Discussing the unsavory politics of sweet things with the one and only Professor of Chocolate

Ahead of her upcoming Peninsula talk, author Kristy Leissle clues us in to the bitter billion dollar industry of Cocoa.

Via Flickr Commons

We all know how the story goes. Seated in a 1500s Aztec paradise, Conquistador Don Hernan Cortes drank bitter xocoatl from a golden chalice. Intrigued by the frothy liquid’s alleged magical properties, he carried raw cacao beans back to the Spanish Court. Someone had the bright idea to stir in sugar, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But that’s only the beginning. Today’s chocolate industry is a $100 billion dollar affair, fueled by an extensive global trade system, the labor of five million cocoa farmers and the exploitative practices of five monopolistic companies (Mars, Mondelez, Ferrero, Nestle and Hershey).

Courtesy of Polity Press

Kristy Leissle’s new book, Cocoa, is an impressively researched account of chocolate’s rise and reign, focused on the social, cultural, economic and political factors at play.

Also known as Dr. Chocolate, Leissle was the first person to earn a Ph.D. by studying the sweet stuff. Today, she teaches global studies at the University of Washington Bothell and travels the world researching chocolate.

We caught up with her during a bit of a busy week: she is moving from England to Ghana for a new project, preparing for the U.S. release of her book and fitting in a quick trip to the Bay Area. On March 9, Leissle will discuss Cocoa at The Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto, an event that will, of course, involve some obligatory tasting.

(Via Flickr Commons)

At what point did you figure out that you could make a living off of studying chocolate? I mean, how does that even come into one’s imagination?

I’m afraid it wasn’t my idea. I’m not even sure I’d say I make a living out of it. It’s more like I’ve made my career out of it. For many years, my job was just being a professor, and that opens up a lot of doors. You can always research whatever you like, and the thing that I always liked was chocolate.

But, a long time ago, when I started my Ph.D. program, food studies programs weren’t really a thing. I wrote an application for a travel fellowship about this idea of travelling around the world for chocolate. When my Ph.D. advisor read my application, she said, “This is a really great idea, and it’s better than the idea you had for your Ph.D. research, so why don’t you do this instead?”

I’ve read a bit about the curriculum for your chocolate-themed global studies courses, and I’m still thinking about one question you’ll often pose: Is chocolate a health food? Can you walk me through how you explore that question in an academic setting, and what you reach as the ultimate answer?

It’s one of the most popular questions I get, no matter what I’m talking about. If I’m giving a talk outside a classroom, I’ll emphasize that the science is still out on this. We know that cocoa in its raw state is high in antioxidant content. But the scientists that research this would not say with a great deal of confidence that our body uses those antioxidants effectively when we get them from a chocolate bar.

So when I think about chocolate being healthy, I think about it less in terms of its chemistry or antioxidant properties. I think of it more in an emotional way. I think about how much joy it brings people. Sometimes all you need to relax and take your mind off stress is a little piece of chocolate. I think that’s healthy. It’s really healthy to consume joyful things.

If I’m in my classroom, it’s a different story. I put my students to the task of investigating where this idea of chocolate’s health properties came from. What’s the science behind it? How is that scientific research funded? What are the motivations for this research?

I set my students down those paths to say we shouldn’t accept a statement like “chocolate is a health food” at face value. We need to arrive at our own conclusion.

(Via Flickr Commons)

I’m wondering if our joy in chocolate would be threatened if we knew more about the geopolitics you explore in Cocoa. To paraphrase one reviewer, the chocolate industry is rife with guilty secrets. What are some of the secrets that we don’t know about the chocolate industry?

Honestly, that’s a fantastic point. There are very few foods that come with zero guilt — I mean, unless you grow lettuce in your own garden or something. And people do go that route now. But everything does harm; everything has the potential to do good.

I eat chocolate every single day, and I do know a lot of the bad things about the industry. Sometimes I’m conflicted about it myself. Over the years of doing this, I’ve come up with a lot of different answers, but none of them are ever totally satisfying. I think one of the better answers is that we should eat everything more mindfully.

But some of those guilty secrets are in plain sight. It’s no real secret that cocoa farmers are really, really poor. They have extremely difficult lives from a material perspective. I mean, that’s a generalization. There are five million cocoa farmers in the world. But for the most part, they’re super poor. That’s not a secret, but it doesn’t get put forward in a lot of the marketing and advertising around chocolate.

In the moment that we’re buying or consuming chocolate, we don’t have a prompt to think about how cocoa farmers are suffering. There’s a lot of distance between the experience of eating chocolate and actual cocoa farming.

Is it safe to say that some of our ignorance is willful? NPR reported that millennials who care about ethical sourcing are less likely to choose those options when it comes to chocolate because it’s a total indulgence. It’s like, we already know this is bad for us physically and we shouldn’t eat it, so why even take the time to affirm that belief through research into the ethics of it?

Yeah, research like that doesn’t surprise me. Chocolate is a luxury. It’s not a necessity. I do think it’s a lot easier to face some of the cold, hard truth about foods when they’re grains, fruits, meat — things that we really need to keep living.

(Via Flickr Commons)

One statistic from your book that really stuck with me is that 70 percent of cocoa is grown by West African farmers but very few of those farmers will actually see a chocolate bar in their lifetime. Is that because it’s too expensive?

One thing to keep in mind is that cocoa is indigenous to Central and South America, but most of it now comes from West Africa. When cocoa moved to Africa, unlike other food crops, the culture of eating it didn’t move with it.

In West Africa, there’s no history or tradition of using cocoa to make anything to eat or drink. People see it as an export crop only. And because it takes so much to turn a cocoa bean into a chocolate bar, farmers aren’t involved in the process; it happens in a factory far away. There’s basically no opportunity for farmers in Africa to have any relationship with chocolate. There’s no food culture that embraced chocolate. In my own research, I’ve found West Africa isn’t into sweets.

But having said all that, farmers know what chocolate is. They’re not cut off from the universe or anything…it’s around and they can get it. They usually can’t afford it, but they also don’t really want it.

Do small, specialty companies treat cocoa farmers better?

For cocoa and chocolate, there’s usually not much of a difference in the way the stuff moves around the world. For the most part, there’s not a lot of price impact on farmers, even with the rise in the specialty segment.

There are some specialty makers who are doing a fantastic job of making that distance smaller. These are the ones who buy cocoa as directly as they can from farmers. Though it’s hard to buy anything direct: you almost always need an intermediary with cocoa. But it’s possible.

The people who make chocolate bars in the specialty sector…some of them just have more meaningful relationships with the people who grow their cocoa. Taza Chocolate, Dandelion Chocolate and Askinosie Chocolate are really the industry leaders around this work, particularly in their transparency. For example, Taza was the first company to publish a sourcing report. Dandelion followed not long after. They publish every single place where they buy chocolate from, and they’ll tell you the staff member who went to visit the farm and the price they paid the farmer and the work they do to support cocoa farmers. That level of transparency is really rare, but it’s a real move forward in the industry.

(Via Flickr Commons)

There’s a lot of jargon we see on labels, like “Rainforest Alliance” or “artisan” or “raw” or “Fair Trade.” Is there anything we should be checking our labels for?

They don’t generally have a great deal of meaning. I spent three years researching and writing about the word “artisan” alone. But that’s just one word you mentioned. A lot of this stuff functions in a similar way.

If it’s a certification like “Rainforest Alliance” or “Fair Trade,” then there’s rules and regulations behind that certification. If it’s a word like “artisan” then there’s no rules.

The challenging thing about these words and these labels is that it’s only getting worse. Increasingly, chocolate companies will make up their own label.

“Fair Trade” labels, for example, come from a third-party regulator. So someone who’s not the farmer and not the chocolate maker certify that everyone is acting in an honorable way. But if a chocolate company wants to make its own label, there’s no audit. There’s no outside entity saying, “you’re doing something good.”

What would it take to bring more transparency to the industry? Is that something that consumers can help with?

I mean, we all have a choice about what we can buy, but generally, I don’t advocate for boycotts. I don’t see buying or not buying something as a solution to the world’s problems. You can buy chocolate that’s probably better for some players in the industry than other chocolates. For example, Cadbury is a very large company that people might point to and say, “you’re doing all these bad things.” There’d be a lot of truth to that. But Cadbury also does good things. Cocoa farmers wouldn’t have opportunity to sell their products if we all stopped buying Cadbury.

I end up thinking, buy what you want to buy, but buy it mindfully. If you feel that you need to make a choice, then make a choice. But if you tried to buy only ethical things, you’d never buy anything.

(Via Flickr Commons)

There’s one question I need to ask, because I’d forever regret it if I didn’t ask someone who’s known as Dr. Chocolate: What’s the best piece of chocolate you’ve had?

I’ll tell you very truthfully. I love whatever chocolate I’m eating at this moment.

That’s not fair.

That’s the god-honest truth! I love chocolate so much, and I eat it every day.

I keep a bowl on my kitchen counter. I’ll tell you what’s in it right now: There’s a Waitrose bar from a British grocery outlet that’s 75% dark. There’s a bar from a company called Chocolate Makers that uses cocoa from Peru. It’s 52% milk, and this really just knocks my socks off. I ate a whole bar by myself.

Dr. Kristy Leissle will be at The Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto on Friday, March 9, for “an evening of Chocolate Politics.” The event is free.

Cocoa will be released in the U.S. on March 7 through Polity Press.

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