Carol Off’s biography of chocolate unravels a long, dark, murderous tale, with virtually nothing sweet about it, not even slim shavings of hope.
Her book is Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet.
The CBC Radio personality and awards-winning author of The Lion, the Fox and the Eagle and The Ghosts of Medak Pocket, is typically ruthless and brave in her research and her attacks on the chocolate industry.
If you are a chocolate addict, Bitter Chocolate might prove an impossible read.
On the other hand, if you can stomach the violence, the injustice and the fact of your own guilt in perpetuating one of the world’s most shameful industries, Off’s book could very well make you a most-devoted champion of slave-free cocoa — perhaps the only hope for the chocolate industry.
The life story of the world’s most yearned-for industrial product — (some say chocolate is better than sex) — includes the conquering of the Aztecs, old-fashioned and modern-day slavery and the rise and fall of Cote D’Ivoire.
Of course, chocolate wasn’t always the product of cartels and corruption.
Long before the days of Rowntree, Nestle, Hershey, Cadbury and Mars, the wild cocoa bean was the divine currency of an ancient South American civilization.
Humanity’s reverence for the plant ended, however, with European imperialism.
And, as Off recounts with scrupulous detail in her tell-all book, was replaced with cocoa worship in the form of candy, wrapped in coloured foil and topped with bows.
As the affluent world’s greed for affordable chocolate blossomed, forests were razed and African people were stolen to make it grow in abundance, cheaply.
Canada’s ‘five cent war’ over chocolate in 1947 epitomizes a peculiar state of mind concerning chocolate.
That spring, the children of Vancouver Island protested a price hike on chocolate candy that put it from five cents to eight cents. The youthful outrage spread eastwards across the country and eventually led to the storming of Victoria’s legislature.
The gist of the children’s protests: chocolate companies were being unfair to children.
“The story of chocolate has a lot to do with what is fair,” writes Off.
A few people, including journalists and diplomats, have stood up against industrial and political elites in an effort to gain real fairness for the workers indentured to the chocolate companies, but with little success, she notes.
“The greatest impediment of all was the moral ambiguity of a consuming public that has always been quick to decry injustice, but also determined to enjoy the fruits of the earth at the lowest prices possible. The right to do so is still considered, by many consumers, to be only fair.”
Off is pessimistic about humanity’s ability and/or willingness to care enough about the world’s have-nots that they would change their consumer behaviour.
Perhaps it is because her research on the history of chocolate revealed that Quakers, the original chocolate barons in Britain and the United States, who had built their own idyllic chocolate factory towns which adhered to the admirable principles of their religion, knew that their cocoa beans were being produced by slaves and yet did nothing about it.
Even with Certified Fair Trade chocolate on the market, Off holds little hope that this niche industry will transform the lives of African people, including the children who are being stolen off the streets to grow chocolate that they will never taste.
Slavery and injustice have always been key ingredients in the making of chocolate, says Off.
“One thing is consistent: Then and now, chocolate is a luxury consumed by the privileged at the cost of those much less so.
“For thousands of years, the chocolate cravings of an elite have been satisfied by the hard labour of an underclass.”
An article in the December 2007 issue of Alive magazine takes a much different attitude towards the chocolate industry.
Entitled Eat chocolate, save a tree, the article points out that Fair Trade growing practices are helping to preserve rainforests.
As Off described in her book, the cocoa plant thrived in the South American rainforests among other vegetation but ruined the land when grown in a monocrop plantation, where in the short-term they produced more fruit.
“These trees will stop producing fruit about 10 years before their rainforest relatives,” writes Matthew Kadey, an Ontario-based dietitian, in Alive.
“That’s bad news not only for the farmers but also for the macaws and monkeys who’ve lost their habitat,” Kadey continues.
Divine was the world’s first fair trade chocolate company, which is partly owned by the cocoa farmers, but now there are a handful.
Not only are these chocolate bars, which include Cocoa Camino, Dagoba, Denman Island Chocolate, Endangered Species Chocolate and Green and Black’s Maya Gold, less “bitter” in the way Off employs the word, but they are also superior quality chocolate; they contain more chocolate and less sugar and fewer additives.
Kadey says “a daily dark chocolate fix can lower blood pressure, reduce diabetes risk, and even boost memory.”
Make it the right brand, and for a few dollars more, you can fix your conscience, save lives and preserve forests.
I’m optimistic. Chocolate can be vindicated.