Easy Being Green: On Changing Habits and Chocolate

This article is going to hurt. I’m sorry to do it, especially this month when we are hearing so much about the beauty of love and what that can bring to your life. I don’t want to be a downer, but I promise this will hurt me as much as it hurts you. I am going to talk about one of my biggest loves — chocolate.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love to bake, and a large portion of what I bake contains chocolate. Despite putting a lot of effort into eating sustainably, focussing largely on organic and local ingredients when I can —  I have been burying my head in the sand around the issue of the sustainability of the chocolate I eat. Of course, I knew it had environmental costs, but tried to avoid learning the extent of it. But I have decided it is finally time to think about it – and it seemed relevant to discuss during the month in which we demonstrate our love with gifts of chocolate.

It turns out that there is a lot to consider when thinking about the sustainability of chocolate.

In researching this article, I discovered that cacao trees are relatively unique in that better quality cocoa beans come from trees that are shaded by other trees. Therefore, that’s how they have traditionally been grown. Because they can only be grown close to the equator, they are primarily grown in the Ivory Coast and Ghana where land is expensive and the trees are ageing.

With the pressures of an $83 Billion global market, however, more recently some farmers have grown them in direct sun – which may result in higher yields but diminishes their quality. This also leads to greater degradation of soil and decreased biodiversity as well as the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, poor working conditions, youth labour and poor compensation for growers.

It’s not only the way cocoa beans are grown that is problematic – it is important to look at the entire process of getting chocolate into your hands to identify the true environmental cost of chocolate.

For example, chocolate candy is often made with palm oil, soy and milk ingredients, which are all huge drivers of deforestation and water consumption. Another common ingredient is sugar cane, which has the additional effect of the production of heavy smog from pre-harvest field burning. Manufacturing and packaging bear additional environmental costs which are only further accentuated by the large distance all of the components need to be transported. Sadly, all told the environmental and equity costs of chocolate are quite substantial.

So, you might be asking, do I have to give up eating chocolate altogether? While I think most of us should eat less, there are ways that you can mitigate the negative effects of chocolate.

For example, eating dark chocolate is not only healthier but also ensures a higher percentage of the profits go to the chocolate growers while limiting milk ingredients (alternatively look for those without milk ingredients). Look for brands who source ingredients ethically and abide by third party evaluation systems such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance or UTZ.

Try to find suppliers who work directly with farmers. The good news is that the largest producers are starting to understand that they need to change their practices and increase the sustainability of their products, but unfortunately they are on a slow road to achieving those goals.

Although the taste isn’t exactly the same, a great, healthy, more sustainable alternative is carob. It comes in all of the forms you find chocolate in including powdered and chips. Unfortunately, carob is more expensive but it does provide additional health benefits. Unlike chocolate, carob is high in calcium, low in fat, high in fibre, and caffeine and tannin free. It’s certainly worth a try!

So perhaps this Valentine’s Day, you could exchange kind gestures with the person you fancy instead of chocolate. And for my fellow chocoholics – I sincerely apologize for tarnishing the enjoyment you may feel from eating your favourite chocolate and any additional guilt I have caused. I think we knew that making positive changes toward sustainability wouldn’t all be easy.

Stacey Danckert is co-director of Waterloo Region Environment Network (WREN)