5 things you should know before buying a chocolate bar

There are some chocolate facts to take into consideration when choosing between all those bars in the candy aisle

Published January 14, 2022 1:00PM (EST)

Pieces of raw chocolates (Getty Images/alvarez)
Pieces of raw chocolates (Getty Images/alvarez)

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When it comes to buying a chocolate bar, things can get complicated. While you might be drawn to your favorite childhood treat, like a Kit Kat or Take 5 bar, you could change your mind when you find out more about how the chocolate was made. Chocolate production, especially mass-produced chocolate from the most prominent brands, has some unsavory practices, including environmental and human rights problems. There are some chocolate facts to take into consideration when choosing between all those bars in the candy aisle.

As Lela Nargi has reported for FoodPrint, cocoa is among a handful of commodity crops, including coffee, sugarcane and palm oil, that are "grown in the global south by impoverished smallholder farmers with no power in the supply chain. The purchase of these crops by multinational food and beverage corporations — to make your chocolate bars, cookies and more — supports lack of living wages, child/forced/forced child labor, sexual assault, and rampant deforestation."

Despite efforts to correct the decades-long misbehaviors of the chocolate industry, most industry commitments have been largely unrealized and many of the issues have actually gotten worse in the time during which companies were supposed to have been improving them. A 2020 study found that child slavery and dangerous working conditions in West African cocoa production have increased in the two decades since large corporations like Mars, Hershey and Nestlé promised to eliminate them by signing a global cocoa-chocolate sector accord. Earlier this year, these corporations were brought to court by former child cocoa farmworkers who accused the companies of encouraging child slavery through training, fertilizer, tools and other support to the cocoa farms. The case was eventually dismissed in the Supreme Court, because the court was unwilling to find the US companies culpable for something happening in supply chains that are buried in other countries.

"Too often we see companies, on the one hand, trying to eliminate forced labor, and on other hand opposed to policies to raise wages, allow collective bargaining and unionization, price increases — things that mitigate and prevent forced labor," Irit Tamir, director of Oxfam America's Private Sector Department, told Nargi earlier this year in an interview about the case. "Companies have to be willing to hand over some power to stakeholders in the supply chain."

In the first season of Fair World Project's podcast "For a Better World," Anna Canning, the organization's campaigns manager, dug into these issues, focusing specifically on the recent news that Nestlé UK had to decided to stop purchasing Fairtrade International certified cocoa for their Kit Kat bar, essentially ending their commitment to pay a minimum price to their cocoa farmers in West Africa. Through discussions with Ivory Coast cocoa farmers, sugarcane growers in Fiji, and palm oil producers in Ghana, Canning and the Fair World Project team examined the problems in the chocolate industry's supply chain and suggested alternative models that could help support and improve the lives of the people growing these primary ingredients.

Listening to this podcast, or reading Nargi's report on the industry — which outlines the history of chocolate production, as well as the shortcomings of certifications, among other things — can be overwhelming and possibly discouraging for consumers who want to do the right thing. But there are choices you can make, especially when armed with facts and advice for how to find products made in a way that aligns with your values.

Canning advises supporting the companies with good practices, rather than looking for the right certification. "Instead of a certified bar from a company who's also getting sued by formerly enslaved former child laborers, look to invest in the long-term — supporting companies working to build a different kind of supply chain and industry," she recently told FoodPrint in an interview. At face value, a consumer may think buying a candy bar from a large corporation like Nestlé is a good choice, thanks to the Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance label on their packaging. But as Canning points out, there's true irony in purchasing that Nestlé bar in hopes of supporting a better system, when the company is being sued by formerly enslaved cocoa workers.

"Overall, as we think about what ethical labels mean, it's time for a bit of a paradigm shift," she says. "So much of ethical marketing has to date focused on making the person buying the product the hero. The rush of 'guilt-free this' or 'slave-free that' or the really common rhetoric of 'with each purchase, you help lift a person out of poverty.' I think that it's really high time for that to change." That change, she suggests, includes no longer letting chocolate producers off the hook for these unsavory practices.

With that in mind, here are five questions you can ask yourself to help find those companies who are paying farmers better, using more sustainable cultivation practices and avoiding enslaved labor.

Where should I be shopping for chocolate?

The first step is getting away from the big producers, like Nestlé, Mars and Hershey. It's harder than you think, since these large corporations own many brands; along with their more obvious products, Nestlé makes chocolate candies Smarties and After Eight, while Mars Wrigley Confectionery — the largest global chocolate company — produces brands like Snickers, M&Ms, Mars bars and more.

Next, look at the other options your local grocery store offers. Read below for more suggestions, but look for organic, sustainable options; recycled packaging; and detailed information on the packaging and company's website about the brand's production methods, standards and commitments. Shopping at a specialty grocery store or health food store may provide a larger selection of options; also look for a local chocolate producer.

It's likely you will notice higher prices when shopping for brands that have committed to boosting wages for farmers or eco-friendly cultivation. A Beyond Good bar, for instance, costs $4.50 for a 2.64-ounce bar, compared to $1.50 for a 3-ounce Kit Kat or $3 for a 3.5-ounce Lindt bar. In many cases, it's the detrimental environmental practices and enslaved labor of chocolate production, along with the low prices farmers receive, that keep that cheap chocolate cheap, while also resulting in big profits for the corporations.

What labels should I look for if the environment is my biggest concern?

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all label incorporating environmental and social concerns for chocolate. When it comes to environmental sustainability, the USDA Organic label is a good place to start. "The USDA organic [label] means that it was grown without chemical inputs that are harmful to the people who grow the ingredients and the planet we all share," says Canning. Buying organic chocolate ensures that the cocoa, dairy, sugar and other ingredients were produced without chemical fertilizers or harmful pesticides. And because organic cocoa beans are primarily grown in Central and South America, buying organic chocolate sidesteps many of the labor issues associated with cocoa grown in West Africa.

A step beyond organic is the Regenerative Organic Certification, a relatively new label that sets the "highest standards in the world" for soil health, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness. Known primarily for their soaps, Dr. Bronner's is a newcomer to the chocolate industry, thanks to a serendipitous relationship with the Serendipalm project in Ghana, which provided palm oil for their soaps. "When we learned that many of the 800 farmers in our Regenerative Organic Certified™ Serendipalm project in Ghana also grew cocoa, it seemed the perfect opportunity to work towards creating a Regenerative Organic Certified chocolate — a chocolate good for farmers, the planet, and you," the company states on their website. (David Bronner, CEO of the soap company, is also a board member of the label's establishing organization, Regenerative Organic Alliance.) While other brands have made commitments to regenerative farming and eco-friendly practices, we're eager to see if more companies follow Dr. Bronner's example and adopt this label.

What labels should I look for if avoiding child slavery and supporting fair pay are most important to me?

"I think that for all commodities [including chocolate] the main issue is poverty," Nargi told us during a Facebook Live conversationabout her research on the chocolate industry earlier this year. "People don't have enough money to live. They're in deep poverty, and there's no guarantee of income for them. [I]t's one thing for consumers to not really understand the global supply chains involved in making these ingredients or chocolate. But it's another thing for companies to say, 'Well, we don't understand what's going on,' because they're the ones involved."

In traditional supply chains, the cocoa pod goes from the farmers to collector, exporter, shipper and then chocolate producer, with money being exchanged each step of the way. The farmers tend to receive the smallest portion of this; a 2020 report found that farmers only earn 6.6% of the retail price of a chocolate bar. When families can't earn enough to support themselves, they are more inclined to put their children to work, perpetuating problems including limited education access, illiteracy rates and other problems within the communities.

Looking at labels, and understanding what they really signify, is one way to decipher a chocolate brand's commitments to price and working condition standards. While Rainforest Alliance is the most widely used certification when it comes to chocolate, Canning points out that its standards and enforcement are both lacking. Fairtrade International certification, on the other hand, supports minimum prices, as well as social and environmental standards, including the banning of exploitative child labor, dangerous pesticides and GMO seeds.

Beyond labels, Canning suggests consumers "do a little research to see who owns the chocolate brand you're buying [in order] to support those building a different kind of supply chain and industry." Unlike large corporations, many of the smaller brands that are committed to a fair, sustainable chocolate industry have made their supply chains public. See below for suggested brands.

Beyond buying better chocolate, what can I do?

Think a $4.50 chocolate bar doesn't make a difference? "There's work happening now to address the root causes of issues like child labor, corporate consolidation, or deforestation, which are all much bigger than a single choice in the supermarket," says Canning, who suggests signing up for newsletters from Fair World Project, which has a specific take action campaign focused on ending the child labor and deforestation involved in the chocolate industryGreen AmericaMighty Earth and Fairtrade America have similar campaigns. FoodPrint's weekly email is another way to stay informed about the latest in food news, label information, changes in policy, sustainable agriculture and more.

She also points to the power of our influence in our own communities, and how we can share what we know with others, encouraging them to support better companies as well. "We're all so much more than consumers! We're people who live in communities, some of us are citizens or voters, some of us are parents, friends, workers. In each of those places, we have spheres of influence," Canning says.

What does a truly fair chocolate industry look like?

It's clear there is a large divide between chocolate that is produced with integrity and the products pushed out by the larger chocolate corporations. There is also a lot of gray area, with some companies doing some things better, while others seem to make commitments for optics alone. But what does a truly fair, sustainable chocolate industry look like?

Dana Geffner, executive director of Fair World Project and Canning's co-host of the "For a Better World" podcast, put it this way in an episode of the show: "One of the key steps is to pay cocoa farmers a living income because even all those calculations that we discussed [in a previous episode on cocoa pricing] don't fully cover a thriving livelihood for farm families. [In our petition to end child labor in cocoa,] we're also calling for increased transparency and traceability to allow for real accountability. And we're calling on the big chocolate companies to phase out the use of toxic pesticides – those pesticides are harming the health of the children at work in cocoa fields, in addition to their environmental impacts."

Some brands are working directly with farmers to do just that. "We gave the farmers a contract that said, 'As long as you meet our quality specifications, we will buy every cocoa bean you bring to us,'" Tim McCollum, CEO of Beyond Good told Nargi in an interviewabout how the small chocolate company has cut the middlemen from their supply chain to increase prices and improve quality of life for their farmers, while also producing a better quality chocolate bar. According to McCollum, the farmers dry and ferment the beans before selling them directly to Beyond Good, where they are further processed in a Madagascar factory not far from where they are grown. "Along with the higher price for [growing heirloom] beans, the contract gave farmers incentives to farm better and figure out how to get more yield from their land; it turns them into cocoa entrepreneurs."

Other brands pushing for this kind of change in the chocolate industry include Dutch company Tony's ChocolonelySeattle's Theo and Switzerland's Alter Eco. Chocolate cooperatives, such as Divine Chocolate and Equal Exchange, provide higher wages for their farmer-owners, and the model also gives the producers involved a stronger voice in the chocolate industry. For more options, Fair World Project has information on mission-driven chocolate brands they recommend and Green America's annual Chocolate Scorecard ranks nationally available brands on both environmental and social dimensions.

By Katherine Sacks

MORE FROM Katherine Sacks

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