With Valentine’s Day comes the annual resurgence of candy hearts, single-stemmed roses, and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. While these cliché gifts may seem innocently romantic, the latter poses significant ethical concerns with which Vassar students, as conscious consumers, should familiarize themselves.
The chocolate bars and cocoa powder that we frequently encounter originate from the cacao bean—a large, pod-like seed that grows on the Theobroma cacao tree, which grows primarily in the tropical climates of West Africa and Latin America. Supplying 75 percent of the world’s cocoa market, two West African countries—Ghana and the Ivory Coast—have met the demands of a growing chocolate industry by resorting to the use of child labor to maintain competitive prices in a market of cheap cocoa. Often sold by their own relatives to traffickers or farm owners, the intensely impoverished children of West Africa face life-threatening work environments and educational deprivation upon entering the cocoa harvesting industry. Working from dawn until dusk, children climb to the tops of the cocoa trees, hack at the beans with a machete—which often results in slashes to the child’s appendages—and drag human-sized sacks of the pods through the forest. In addition, children as young as 12 years old spray the cacao trees with hazardous agricultural chemicals without donning protective equipment. Subsisting on corn paste and bananas, child laborers frequently lack access to portable water and may live in such conditions for months or even years, exposed to regular beatings and locked in their rooms at night to prevent them from escaping.
Recently, a handful of commendable organizations and journalists have worked to reveal the widespread use of child labor and slavery on West African cocoa farms, leading to an increase in secrecy on the part of the chocolate industry. Many major companies that offer chocolate products—including Clif Bar, Trader Joe’s and Vosges—refuse to disclose from which regions they source their cocoa, while in 2010 authorities of the Ivory Coast government detained three journalists who published a newspaper article regarding government corruption related to the cocoa industry.
I realize that abstaining from chocolate, especially with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, poses a near-impossible task for a great number of individuals. Luckily, we can still enjoy truffles and other chocolate goodies by employing a bit of mindfulness when choosing which cocoa products to purchase. While buying any chocolate sourced from West Africa essentially guarantees the unintended support of child labor, choosing cocoa grown in Latin America—where a majority of organic cocoa originates—results in less of a chance of backing a corrupt industry.
However, even many organic and Certified Fair Trade chocolate products have been documented to employ exploitative labor, and for this reason, the only current reliable list of truly ethical chocolate companies comes from a non-profit organization called the Food Empowerment Project (FEP). Committed FEP volunteers contact virtually every company that implements chocolate in their products to inquire as to from where they source their cocoa, and if they provide a satisfactory answer, FEP features them on their “chocolate we feel comfortable recommending” list. Including such companies as Whole Foods, Divine, Endangered Species, Equal Exchange, Nature’s Path and Taza, the list also highly recommends against purchasing chocolate from Hershey, Kirkland and Scharffen Berger. You can find the comprehensive list of ethically sourced chocolate online at http://www.foodispower.org/chocolatelist.php.
This Valentine’s Day, why not show affection toward your loved ones as well as unfortunate African children by purchasing choco-centric gifts from those on FEP’s list of ethical chocolate companies? Better yet, picking up a container of Equal Exchange cocoa powder at My Market or House of Nutrition can aid you in crafting delectable chocolate treats to impress your friends and sweetheart. One of my favorite decadent-tasting yet superbly nutritious and incredibly simple chocolate recipes is for a thick mousse that derives its creaminess from heart-healthy avocados and its sweetness from unprocessed ingredients—either dates, agave nectar or maple syrup, depending upon your preference. Topped with sliced strawberries or chopped almonds, this dessert will surely wow any and all of your Valentine’s Day companions.
Chocolate Avocado Mousse
Adapted from Gena Hamshaw
1 ripe avocado, pitted and peeled
8 medjool dates, pitted and chopped or 1/3-1/2 cup agave nectar or maple syrup
½ tsp vanilla extract
4 heaping tbsp cocoa powder
½ cup plant-based milk or water
Combine all of the ingredients except the water in the bowl of a food processor. Turn the motor on and drizzle the water in. Continue to blend the mixture, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until the texture becomes thick and creamy. Serve.