You are at Toxics Alert > Feature > Bitter Truths about Sweet Chocolate
Toxics Alert, an environment news bulletin from toxics link Toxics Link
Issue 11
, 2009
View issue number:
  Home  |  Editorial  |  Feature  |  Interview  |  News  |  Policy  |  Updates  |  Reports / International News  |  Partner


Bitter Truths about Sweet Chocolate

Suparnaa Dutta
Source: Toxics Alert, Date: , 2009

chocolate To those of my young friends who are yet to read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I strongly recommend the book.

(Hmm… not another of your itchy-preachy boring book- recos hopefully…)

Hold on! Not even the most critical child on earth can call this Charlie book tedious or yawny.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory published in 1964 by Norwegian-British author Roald Dahl is a story of the adventures of young Charlie Bucket inside the chocolate factory of eccentric candymaker Willy Wonka.

It is basically a wish-fulfillment story with a chocolaty, gooey twist at the end. And it gets yummier and yummier as you turn over page after page!

Imagine visiting a Chocolate Room where everything is edible: the pavements, the bushes, even the grass. There are trees made of taffy that grow jelly apples, bushes that sprout lollipops, mushrooms that spurt whipped cream, pumpkins filled with sugar cubes instead of seeds, jelly bean stalks, and even spotty candy cubes. The main icon of the room is the Chocolate River, where the chocolate is mixed and churned by the waterfall.

However, in real life not all is sweet and tempting about the chocolate you eat: as bars or cookies, in icecreams or shakes or smoothies, in cakes and pastries, as a topping on coffee …you just name it!

(Just knew it! This cannot simply be a story telling session).

Of course dentists had been voicing their concerns about tooth decay in children for over-indulgence in chocolate but we would like to tell you about various other hazards that can take place unless you are eating an environmentally sound chocolate.

(Ooops … you just said soooooo many words that hardly made any sense!)

Step 1 begins with choosing the right chocolate. If you asked Charlie of the Chocolate Factory fame he would have told you that this means that you are wise enough to buy an organic chocolate so that you do not end up ingesting harmful pesticides that were used to grow the cocoa beans in it.

(Hmm… sounds interesting. But how are cocoa beans grown? And where all on the globe? And since when it is being consumed in some form or the other? Suppose you give us all the geography and history first).

The "chocolate tree" originated in South America's Amazon basin. With its roots in the tropical rainforest, the cocoa tree has been part of human culture for 2000 years. The official name of the cocoa tree is Theobroma cacao ("Theobroma" is Latin for "food of the gods").
aztec maskIt is told that the Aztec and Mayans of Central America cultivated cocoa trees long before the arrival of European explorers. These Mesoamerican Indians were the first to create a drink from crushed cocoa beans mixed with water and flavorings such as chili peppers, vanilla, and other spices. It was a special beverage reserved for Mayan rulers and special ceremonies.

Historians claim that the Mayans used cocoa beans as currency. According to a 16th century Spanish chronicle, a rabbit was worth 10 cocoa beans and a mule cost 50 beans.

(Kewl! Wonder how many beans to pay for one choco-caramel icecream!)

Hush! There was no choco-caramel ice cream back in those days or video games or computers or Apple I-Pods or movie shows or family vacations at Disney Land for that matter.Now please pay attention if you want rest of the story.
The invading Spaniards learned about cocoa from the Aztec Indians in the 1500s and brought this fascinating "new" food back to Europe. In Spain, chocolate was a drink served only to royalty. They drank it hot, flavored with sugar and honey. Chocolate slowly spread across the royal courts of Europe, and by the 17th century it was an expensive luxury reserved for the upper class.

From early 1600 chocolate started spreading to other counties in Europe.

In 1875 the Swiss invented milk chocolate, the favourite with children worldwide.

(Must be the best Swiss invention ever to be made).

molten chocolateLess than five percent of cocoa flowers will produce fruit. The fruits of the cocoa tree are oval-shaped pods, 8 to 14 inches long, ranging in color from yellow or green to red or violet. The football-shaped pods grow directly from the trunk and main branches of the tree - not from stems like apples, oranges and other familiar fruits. It takes 5-6 months for the pods to grow and ripen. Unlike trees in the Northern Hemisphere, where fruit ripens at the same time every year, cocoa flowers and fruit can grow side by side on the same tree.

Let me now tell you the manufacturing processes.

The processes start with quality control measures. This means inspecting the beans once they have arrived at the factory. Next, the beans are processed. In this step the cocoa beans are roasted to give it the rich colour and aroma of chocolate.


The inside of the cocoa beans known as Nibs are crushed into a non-alcoholic liquid called chocolate liquor. This liquor is the main ingredient of the chocolate.

(Can I get a job at a chocolate factory?)

Next, giant hydraulic presses squeeze the cocoa butter out of the chocolate liquor. The pressed cake that remains after cocoa butter is removed can be cooled, pulverized and sifted into cocoa powder.

The art of chocolate making requires carefully mixing a variety of ingredients into chocolate liquor.

Before finishing the chocolate must be tempered.

(…which brings us to the end of this lip-smacking tale…sigh…)

But now we proceed onto our journey of how to buy a safe chocolate.

Pesticides used by cocoa growers include chemicals, such as paraquat and lindane. Once sprayed, pesticides inevitably wind up in groundwater, in the air and in the chocolate itself: According to the UK Pesticide Action Network, residues of the insecticide lindane were detected in all 20 chocolate samples tested by the food industry there in 1998.

In 2005, a chocolate industry test detected lead levels as high as 0.275 ppm in dark chocolate and 0.222 in milk chocolate, among the highest reported levels in foods. Lead exposure can disrupt brain development and can lead to kidney problems and even aggressive behavior. Chocolate can also contain genetically engineered food ingredients, such as rBGH.


For chocolate from cocoa beans imported into the US, the EPA allows various levels of pesticide residue to be present in the cocoa powder.

Below are just a few of the pesticides that can legally contaminate non-organic chocolate, along with some of their health effects (based on animal studies).
· Methyl Bromide — prostate cancer, kidney and liver effects, neurological effects
· Pyrethrins — carcinogenicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity
· Hydrogen Cyanide — acute toxicity, thyroid effects, nerve degeneration
· Naled — central nervous system disruption; headaches, nausea and diarrhea
· Glyphosate — effects on digestive system tissue, genetic damage, effects on reproduction, carcinogenicity
· Lindane—a pesticide best known for use as a treatment for head lice—is banned in the US for use on food crops but has been found to be a contaminant in some European chocolate.

Since 1998, investigations by UNICEF and other international organizations have found boys as young as nine years old toiling for no pay on cocoa plantations in the West African nation of Ivory Coast, where approximately 43 percent of the world's cocoa is grown.

In 2002, the U.N.'s International Labour Organization found that nearly 12,000 of those children were victims of trafficking.

Another 2002 study by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) found an estimated 284,000 children performing dangerous jobs, such as working with machetes and applying pesticides without protective equipment, on cocoa farms.

Cacao is grown primarily in the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Indonesia and Brazil, where market instability has led to underpaid labor and even child slavery. And, to compensate for growing demand, more and more conventional cacao farms have transitioned to "full-sun" farming, leading to deforestation, increased reliance on synthetic pesticides, and loss of wildlife habitat.

In USA certificates declare how safe and ethical your chocolate is. For example:

Certified Organic: Chocolate labeled USDA "Certified Organic" has been grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on land that was free of such chemicals for at least three years prior to certification.

Fair Trade: The "Fair Trade Certified" label is a third-party certification administered in the U.S. by TransFair USA, which means that cacao beans were purchased directly from growers or their cooperatives for at least $0.10 more than the current market price, allowing farmers to invest in community developments such as education and healthcare.

Certification also imposes some environmental-protection standards on growers, including a ban on the most hazardous pesticides and the use of integrated pest management techniques, such as growing cacao under shade canopies.

Rainforest Alliance: Combining aspects of the certifications above, the Rainforest Alliance (RA) focuses on how farms are managed rather than how beans are traded, and covers all aspects of production including environmental protection, worker rights and welfare and the interests of local communities.

(Okay, but what about this biodiversity issue you had been hinting at for sometime?)

Cocoa farms are traditionally planted under a canopy of rainforest trees, producing cocoa beans while also serving as a diverse habitat for migratory songbirds that winter in the tropics and other rainforest-dwelling birds, mammals, insects and reptiles. Sadly, farmers are transforming these biodiverse shade farms into "full-sun" farms, destroying wildlife habitats to get higher crop yields. Although full-sun farms do produce higher yields, they also produce beans that are more susceptible to disease, insects and stress from the heat and dry air, requiring high doses of fertilizers and pesticides that threaten nearby bird and aquatic populations.