Food of the gods, work of human hands…

The story of chocolate is often shrouded by romantism, yet it unfolds through somewhat controversial twists and turns. As we peer into the biodiversity of fermenting microbes that almost magically come to create its unique array of regional flavour, our eyes come to widen further. Within this dynamic milieu emerges a darker reality. One centres around the socio-economic plight of subsistence farmers and child labourers, and another tells itself from within the insect pollination crisis -where we find the wild yet vulnerable cacao tree. Next time one takes a bite, may there be greater reverence for what trails beyond the shiny allure of a tinsel wrapper… be it for health or pleasure. 

Magic of Fermentation

This is the power of fermentation: to change, convert, transform.

 It takes the usual and makes it unusual – thanks to the magic of microbes.”

There is more to chocolate than meets the eye, or should we say…tastebuds. The life of chocolate has its genesis in the seeds of the football-shaped pods of fruit born of tiny flowers growing off the trunk of the Theobroma cacao tree, literally translated as ‘food of the gods’. The transformation of these seeds to chocolate was discovered 3900 years ago by the Olmec people of Central America. The multi-step process involves today’s workers cracking open the brightly coloured fruit and removing the seeds and pulp. The seeds are then referred to as cacao beans and are cured and drained over a period of 3 to 10 days before they are put under the sun to dry. They are then roasted and crushed with sugar, and often dried milk, to make a variety of chocolate products for the international marketplace. 

It is during the curing stage that cacao fermentation takes place, another one of nature’s secret dances of life. At the heart of this chemistry, are millions of microorganisms at work. Invisible to the naked eye, it is thanks to these biological players and how they influence the taste of the beans that we can ultimately appreciate the final chocolate. Chocolate’s flavour is thus genuinely complex and consists of hundreds of individual compounds which stem from the fermentation process. It is a wild fermentation characterised not only by each farmer’s particular method, but also by the hot, humid equatorial landscape, where these wild microbes inhabit. This is a phenomenon called “terroir”. Crafters of gourmet small-batch chocolate based on hand select beans delivering their own distinctive terroir and flavour nuances render an old proverbial truth, ‘less’ is ‘more’.

Powerhouse of Healthy Nutrients

Improves mental function

If you look at the basic components of chocolate, you’ll find that it’s bursting with antioxidants and has been used in traditional medicine throughout South America for hundreds of years. Raw cacao contains antioxidants as well as a bounty of electrolytes and minerals such as potassium, iron, zinc, and magnesium, and has been shown to improve mental function and emotional wellbeing. Dark chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that create feelings of pleasure. Dark chocolate also contains serotonin, an antidepressant that can elevate mood. It’s definitely a winner for premenstrual syndrome in this respect!

Good for digestion

The fibre in cacao powder promotes healthy digestion and can reduce the risk and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and digestive complaints. Furthermore -being a fermented food – unrefined chocolate is also good for your gut microbiome. 

Considering the types of chocolate available, the probiotic cells remain highest in dark chocolate (50% cocoa and higher). Dark chocolate is ‘superhero league’ chocolate because it possesses both pre- and pro-biotics in every bite. Let us explain what a prebiotic and probiotic food is: prebiotics feed the friendly bacteria you already have in your colon, and probiotics add new friendly bacteria to the already existing micro-ecology alive in your gut. The latter carries out the important role of immune protective work, producing certain vitamins, and communicating with good bacteria in other parts of your body.

Lower Blood Pressure

Unrefined cacao powder is packed with flavonoids. These nutrients that have been shown to help lower blood pressure, also improve blood flow to the brain and heart, and aid in preventing blood clots.

Reduced Diabetes Risk

The flavonoids in cacao powder may help increase insulin sensitivity thus reducing your risk of diabetes.

Reduced Heart Disease Risk

Cacao powder contains lots of potassium. Potassium has been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease by reducing lower body inflammation and stress on cells.

A Puzzle of Pollination

Prof. DeWayne Shoemaker works for the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture as an entomologist and studies cacao pollination. He accounts how “the crop’s sustainability currently appears to depend on several species of tiny fly pollinators, who are frankly struggling to get the job done”. 

Today cacao is grown in equatorial regions around the world, including western Africa and several tropical regions in Asia. Each flower growing directly on the trunk or large branches of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, requires pollination to successfully produce fruit pods (almost the size of an American football), containing 30-60 seeds in each pod, which can be processed to make chocolate.

Scientists don’t fully understand cacao pollination. Even though over 50 million people worldwide depend on chocolate for their livelihood in today’s day and age, cacao pollination is problematic in many regions. An estimate of only up to 10%-20% of the flowers produced by a cacao tree are successfully pollinated. The remainder,  something like 90%, never get pollen – or do not get enough pollen to create fruits. Many cacao trees are unable to self-pollinate, they are dependant on certain insects to conduct this vital task.

A big job left to a tiny fickle fly…

“Humans like to think we run the world, believing in our omnipotence. But while we shape and engineer — make, muddle and destroy — we are not, according to scientists, the world’s ultimate controllers. That role clearly falls to insects, “the little things that run the world,” as E.O. Wilson, the world’s pre-eminent entomologist, told us back in 1987.”

“Think of a meal reduced to wind-pollinated crops — the bread will stay, [but] fruits and vegetables and most of the meat will be gone,” says Axel Ssymank an entomologist with the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, who pointed out, for example, that cocoa is “exclusively dependent on the pollination of small midges.” Imagine: a world without these unsung, unseen midges is a world without chocolate — forever.” Biting midges from the Ceratopogonidae family and gall midges from the Cecidomyiidae family are among the most important known cacao pollinators worldwide. “We may not always see or understand the intricate ways that [insects] pull and hold ecosystems together, but we know enough to understand that even if we don’t see those roles … they’re key,” says Michelle Trautwein, an expert on flies and assistant curator of entomology with the California Academy of Sciences.

One can definitely hear the ‘chocolate and midges story’ resonate within a greater context when we look at the following New York Times Magazine story, “The Insect Apocalypse is Here”, by Brooke Jarvis at the end of 2018. The German research demonstrated that the abundance of all flying insects — wasps, flies, butterflies, bees, dragonflies, beetles, etc., etc. — had fallen more than drastically. The study did not provide a clear explanation as to why this dramatic occurrence is happening, but scientists are convinced that the precipitous decline is connected to the intensification of agriculture, (including a loss of wetlands), as well as habitat loss and use of pesticides. The researchers haven’t pointed huge blame towards climate change, although others have, especially in the tropics.  On the other side of the debate however, numerous entomologists say that humans will go extinct long, long before all insects do.

We see no end to the ecological damage and fragility forming the framework around the supply and demand around cacao. The unsatiable global demand for chocolate has long been documented revealing the destruction of forests, like in the heart of Ivory Coast.

Work of Human Hands

From Africa to the Global North

The next story that is interwoven with chocolate is that which bears heavily on the human element. Cacao trees like the hot humid climate existing in the tropical regions around the Equator. Roughly 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa. This is shared by four West African countries: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. The Ivory Coast and Ghana are by far the two largest producers of cocoa. Together they cultivate more than half of the world´s cocoa, followed by other cocoa producing countries like Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil and Ecuador. Back in 2015, 90% of cocoa was generally grown on small family farms. Now this is almost a personal affair, since only about 5% comes from large plantations of 40 hectares or more. More than 5 years ago, cocoa production provided a source of income for between 40 and 50 million farmers, rural workers and their families in the Global South. In the Ivory Coast and Ghana, up to 90% of the farmers rely on cocoa for their primary income.

Like most subsistence farming, it is hard manual work and extremely labour intensive. It takes a whole year’s crop from one tree to make half a kilo of cocoa. As pods do not ripen at the same time, the trees need to be monitored continuously. Cocoa is also a very delicate crop, easily affected by changes in weather and susceptible to diseases and pests. After the harvest, the ripe pods need to be cut open with machetes and the beans taken out. The cocoa beans then need to be fermented, dried, cleaned and packed. When the beans are packed into cocoa sacks, the farmers are ready to sell the product to intermediaries. It is then sold to exporters, then grinding companies and chocolate manufacturers in the northern hemisphere. Here, cocoa liquor is made, or the cocoa is further processed to produce cocoa butter or powder.

The screaming message to highlight here is that extreme poverty is the norm for West African cocoa farmers. Directly parallel to this scenario is a cocoa supply chain increasingly dominated by a select group of large corporations. That is why the campaign “Make Chocolate Fair!” demands a living income for cocoa farmers, as well as a voice in the debate, and a more responsible value distribution in the supply chain.

Low earnings for cocoa farmers -no future

At the time of writing, which is way back in 2015, West African cocoa farmers lived well below globally defined poverty levels. In Côte d’Ivoire – the world’s largest producer of cocoa – a farmer should have been earning four times his current income in order to reach the global poverty line of $2 a day. To achieve a level sufficient to cover basic needs (a living income), this would probably need to be a lot higher. The lack of a decent livelihood for cocoa farmers leads to bad labour circumstances, human rights violations, and many other problems in the cocoa supply chain, not excluding the serious issue of child labour. Cocoa no longer offers a worthwhile future. More and more, younger generations of cocoa farmers are moving away from cocoa, and older farmers are coming to the end of their farming life expectancy.

Market concentration too high

An unfair distribution of value and power in the cocoa chain are part of the root causes of extreme poverty for cocoa farmers. Mergers and takeovers have resulted in just a few companies dominating up to 80% of the whole value chain, while farmers lack a sufficiently organized voice to be strong actors. Particularly chocolate manufacturers, and retailers gain a lot in comparison to the other stakeholders.

From Cradle to Grave

The number of children working in child labour in cocoa production in West Africa use to be around 2.12 million. Out of this, 2.03 million children were found in hazardous work in cocoa production in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire in 2013/2014, a Tulane University report reveals. This is an increase of 18 percent compared to 2008/2009. What are these figures today? Make Chocolate Fair! calls on chocolate companies to intensify their activities in fighting child labour and demands higher prices for the cocoa farmer’s product.


Recipes: *We support the use of only sustainably sourced ingredients

Chocolate Chai Kefir 

  5 minutes · Serves 1

Blend together the following ingredients:

1/2 tsp Chai spice blend

2 tbsp Cocoa powder

2 pinches Pink Himalayan salt

1 tsp Vanilla

pure Stevia extract 

Kefir for one serving


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