Organic Chocolate Explained
Chocolate is sort of an indulgence after all and not eaten in pounds per week like apples or tomatoes, so do I really need to worry about which chocolate I put into my body? In fact, the average American eats more than 11 lbs of chocolate a year, but probably has no idea where it comes from. Well, chocolate grows on trees, the Theobroma Cacao tree to be exact which translates into “food of the gods.” Cacao pods (a.k.a. cocoa pods) grow on trees found almost exclusively in the “cocoa belt,” a band 20 degrees north and south of the equator. From these pods come beans that are fermented, dried, roasted, and transformed into that smooth, luscious solid we all know and love.
No one wants harmful pesticides in their food, but the benefits of organic chocolate go well beyond the obvious. Cacao trees are usually found in lush rain forest environments that are homes to monkeys, sloths, wild birds and other unique creatures. The use of pesticides endangers the rich biodiversity of these eco-systems. If that’s not bad enough, some companies will clear cut the jungle first in order to plant cacao trees in neat rows – a procedure that is completely unnecessary to grow cacao. The canopy trees that would normally form a natural habit for jungle animals is destroyed.
Not only are rain forest animals at risk from chemical exposure, but also humans – the plantation workers. In some cocoa growing regions such as West Africa, where most mass-market cocoa is grown, there are fewer controls on the safety of farm workers. When companies seek the lowest cost beans from the global commodity market, they are blind to the social issues connected to their chocolate .
So how can you be sure you’re getting the organic stuff? It’s easy to pick out an organic chocolate bar from the crowd: just look for an organic seal on the label. You’re all familiar with the USDA certified organic seal by now, but don’t forget that chocolate is an international product. Beans grown in the cocoa belt are transformed into wonderful chocolate in countries all over the world. With so much excellent chocolate coming from Europe, you may also see organic seals from France: Agriculture Biologique (AB) or EU Organic, for instance. You can be confident that any of these seals is credible evidence that basic organic practices are followed.
Some have criticized organic labeling as a marketing ploy that only larger companies can afford since the certification and associated inspections cost money. I look at it more like UL certification for electrical appliances. Most of us are not electric engineers and are not inclined to study circuit diagrams. We just need to know that when we touch our new TV, we’re not going to get shocked. Organic certification leaves the details to the experts and hands us the answer in an easy to understand format. That can’t be bad. Besides, there are numerous examples of artisan, small-batch chocolate makers with organic certification such as Taza Chocolate, Pacari Chocolate and others.
If you wander down to the local truffle shop, things may not be as simple. If you’re lucky enough to find an artisan making organic truffles, there’s a good chance that only some of the ingredients, say the chocolate shell, are organic. Have a conversation with the proprietor and understand where their chocolate comes from. Is it organic? Is it fair trade? If you can find such a shop, you’ve got a gem since bulk organic chocolate used for making confections is in short supply in the USA. You may have better luck finding a website that specializes in organic and fair trade.
Does organic chocolate taste as good as “conventional” chocolate?
I’ve tasted a lot of chocolate and I can tell you yes, of course it does! The flavor of the chocolate has to do with the variety of cacao, the diligence of the farmer and the skill of the chocolate maker. Cacao farmers using pesticides and other chemicals can get more pods from their trees and improve profit, but this won’t help the flavor of the chocolate one bit. In fact, organic chocolates are less likely to contain ingredients that have no place in high quality chocolate such as chemical additives or vegetable oils. These ingredients only distract from the true flavor of the bean and help the producer lower costs.
Assuming the bar is not flavored with fruits or nuts, you should see at most four ingredients in a chocolate bar: cocoa mass (or cocoa liqueur or cocoa solids), sugar, vanilla and soy lecithin. That’s it. So keep it simple – look for a simple ingredients list, look for organic certification and develop a relationship with a trustworthy proprietor and you’ll do some good for yourself and the planet.
 A version of this article was originally published as an invited guest post on Ecobold.com
 Fair trade is an equally important and complex topic in the chocolate world. Due to space constraints, we’ll deal with this one another time.