have more ethical choices. These include major award-winning chocolatiers, who provide novel flavors and accents, as well as the benefit of years of experience. You can find everything from gluten- and dairy-free kosher chocolate, to maple-sugar flavored chocolate, to chocolate made with goat’s milk, chiles, and licorice, nuts, ginger, and spices.

    Fair Trade and Direct Trade

    Since the early 2000s, a number of ethically minded entrepreneurs have sought to combat the abuses of the poor and powerless more directly. First, a number of Fair Trade certifying organizations appeared, with the objective of providing farmers a fair base price. Direct Trade producers also began working directly with cacao farmers, cooperatives, and communities, providing financial support to farming communities, jobs in processing, fermenting, grinding, and packaging in addition to farming, as well as a percentage of the profits.

    Another way to tackle the “dark heart” problem is to set up production in the country of origin, preserving all the value-added steps and profits directly rather than siphoning them off to big chocolate producers in economically developed countries. The chocolate company, Madécasse, formed by two former Peace Corps volunteers, is located in Madagascar, where it works with cacao farmers, employs local residents, and produces lovely chocolate certified “Direct Trade” by QCS. This is the head-on solution to the unfair equation where Africa grows 70% of the world’s cacao but produces less than 1% of its retail chocolate.

    Better Chocolate Makers

    Fairafric produces chocolate in Ghana from beans grown in Ghana, partnering with the same cocoa cooperative, Kuapa Kokoo, as Direct Trade chocolatier Divine Chocolate, which is partly owned by farmer cooperatives and shares profits directly with them.

    Taza Chocolate produces Direct Trade, organic, non-GMO, stone-ground chocolate. They publish how much they pay their farmer partners, and who the farmers are, here. Taza pioneered the first third-party certified Direct Trade cacao sourcing program, verified organic by QCS (and uses sustainable, organic sugar from The Native Green Cane Project).

    Theo Chocolate, founded in 2006 in Seattle, was the first 100% Organic and Fair Trade bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the U.S.

    Letterpress is a micro-producer of 60 bars a day using Direct Trade beans from Guatemala, Trinidad, Belize, Peru, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. Learn more from this recent profile in the LA Times.

    Askinosie Chocolate, founded in 2007, produces award-winning flavors and has been listed as one of Forbes’ 25 Best Small Companies in America. They are especially proud of not using a commodities broker for their cocoa, another hallmark of Direct Trade, bean-to-bar production. They are also unique in producing their own cocoa butter. Askinosie offers an interesting video overview of the many steps from “bean to bar.”

    Castronovo Chocolate was founded by a female chocolatier, still something of a rarity in the world of award-winning confections. Denise Castronovo started with a passion to save rainforests after a trip to Costa Rica, and became a devotee of heirloom beans from Latin America when she realized that environmental action begins with a sustainable economy.

    Recently updated listings of Fair Trade chocolate makers can be found on The Good Trade and on Slave Free Chocolate.

    And this is just the beginning. The momentum in ethical business is building. Being a careful, educated consumer means you can begin to change the world. First, check for certifications and the origin of the beans. Second, find out who actually profits from the production of the finished chocolate. Third, consider the quality of the other ingredients. When in doubt, remember “Small is Beautiful.” And then you can enjoy all of chocolate’s mood-lifting, anti-oxidant benefits to your heart’s content.

    – Lisa Davidson

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