Unwrapping the Bitter Truth Behind the Chocolate Industry


May it be for a grand celebration, or a simple pick-me-up, sweets are often exchanged on special occasions–and chocolate is a definite favorite for gestures of affection. The luscious, velvety, and euphoric tasting treat is almost universal in its appeal–though it comes in different variants that complement other ingredients like fruit peels, nuts, and liquors.

Despite all the attention given to chocolate, we tend to mindlessly consume without knowing what it takes for our favorite treat to be what it is. The process of harvesting seeds from a cacao pod, to that opulent box of bonbons is not as easy as picking it readily from the shelves. The steps in between are complex and sometimes problematic. I attended the Chocolate Show in London to learn more about the opportunities Filipino cacao farmers and chocolate maker have in this sweet industry.

A Sweet Industry

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Chocolate is favored not just during the holidays but all year around. According to The Guardian, the global chocolate confectionery market is valued at $80B — that is greater than the GDP of 130 countries. The industry is forecasted to grow by 30% fueled by growing demand in Asia which is set to have 20% market share this year.

In terms of the big names in the industry, the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) reported that early in 2016, Mars Inc. (USA), Mondelez International (USA), and Nestle SA (Switzerland) were the top chocolate confectionery companies in the world with sales in the previous year valued at $18.40B, $16.69B, and $11.04B respectively.

But where do these companies source their cacao? When it comes to premium chocolates where providence becomes a marketing strategy, we often hear of Swiss chocolates like Lindt or Belgian chocolates like Godiva. Yet, neither Switzerland or Belgium feature cacao plantations. These companies are only responsible for creating the finished product.

Extractive Mechanisms

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Most of bulk cacao that is used in the common commercial variety of chocolates are sourced from the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Indonesia. Working conditions on plantations in the countries is often hidden from the world view.

As part of their Freedom Project in 2012, CNN highlighted the exploitation of child workers in Sub-Saharan Africa. While the media spotlight has brought some change to the benefit of the laborers, there is still much to be done to make the cocoa industry more equitable.

When I was tasked to help look for a UK importer for a Philippine single-origin chocolate bar, it was difficult to find someone that wanted to carry such product. Most chocolatiers wanted private branding and were mainly interested in sourcing cacao beans or coverture.

Many cocoa-growing countries are denied profiting from the value-added in making chocolate themselves. Granted that with finer chocolates, a high level of skill and attention must be paid at every step of production. This is an area where the Philippines is struggling with. A prerequisite for membership into the ICCO is that the state has the ability to control the manufacturing process which in itself is difficult for our government to do. Furthermore, the production of chocolate is split between the jurisdictions of two different departments – the Department of Agriculture is responsible for the cultivation of cacao and the Department of Trade & Industry for its processing.

Estela Duque, a historian and advocate for fine flavored chocolate from the Philippines, has identified this as a hurdle along with the lack of research and information of varieties present in our country –– some of which were brought to Spain in the 17th century.

“Farmers are going into the forests to find heirloom cacaos in order to propagate, but unless we know the exact strain, then it cannot be marketable in Europe”, says Duque as she called for a genetic and historical mapping of our cacao trees. She also shares the sad fact that Cadbury sources cacao from the Philippines in order to make their chocolates taste better since the variety is of a higher grade but without the certification or proof, Philippine farmers must settle for bulk prices comparable to low grade cacao.

Taking Ownership

Fortunately, there is a growing market in the West for fine flavored cacao witch countries like Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and even Vietnam are tapping into.

When I attended the Chocolate Show in London, I spoke with Original Beans – a company that works directly with cooperatives of cocoa farmers in order to give them a better end of the deal and also introduce unique varieties to European markets.

I had the opportunity to try chocolate produced from beans grown in Congo which has a strong taste without the offending bitterness often associated with darker varieties.

Right across Original Beans’ stand was, Risa Chocolates, a Philippine SME exhibitor manned by owners Pam and Laurence Cinco. Their single origin chocolates from South Cotobato and Bicol showcased what the Philippines had to offer and it got the attention of several chocolatiers for their unique nutty and naturally sweet flavor.

The chocolate industry in the Philippines has the potential to gain prominence in the high-end fine flavored market. However, there is much room for improvement in order to realize this possibility.

There needs to be greater education and empowerment among cocoa farmers to make them aware of which varieties to focus on in order to increase profitability and differentiate themselves from other growers. Cultivation and fermentation of the beans as every step in the processing will affect the flavor of the finished products. Likewise, businesses too need to be educated on the correct way of further processing the cacao to produce unique and fine flavored chocolates. If they are looking to export, they need to be mindful of their packaging and the quality of their ingredients in order to be marketable abroad. They must also be aware of regulations and food safety standard which may be an obstacle when entering the European or American markets.

It is only fair that countries where cacao is grown should also feature quality chocolate makers. The growing appreciation for bean to bar chocolates is a force that can empower many farmers and businesses in developing countries as it already has in several Latin American states. In order for the chocolate industry to become a less extractive one, it is imperative that all parties in the supply chain seek higher standards in order to realize the full value of an industry that is only set to grow in the future.

Art by Gab Garcia

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