All is Fair (Trade) in Love and Chocolate

If you know me, then you know that I like love chocolate. So when I was given the green light to organize a chocolate tasting in anticipation of Valentines Day, I jumped at the chance.

I hit Google to see what I could find in the way of Fair Trade vendors in New York City. My plan was to generate a list of stores that sell Fair Trade-certified chocolate, print it and go shopping. Boy was I wrong. I couldn't find a Web site that would generate a list of places in Manhattan that sell Fair Trade chocolates.

So, I hit the cold and windy streets of Manhattan. My first stops included Duane Reade, which had one brand, and Gristedes, which had none. I expanded my search to include Organic Certified and Rainforest Alliance Certified. The differences between these certifications have to do with how the plants were raised and how the farmers and workers are treated. I looked for and bought only bars that had one or more of the three logos to the left.

I went to Fairway, figuring surely THEY would have something that was at least organic. Nope. I couldn't find any of these labels on any of their chocolates. Finally I went to Whole Foods and found the mother load! They had variety, offering not only milk and dark but also flavored chocolates. I checked out Food Emporium and found a nice selection there as well. I did find one brand at Trader Joe's but the line was so long that I left it at the store (sorry Trader Joe's).

Finally, we held the tasting. Who knew that there could be so much variation in chocolates? We got a good lesson in how taste is in the mouth of the beholder. Thirteen of us tasted 11 bars and stuck to the basics - plain milk and plain dark chocolate. We used rice cakes and water for a palate cleanser. We evaluated the feel, smell, texture and taste, and gave each chocolate an overall score of 1-10 with 10 being the highest rating. We started with the lowest cocoa content and tasted our way to the highest. Here are our overall results, with the chocolates listed in order of increasing cocoa content.

BrandHighLowTotalAvg Score
Dagoba Milk 7 2 58.5 4.5
"typical milk chocolate", "Cadburyish richness", "too sweet","not too sweet, a little bitter", "I don't like most milk chocolates but this is fairly flavorful"
Newman's Own Milk 7 1 53 4.8
"bad finish", "starts out bland, ends very sweet on the tongue"
Green & Black's Milk 8 2 66 5.1
"a bit more bitter for milk that I would expect", "tastes like Easter candy", "not just a standard milk chocolate"
Mitzi Blue Milk 8 2 64 4.9
"lots of personality", "very bitter for milk chocolate", "different, has a taste I can't place", "bland, cardboard-like", "Kenya-AA-esque"
Whole Foods Dark 7 2 66.5 5.1
"real middle of the road, no character", "sort of flavorless and boring", "coffee-grounds roasted", "stays on the tongue", "reminds me of Nesquick"
Dagoba Dark 8 4 73 5.6
"citrus, a little bitter", "no me gusta", "very good - nice level of darkness", "nice acidity and overtones of coffee", "bitter at first, now better"
Green & Black's Dark 9.75 1 70.75 5.4
"this is like over-roasted coffee", "this taste is elegant and bold", "has a strong flavor I can't place", "fruity, sweet, a hint of booze, not too bitter", "most buttery so far"
Vere Dark 8 1 59.5 4.6
"my favorite so far", "very bitter, tastes like liquor", "tobacco-like, bitter", "worst", "has flavors one does not associate with chocolate", "would only eat if desperate", "boring - low cocoa % I would guess", "not my favorite"
Divine Dark 9 2 77 5.9
"rice, coconut, cake", "smooth, velvety, flavorless", "no personality", "my favorite", "One note sweetness with a smooth finish", "very middle of the road, like a reliable but boring boyfriend", "good balance", "yum!"
Grenada Dark 6 1 63 4.8
"burnt, cocoa, roasted", "fishy tasting, very strange aftertaste", "like coffee beans with fruit", "strong green tea flavor", "tastes the way my organic garbage smells", "strange alcohol aftertaste", "would only eat if desperate"
Skinny Bar Dark 8 3 84.5 6.5
"spicy, vegetal", "tastes a little dirt-like, earthy, musty-flavored", "sharp and bitter", "it was smooth throughout", "pleasant but didn't knock my socks off", "the best of the bunch but not very good", "berryish and more intense than the others"

The bar with the most points and highest average score was the Skinny Bar Dark. My personal favorite was Green & Black's Milk chocolate. It should be noted that 2 people forgot to score the Newman's Own Milk chocolate so the points were lower but the average score was also lower. The best comment of the day was about Divine Dark chocolate - "Very middle of the road, like a reliable but boring boyfriend." We all agreed that all the chocolates lacked a certain something although what that something was varied from person to person.

As I found out, socially responsible chocolate is not at all readily available. Whole Foods goes to great effort to source Fair Trade and Organic items, but of course not everyone has the luxury of a Whole Foods in his or her community (neither can a lot of people afford Whole Food's prices). I live in the nosebleed section of Manhattan (Washington Heights) and I work in Murray Hill. A trip to Whole Foods takes me in the opposite direction from home once I leave work. While I might go out of my way for a special occasion like Valentine's Day, shopping there on a regular basis is probably not going to happen.

Given how difficult it can be to find socially responsible chocolate, I was set to write as the conclusion of this post that going out of my way to find it is just not worth it, but the ethical implications of industrial chocolate are just too heavy. Beyond the ecosystem impacts of industrial chocolate production, human rights violations such as child labor abuse associated with most cocoa farms are common and unfortunate. When I buy chocolate, I'm supporting a whole system of politics and people behind that chocolate. I want part of the pleasure I derive from eating chocolate to be the knowledge that I'm not adding to someone else's abuse.

Buying Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance Certified chocolates is an easy way to ensure that your purchasing power supports chocolate growers with sound human rights policies. From now on it will be Green & Black's Milk Chocolate for me.


Check out a slideshow about cocoa production from the Institute of Tropic Agriculture.