Monday, March 21, 2011

Thoughts on Chocolate Labeling

As with other food products, chocolate is often labeled with descriptions that may be more or less accurate, but increase the perceived value and thus the price of the product. General terms such as "organic", "fair trade", and "sustainable" come to mind. Chocolate-specific terms include "single-origin", "plantation", higher quality bean names ("Criollo", "Trinitario", or "Arriba"), and chocolate names suggestive of desirable specific provenance, such as "Chuao", "Venezuela", or "Sambirano".

For a few of these terms, there are government and third-party certifications. The downside of certifications is that they cost money, and some chocolate makers achieving the same goals may choose not to acquire certification due to the added cost.

What provoked me write about this was my recent review of Pralus Caracas, during which I discovered that the chocolate was made from a blend of both Trinitario cacao beans from Venezuela and (lower quality and lower priced) Forastero beans from Ghana. This clearly conflicted with the wrapper that indicated a single origin in Venezuela, not only with the name of the city of Caracas, but also with its latitude and longitude. The wrapper only listed Trinitario cacao beans. Pralus had more complete information on their website, and while I give them credit for providing it, it would be much more honest to disclose such information on the wrapper of the bar itself.

That experience only makes me wonder what other chocolate makers may not be telling us, whether through intentional deception or not.

Ultimately, what matters most to me is the resulting chocolate, regardless of where and how the cacao was grown, what type of beans were used, etc. However, the other information is relevant, and for some consumers even more important than the sensual properties of the chocolate. I wish we could rely on every chocolate maker to straightforwardly present full and accurate information about their chocolates, but savvy consumers should remain skeptical and place more faith in government and uninvolved third-party certifications.

Here are some of the certifications you may see, along with links to the certifying organization for additional information.
EU organic
U.S. Department of Agriculture organic
French Agriculture Biologique organic
Fairtrade International fair trade
TransFair USA fair trade
Fair For Life fair trade and socially responsible
Rainforest Alliance sustainable

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