Clearing Up the Confusion in Labeling Chocolate

What is ‘craft’ chocolate? How about ‘artisanal,’ ‘virgin’ or ‘sustainable’ chocolate? These are just some of the myriad terms used by chocolate-makers and chocolatiers in an attempt to define their products and methods, and to market them to consumers. There are of course many other terms – local, hand-made, small-batch, single origin, raw, specialty, dark, stone-ground, direct trade, grand cru, fine, all natural…the list goes on and on.  As the COO of Conexión Chocolate, while I applaud the effort of many in our industry who employ these words to help differentiate ‘us’ from ‘them’ (Mars, Hershey, Cadbury, etc.), I can’t help but wonder if we’re adding to the problem in doing so.

Carla Martin, Founder and Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI), a nonprofit organization devoted to identifying, developing and promoting fine cacao and chocolate, recognizes this as an issue facing the industry. “There are two major challenges American consumers of specialty chocolate face today: interpreting the complex marketing and labeling of chocolate, and understanding what affects the flavor and texture of the chocolate bars they purchase.”

A Conexión Chocolate bar labeled Virgin, Minimally Processed, and Single Province – But what do consumers know about these terms? (Image courtesy Conexión Chocolate)

At Conexión Chocolate, we define sustainable as chocolate that takes care of everyone throughout the supply chain – Earth, farmer, post-harvest processor, producer, and consumer. But, when you see a bar of chocolate that says ‘sustainable,’ what do you think it means? Do you think it has to have to have an Organic stamp? Does you think it means a Fair Trade premium was paid to the farmer? Do you think about forced labor or child labor? As someone who feels sustainability ought to include environmental, economic, and social justice factors, I fear the term is quickly losing relevance.

In order for Conexión Chocolate to be labelled sustainable, we must ensure that farmers are good stewards of the land, are paid well for their beans, that we can work with co-ops to produce high quality cacao for our customers and pay a high price (a price which far exceeds the Fair Trade premium), and finally that we produce an exquisite chocolate for our customers, while maintaining complete traceability so they know where their food is coming from. That’s a little long-winded for packaging, but that’s the meaning we’d like to convey to our customers.

Jenny Samaniego, Founder of Conexión Chocolate, has insisted on defining terms in our wholesale catalogue for pastry chefs, however, she admitted, “We don’t have a glossary of the terms we use on our labels for consumers to find on our website. I think it’s something we should do, and do soon, because our mission is not only to sell chocolate, we also have a moral commitment to conservation with our producers, our country, the environment, and our customers need to know what this means.”

We produce ‘sustainable’ chocolate, and our customers should know this label has a specific meaning and can be verified. ~ Jenny Samaniego, Founder of Conexión Chocolate

While many of us are trying to differentiate ourselves with these terms from the heavily processed, mass-produced chocolate that the majority of people consume, the makers of that mass-produced chocolate are all too ready to jump in and commandeer these same terms. They’re able to do that in large part because there are no universally accepted definitions provided by any governing bodies who validate what they mean and certify that a chocolate-maker meets the standards required to label their chocolate with any of these terms.

Labels noting “USDA Organic” or “Certified Fair Trade” denote actual certifications that are verified by independent third parties, and so they have a meaning. But these other terms such as ‘craft’ or ‘specialty,’ ‘virgin’ or ‘sustainable’ are meant to convey an extra level of care and a superiority of product, either in flavor or social/environmental justice or both, however, there’s no independent verification or certification for these terms.

So what’s to be done? Do we need an independent governing body like the USDA or the EU to regulate, certify, or validate these terms? Maybe that’s taking things too far? But it might help if we as chocolate makers and producers could coalesce and form some generally agreed upon meanings, which would help us and our customers.

There are a few organizations out there attempting to help us do just that, one of which is the FCCI, another is the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA), which is making strides in helping professionals and consumers alike navigate the murky waters of marketing. They have both a chocolate glossary and a confectionary glossary on their website, they don’t take the further step of defining all the terms we see on packaging, nor is the existence of their glossaries widely known.

There’s a lot of care involved in producing a truly exquisite chocolate that strives for sustainability, from farmer to post-harvest processor to producer to chocolatier, but all our hard work and diligence regarding our products may get lost in the language of labeling that comes dangerously close to having no meaning.


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