It's comforting to know that in these uncertain times, there's some good news about something you love. Not only can chocolate be good for you, but it can also help raise developing world farmers out of poverty, and be gentler on the environment!
Chocolate comes from the roasted and ground seeds of the Latin American plant known as cacao, which has been cultivated for at least three millennia. In Mesoamerican times chocolate was mostly used in drinks, although today of course it is found in many different forms, and enjoyed all over the world. It is grown widely in Latin America and West Africa and is a keystone product in the organic and fair trade movements, which seek to build a more equitable, cleaner planet.
The history of chocolate production hasn't been all candy and flowers, however. In recent years growers in West Africa have been accused by the U.S. State Department of engaging in forced child labor and trafficking. Although many of the worst offenders have been rooted out, it's true that conditions remain difficult and wages are low on conventional chocolate farms. It's also true that small farmers often receive pennies on the dollar by unscrupulous middlemen.
One way worker advocates are tackling the problems is through fair trade, a growing movement that guarantees a "fair price" to producers and sets rigorous, transparent social and environmental standards. A wide variety of goods are covered under fair trade now, mainly ones sourced in developing countries and shipped to developed ones. Examples include handicrafts, coffee, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fruit, flowers and chocolate. The goals of fair trade include economic self-sufficiency and stability for producing regions. There are fewer middlemen involved, and participating producers must be organized into co-ops.
Fair trade goods are certified through the Fair Trade Federation process, ensuring there is real meaning behind marketing claims. Just as Starbucks buys some fair trade coffee, large chocolate companies such as Cadbury are getting more into the fair trade game. There are also a growing number of smaller companies blazing a more fair trail.
Chocolate is also increasingly being offered as certified organic, meaning no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers are used in its production. Organic cacao is typically cultivated on small plots under existing forest canopy, which preserves valuable habitat for birds (particularly migratory songbirds) and other wildlife. Biodiversity is much higher on organic cacao plots versus conventional plantations.
Chocolate, particularly raw and less processed (dark), contains high amounts of antioxidants, which some believe may help protect our health. Coco beans also have natural antibacterial agents, and are high in magnesium, which is said to be good for the circulatory system and your ticker.
Chocolate has long been beloved as a mood enhancer, and it's true that the delectable substance contains neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter stimulators, which help give us energy and creativity. Chocolate is also being researched for possible use in prescription drugs that could help treat diabetes, dementia and other diseases.
After all, the scientific name for the chocolate tree, Theobroma cacao, means "food of the gods."
Speaking of godliness is Divine Chocolate, a farmer-organized company that strives to improve the livelihood of small cocoa producers in West Africa through fair trade. The company produces delicious, rich chocolate bars and morsels, and has brought much-needed services to source communities.
Endangered Species Chocolate donates 10% of its profits to conservation efforts. The chocolate is bought from small, family-owned farms, and the company has earned LEED certification for efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. Many of the flavors you won't find anywhere else, such as Organic Dark Chocolate with Cacao Nibs, Yacon and Acai or Organic Dark Chocolate with Goldenberry and Lucuma (if that sounds too exotic you can also reach for more familiar varieties like almonds, cranberries and mint).
Ithaca Fine Chocolates is one of the first U.S. companies to go organic and fair trade. The company's unique Art Bars are made of fine Swiss chocolate, sourced from the El Ceibo Cocoa Coop in Bolivia, and feature an art reproduction on a collectible card inside the wrapper. 10% of profits support art education.
Newman's Own Organics was launched back in 1993 by the late great Paul Newman, who helped raise over $250 million for thousands of charities worldwide. Newman's Own is committed to high quality natural ingredients and great taste, and offers a wide range of products, including delicious fine chocolates (our favorites include the orange-infused dark chocolate bars and natural peanut butter cups).
Known for intense dark chocolates and the fragrant, almost spicy Maya Gold, Green & Black's offers a true organic cacao-lovers experience, from ice cream to hot chocolate, bars and baking supplies.
Vermont's fine chocolate crafters offer a line of tasty organic and fair trade morsels, from their famous truffles to bars, hot chocolate and can't-resist squares (try the organic milk chocolate, almonds and sea salt).
Located in picturesque Seattle, Theo produces fantastic organic and fair trade chocolate from bean to bar. Innovative flavors include Coconut Curry Milk Chocolate and Fig, Fennel & Almond Dark Chocolate. There are also exquisite country of origin bars (like the intense Venezuela Dark Chocolate Bar 91%), the Jane Goodall collection (which supports conservation work and carries the legendary biologist's "Good For All" seal) and vegan confections.
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