By Shermakaye Bass
Green Right Now
Over the past year or so, there’s been a velvety, yummy buzz: Chocolate may just save the planet!
Actually, that’s a stretch. But in the months leading up to the Copenhagen climate talks last December, several chocolate-makers claimed they were venturing further into fair trade practices, including Nestle, Mars and Cadbury.
Add to that the promising method of “cabruca farming” in Brazil — a way of supplementing rainforests with valuable cacao plants to offset wholesale slash-and-burn techniques. Then multiply those happy developments by now-abundant data showing that chocolate — dark chocolates and bittersweets, specifically — are good for our health, and you’ve got a growing body of evidence that semi-sweet, Fair Trade chocolate is not only good for body, heart and soul; it could be good for the environment.
“Chocolate is considered to be a super food,” says Steven Flood, co-owner of Fat Turkey Chocolates, an organic chocolatier based in Austin, Texas. “You could actually live and sustain yourself on chocolate alone and get everything you need. And you wouldn’t get fat. Because there’s not a lot of fat in dark chocolate.”
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s Cancer Prevention Center, among others, cacao contains potent antioxidants that reduce free radicals in the body much quicker and more efficiently than green tea or vitamin C, helping to prevent cancer. Also, the natural flavanoids in chocolate have a beneficial impact on our systems’ blood vessels, helping them pump that vital red fluid more smoothly, making heart disease less likely.
And, posits Fat Turkey’s Steven Flood, “The darkest chocolates have a chemical called theo-bromine, which is also a decongestant. It’s similar to caffeine in chemical structure. So if your kids are congested, you can give them a little bit of dark chocolate instead of medicines and chemicals.”
But you don’t need to wait for a cold or congestion, of course. For many of us, February is officially “chocolate month.” It’s the season where we say to all things chocolate, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. …”
CHOCOLATE: FUTURE RAINFOREST SAVIOR?
It turns out there’s a lot more to savor than just chocolate’s rich, almost primal flavor. Some farmers and scientists think they can use a certain type of farming to protect, and potentially, revitalize parts of the rainforest.
Back in December, the Swiss behemoth Nestle and Europe’s Fairtrade Foundation reached an agreement that would certify a certain type of Nestle’s Kit Kat bar, the choco-biscuit bar, as Fair Trade — the caveat: it’s only these certain size of Kit Kats, and they’re only sold in the U.K. and Ireland. But last October, Nestle launched its “Cocoa Plan,” a global, 10-year initiative that invests 65 million British pounds (about $102 million U.S. dollars) to address fair trade issues that have plagued cacao farmers from Africa to South America, such as lack of health-care, educational and environmental protection plans.
Farmers in Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) – producers of more cocoa than any other country in the world — will especially benefit from the Nestle plan, which calls for farmers’ groups to receive extra Fair Trade premium payments, in addition to the Fair Trade price (or market price if higher) for their crop; these extra payments can be used as the cocoa growers see fit, but most experts expect the money to go toward the groups’ health-care, education and community improvements (water, sewage, preservation of farmland), along with reinvestment into more eco-sustainable farming.
In early 2008, Britain’s Cadbury announced its Cadbury Cocoa Partnership, which invests 45 million pounds ($70.5 million) into cocoa producing farms in Ghana, India, Indonesia and the Caribbean. Also, in 2008 it reached an agreement with Fair Trade bodies in the UK that would certify “Dairy Milk” bars as Fair Trade — though, as a result of the global economic crisis, Cadbury says, there have been delays .
Typically, a “fair trade” label means that the chocolate manufacturer has agreed to buy a certain percentage of Fair Trade cocoa — or to use a certain ratio of Fair Trade cocoa in a particular brand and size of candy bar — from Fair Trade providers who pay a decent living wage and adhere to other standards. Fair Trade products often employ sustainable models of production.
In fact, as Carmen K. Iezzi of the U.S.’s Fairtrade Federation cautions, these announcements and partial Fair Trade-purchases could be more PR campaigns than anything.
“These big companies aren’t interested in making that full commitment (to using only Fair Trade cocoa); they are selectively incorporating Fair Trade into their purchases for several reasons, partially because they want to capitalize on consumer’s growing interest in making responsible decisions,” says the federation’s executive director, Iezzi. “We want consumers to move in that direction and really harness the power that they have, but we want people to be clear on what’s really going on, and often it’s a difference between the messaging and marketing and the actual purchasing.”
What is provable, however, is that in the Brazilian rainforests, old-school farmers are working with scientists at the State University of Santa Cruz in Eastern Brazil, the World Agroforestry Center and chocolate manufacturers of Mars, Inc. to research a cacao-growing practice known as “cabruca farming.”
Essentially this means that cacao fruit trees are planted within rainforests, rather than in open spaces. Granted, it requires the felling of a relative few old-growth giants to make room for the squattier cacao plants, but since the forests will then shelter a valued commodity (the essence of chocolate!), governments, corporations and small farmers are less likely to take out entire swaths of forest.
It’s a long-shot — salvaging rainforests by growing cacao. And one that isn’t going to restore millions of lost acres, experts say. But it provides an example of a different way to farm cocoa and make money. Also, some scientists are noting that over a period of time, as fewer big trees are leveled and more crops are interspersed among the tall guys, carbon build-up in the soils is returning.
As a National Public Radio segment on “cabruca farming” stated… “There used to be 330 million acres of rainforest in eastern Brazil, called the Mata Atlantica. Settlers arrived hundreds of years ago and began destroying the forest for the wood, and to create fields for pasture and crops. Only 7 percent of the Mata Atlantica remains, and destruction is still going on. Every time a tree is burned, its stored carbon is released. As more carbon is released into the air, the planet gets warmer.”
The on-location report went on to explain how chocolate was once a major source of income for Brazil. But as the market for cocoa (made from the cacao tree’s beans) plummeted over the past 20 years, due largely to plant disease, the low price of cocoa discouraged farmers — who then began logging or harvesting the ancient carbon-storing trees, or simply burning down the forests for agricultural use.
But through “cabruca,” Brazil and other rainforest nations have an example of what can be done to halt and possibly reverse some of the slash-and-burn damage.
One family who has been growing cacao for four generations — the Joao Tavares family — has seeded 2,200 acres of rainforest with cacao. They cut only a few of the taller, canopy trees, adding the shorter cacao plants beneath. Over the past several years, the experiment has been successful, and the Tavares family are now seeing a replenished and reinvigorated soil, which again supports all kind of plant and animal life. They are learning that this may well mean salvation for some sections of rainforest.
“We understand that we have to preserve the cabruca,” Joao Tavares told NPR, “even if you have less production.
The upshot is, despite smaller yields, the quality and value of the plants is much greater, commanding higher prices from chocolate manufacturers. Farmers who grow in non-rainforest environments find their plants have many more diseases and insect problems. The other trade-off is that more and more consumers are demanding eco-friendly chocolates. So these specialty cabruca farmers have an already established market — and one that’s only growing, as people become more environmentally aware.
CHOCOLAT! SALUD? (WELL, IF IT’S DARK…)
Another boon to chocoholics is the fact that recent studies show that dark chocolate is good for the heart and circulatory system, as well as the immune system — and possibly the brain.
According to the American Society of Nutrition’s Journal of Nutrition and a story in ScienceDaily, the Research Laboratories of the Catholic University in Campobasso, Italy, published some interesting findings in late 2008.
Working with the National Cancer Institute of Milan, the university’s study was “one of the largest epidemiological studies ever conducted in Europe,” the Research Labs noted that inflammation of the cardiovascular system is notably less among people of a certain region in Italy where chocolate is a regular part of the diet.
Basically, the study indicates that by eating less than half of a 100-gram dark chocolate bar, consumers have less risk for heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure.
“We started from the hypothesis that high amounts of antioxidants contained in the cocoa seeds, in particular flavonoids and other kinds of polyphenols, might have beneficial effects on the inflammatory state,” stated Romina di Giuseppe, the study’s lead author. “Our results have been absolutely encouraging: People having moderate amounts of dark chocolate regularly have significantly lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood. In other words, their inflammatory state is considerably reduced. The 17% average reduction observed may appear quite small, but it is enough to decrease the risk of cardio-vascular disease for one third in women and one fourth in men. It is undoubtedly a remarkable outcome”
Now for the not-so-good news. This only applies when we eat dark chocolate, and in moderation. The study proscribed an average of 6.7 grams per day – or a small square of chocolate up to three times a week.
“Beyond these amounts the beneficial effect tends to disappear,” di Giuseppe said. He also mentioned that previous research indicates that milk chocolate isn’t so healthy, and that the milk “interferes with the absorption of polyphenols. That is why our study considered just the dark chocolate”
Other professionals in the United States, including professor of nutrition Katie Eliot at Saint Louis University, in St. Louis, MO, say chocolate is having a renaissance because of its good qualities.
Dark chocolate products with a cocoa content of 60 percent or higher carry the desired flavonoids.
“Like green tea and berries, dark chocolate contains powerful antioxidants (flavonoids) that have been shown to reduce blood pressure and the bad LDL cholesterol to prevent cholesterol from collecting in the arteries,” Eliot said. “Most studies have used one 40-gram serving – or three large squares of dark chocolate-to show cardiovascular benefit. … (But) because one serving packs 200 calories, it should be your one sweet treat for the day and part of a balanced diet. If you just add 200 calories to your daily diet, you will gain weight.”
If you’re going for full-on Fair Trade chocolate that’s good for the planet and for your body/soul/conscience, here are three chocolate-makers in the U.S. where you can start your search:
- Divine Chocolates, owned by cocoa farmers in Ghana
- Alter Eco USA, sells various edibles, including Fair Trade chocolate bars. Find out where to buy locally here.
- Equal Exchange, Fair Trade 24/7.
Now — armed with all this feel-good data about chocolate — go forth and savor that midnight-colored, velvety, electrifying substance we know as chocolate. After all, what’s not to love?
(The Fair Trade Federation in Washington D.C. is calling on teachers to educate about the value of Fair Trade chocolate this Valentine’s Day. Naturally, their offering enticements of…chocolate.)
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