In the past few years we have received a trifecta of excellent nutritional news. Coffee, red wine and chocolate all provide salubrious benefits for the body. Hurray! But alas, every silver lining has a dark cloud, and with beloved chocolate that dark cloud comes in the shape of unfair economic and labor practices. Drat. Fortunately, there are steps that we, the consumer, can take to support our health by consuming cocoa grown fairly.
Baking chocolate is pure chocolate liquor poured into molds and solidified; since it has no sugar it is very bitter. Semisweet or bittersweet chocolates have at least 35 percent chocolate liquor, plus sugar and extra cocoa butter for texture. High-quality dark chocolate contains at least 60 percent to 70 percent cocoa solids—these percentages are increasingly being included on the labels of chocolate bars so that the consumer can identify the degree of darkness. Milk chocolate has only about 10 percent chocolate liquor, while white chocolate has none.
To Your Health
Dark chocolate lowers high blood pressure. Isn’t that great? (Of course you have to balance the extra calories by eating less of something else, but still.) Dark chocolate is chock full of high-quality polyphenol antioxidants that consume free radicals, those troublemaking molecules that are implicated in heart disease and other ailments. And unlike the proven benefits of some foods, which rely on ingestion of copious amounts of the item, with dark chocolate even eating as little as 30 calories per day can have a moderate effect.
It is the cocoa phenols that are responsible for this small miracle—and the cocoa products with more cocoa content (more chocolate liquor) exhibit a higher flavonoid quantity and antioxidant activity. What that means is that the darker the chocolate, the healthier it is for you. Another benefit of darker chocolate is that a higher cocoa content means less sugar—there’s simply less room for it. This means that the darker the chocolate, the lower it is on the glycemic index, which is great for those watching their sugar intake. Check the label for cocoa content, remember that the higher the percentage of cocoa content means the darker the chocolate is, and thus, the healthier it is. But be warned, very high content chocolate can be pretty bitter. Many chocolate lovers prefer the darkest chocolate they can find, while some might find it is an acquired taste. One thing to keep in mind: Studies show that milk interferes with the absorption of antioxidants from chocolate. So if you are chomping chocolate for health, opt for dark chocolate over milk chocolate. And by all means, don’t wash your chocolate down with milk. (Hmmm, try red wine?)
The Dark Side
Delicious and lovely and healthy, but if eating dark chocolate means human rights abuses, well then, never mind. The International Labour Organization (the specialized agency of the United Nations which seeks the promotion of social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights) estimates that 284,000 child laborers work on cocoa farms, and are either involved in hazardous work, are unprotected, are deprived of liberty, or have been trafficked. Several non-profit groups have banded together and are suing one of America’s top chocolate subsidiaries under two federal statutes, the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allow victims of human rights abuses who live outside America to sue American companies for violations of international law.
American chocolate manufacturers claim that they are not responsible for the conditions on cocoa plantations since they don’t own them. At the same time, many small-scale family cocoa farmers face tremendous instability. They are often forced to sell their harvest to local middlemen who use rigged scales or misrepresent world prices. The bottom line is that it is a poorly controlled industry with tremendous economic imbalance and rampant human rights abuse.
Enter Fair Trade certification. Fair Trade is an international monitoring system that promises a minimum price to the farmers, prohibits abusive child labor, and promotes environmental sustainability. In the United States, Fair Trade certification comes from TransFair USA, a non-profit organization that is one of 20 members of Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, and the only third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. By guaranteeing minimum prices and social premiums, Fair Trade allows producers to invest in their businesses and communities, and to protect the environment. With these elements in place, they are enabled to develop better products.
Fair Trade Certified assures consumers that economic, social and environmental criteria have been met in the production and trade of an agricultural product. Fair Trade chocolate and cocoa products are marked with the “Fair Trade Certified” and Fair Trade Federation labels.
Fair Trade Certification is currently available in the United States for coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa and chocolate, fresh fruit, flowers, sugar, rice, and vanilla. These Fair Trade agricultural items are available at more than 35,000 retail locations throughout the United States. Fair Trade Certified hot cocoa and chocolate bars are offered in more than 1,600 retail locations around the United States, including Safeway, Tully’s, Whole Foods, and many natural foods stores.
You can check TransFair USA for a list of Fair Trade Certified chocolate brands, manufacturers and importers.