I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Energy Food?

I’m doing some training these days for the upcoming Seattle half-marathon, and after every run, I’ve been eating a single square of Vosges Bacon Caramel Toffee. I formed this habit on a recent cool and cloudy morning; when I got home from running, chilly beneath a crystallized layer of salty sweat, I couldn’t wait to eat that piece of candy. My body craved the melty milk chocolate, the chewy, smoky bits of bacon, the caramel of the toffee - it seemed to me the perfect combination of foods to revive my tired muscles.

This new culinary custom got me to thinking about our cultural relationship with chocolate, and the power of an idea of what a food can do for us. For even though it is biological fact that protein, salt, and sugar would help counter my fatigue and assist muscle repair after a six-mile run, this particular snack is not one that springs readily to mind when we think of athletes-in-training.

Vosges is not, for example, marketing Bacon Caramel Toffee as a sports energy food, even though it has some elements that would make it so. Now, I am not suggesting that eating pounds of bacon-chocolate-toffee is an essential part of the healthy training diet; these are not things that I consume in abundance whether I am running a lot or not, and certainly we can make a strong argument for the negative effects of the cholesterol and refined sugar that also form part of this snack.

But I am interested in how our ideas about what chocolate does to the body vary across cultures and change across time, sometimes so drastically that we would hardly recognize it for the same food. Because there was a time and place where my particular craving would not have seemed so strange.

Recently, in the US and Europe, and in parts of Asia too, chocolate has been much-heralded as a health food, with nutritional and medical studies claiming the benefits of high antioxidant levels for heart health, skin, and even diabetes. Small amounts of dark chocolate are now thought to keep us looking and feeling youthful, and our hearts beating for longer. We have become comfortable with the fact that certain kinds and limited amounts of chocolate may have positive effects on our health.

That a chocolate bar might be good for the body is a not an entirely new concept in the US. But until the most recent surge of medical studies, it was rather the ingredients that were mixed with cocoa that got the health press, for good or ill. Hershey touted the inclusion of wholesome, fresh Pennsylvania dairy land milk in his bars, even as the lore of the sugar rotting children’s teeth out of their heads gained ground. Chocolate has, in its history in this country, been both body-damaging and healthy, source of decay and superfood, sometimes in the same era.

What we have never had in modern-day US society, however, is a cultural association of chocolate as a food of sustenance and energy, one that can maintain long periods of athletic endeavor; we rather think of dishes of pasta or Rocky Balboa drinking raw eggs. While we do have a powerful association with chocolate bars as energizing snacks - witness the recent Snickers campaign with words like “hungerectomy”, whatever that is - popular wisdom is that it is the sugar in these candies that gives us the energy boost, not the cocoa itself.

But the interesting thing for me is that other people, living in other times, have not only believed chocolate to be a source of long-term energy, but lived out this belief in a very corporeal way. The Maya believed their cocoa drink to be one of the recipes handed down by the gods to make men strong and fearless; and it was men, for the most part, who consumed it - women were forbidden from partaking in chocolate drinks, save for some few ceremonial celebration days. Aztec soldiers carried with them as their main source of sustenance cocoa cakes mixed with maize; a single ration was considered sufficient to march for a day. No sugar was added; it was not sucrose that sustained them. In this time, among these people, chocolate was the food of energy.

Among the Aztec, my craving for a chocolate-bacon-toffee bar after a long run might not have raised any eyebrows. I personally don’t spare much thought for whether chocolate is healthy or not; it is something I eat pretty much every day in one form or another, and will do no matter what the latest studies say. But if you are thinking for yourself what the health benefits of your piece of chocolate may be, just remember that what we think we know about the effects of chocolate on our bodies, even if it is based on scientific study, may exist just as much in our collective cultural mind as it does in our cells.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Chocolate Ethics 101

So, these days, everybody professes the desire to be an ethical consumer (well, everybody I know, but I live in Seattle). The way to put this into action, they believe, is to buy fair trade. And while I am not opposed to fair trade, it seems to me that in the case of chocolate, we have forgotten that it is only the most recent attempt in a long history of industrial ethics. For chocolate makers - the big ones, anyway - have always been concerned with making life good for people, beyond selling them a candy bar.

The big news this week is that US food giant Kraft made a bid to take over Cadbury company in Britain. Kraft’s $16.7 billion offer was rejected by Cadbury’s board; now it seems that US-based Hershey has the money to bid for its British rival as well.

Now, frankly, if I were the British consuming public, my biggest fear at this potential takeover would be of a dystopic future world in which all Cadbury chocolate tasted like a Hershey bar. (Look, I don’t hate Hershey. But, as everybody knows, all non-Americans think it tastes like puke.) So far, however, no one has expressed this fear.

Rather, the most compelling story I have seen is a video about what will happen to Bournville, the model town built by Cadbury’s Quaker founders, when scary, unethical foreigners come to take over. For the Cadbury family were an ethically minded, god-fearing lot who wanted to spread the love of not only chocolate, but of a healthier, happier, moral life.

This is the part of industry history that has been forgotten. The Cadburys were no doubt in business to make money; the profit motive was there, and this meant the usual ethical degradation when it came to certain safety and sourcing standards.

But there was also the explicit intention to bring the good life to people when most lived in squalor. In the 19th century, when the big chocolate makers were getting started, the industrial revolution was at its height. The British factory world was not an especially nice place: sickness and disease were rampant, streets were lined with raw sewage, air choked with the smoke of industrial stacks. Plumbing, lights, and running water were not the norm, for anybody.

In the middle of all this, Cadbury established Bournville Village, a place where its factory workers could live in tidy homes, surrounded by green grass and clean air. The town had sports fields, a school, parks, a lake, and swimming pools in an era when everyone else lived in filth. Today, Bournville remains a vibrant community, where residents live quiet, suburban lives, there is no public house to buy alcohol, and there is not a single take-out restaurant.

Cadbury did other ethical things, too. While it resisted for many years, the company eventually became the most significant chocolate maker to boycott cocoa produced in São Tomé, at the time the world’s biggest supplier, when it became clear that its plantations were run by slave labor. More recently, when I was in Ghana doing my PhD fieldwork, I saw signs dotting the rural areas, announcing water wells and pumps and other development projects to benefit cocoa farmers, all supported by Cadbury.

Today, the residents of Bournville are worried that if a foreign company takes over, particularly Kraft, the ethics of their beloved company and town will erode. Perhaps this is not unfounded. But should it be Hershey who makes the successful bid, however, I think they might have less to fear.

For Hershey built a model town, too. It’s called Hershey, and it’s in Pennsylvania, and the founding mission was much the same as for Bournville: build a place where factory workers could live in comfort and health, enjoying modern amenities and a community that adhered to strict rules of moral self-governance. Milton Hershey himself used to stroll through town, checking that there weren’t any riff-raff disturbing the tranquility with bad behavior, like public drunkenness.

When Hershey died, he left the majority shares of his company to Hershey Trust, guardian of the Milton Hershey School for orphans and under-privileged boys (today girls attend too). This means that the huge, billion-dollar Hershey company exists primarily to serve the interests of poor children; and indeed, their school lavishes more resources on each child than any other in the country.

All this is not to say that these ego-maniacal efforts to control worker morality is the ideal route to a better world for us all. My point is not that Cadbury and Hershey got it right in their attempts at making life good; far from it. I mean, I personally would not want to live in either Bourneville or Hershey. If I’m going to live in a place where I can never drink or order in, I want at the very least an unlimited supply of chocolate delivered to my doorstep every day. And I don’t think that’s part of the program.

Rather, my goal is to make it clear that the chocolate industry has had a significant history of ethical practice. Its giants did what they believed right at the time: in the squalor of industrialization, a clean and healthy home mattered. Beyond that, they tried to extend good self-governance and an ethics of care into their communities, farmer regions, and beyond.

Today’s attempts at ethical consumerism are not the trailblazing revolution that we like to believe. Rather, they are the most recent articulation of what should count as good practice, in what is at heart an exploitative industry. There is no black-and-white when it comes to ethics in chocolate. Even the big baddies have tried - and succeeded - to do some good.