Have you ever wondered what the certification stamps and claims on chocolate bars mean? Read on to find out how you can make an informed, ethical choice when buying chocolate.
A golden scale with chocolate bars on one side and cocoa beans on the other
Credit: Stocksy / Zutik by Andoni, Getty Images / Radoslav Zilinsky / rimglow

Did you know that cacao is a delicate crop? The fruit produced by the cacao tree contains the seeds from which chocolate is made. Damaging and unpredictable weather conditions such as flooding and drought can negatively impact (and sometimes destroy) the entire yield of a harvest. Cultivating a crop of trees that takes about five years to reach peak production, and then produces a similar yield for about 10 more years before needing to be replaced, presents a challenge all its own. And that's assuming an ideal climate—no floods, no drought.

Globally, there is a huge demand for (some say dependency on) cacao beans, which thrive in tropical climates near the equator. ("Cacao beans" refers to the raw seeds from the fruit of the cacao tree, while "cocoa beans" is how they are referred to after having been roasted.) According to the 2019 Global Market Report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the largest exports of cacao beans in 2016 came from Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria, generating a combined total of $7.2 billion. Surprisingly or not, the United States imported $1.3 billion worth of cacao, making it the third-largest importer behind the Netherlands and Germany.

Because cacao is a hand crop that relies on minimal pieces of agricultural machinery for cultivation, many concerns have ben raised around the cacao industry over the years, from farming practices to issues relating to poverty, workers' rights, gender inequality, child labor and climate change.

So, what exactly is ethical chocolate, and what can we do as consumers to stay informed and make the moral choice? We spoke with a few experts for their insights.

What is ethical chocolate?

While there is no official definition, ethical chocolate refers to how the ingredients for chocolate are sourced and produced. "Chocolate has a complex supply chain, and cacao can only grow near the equator," says Brian Chau, a food scientist, food systems analyst and founder of Chau Time.

You may be surprised to learn that 70% of the 5 million cacao-farming households around the globe receive less than $2 per day for their labor. Chau adds, "Chocolate trade is set up in mostly former colonial possessions; issues around oppression come into question."

Ethical chocolate, then, is meant to address the socioeconomic and environmental issues throughout the supply chain, including how chocolate is produced under ethical standards and where cacao farmers and laborers receive fair and sustainable wages. The term also extends to how the land is treated, as growing cacao trees could mean replacing rainforests which can cause deforestation.

How do I know if the chocolate I buy is ethical?

You may not be able to differentiate between chocolate made with or without ethically produced cacao beans. "The basic composition of raw materials will be the same," says Michael Laiskonis, a chef at the Institute of Culinary Education and operator of ICE's Chocolate Lab in New York City.

However, looking for third-party certifications, such as Fairtrade Certified, the Rainforest Alliance seal, USDA Certified Organic and Certified Vegan may help you choose chocolate sourced from ethically produced beans.

Fairtrade Certified

The Fairtrade certification stamp suggests that the lives of producers and their surrounding communities are improved by being a part of the Fairtrade system. By participating in the Fairtrade system, farmers receive higher shares of revenue based on the minimum price model, which sets the lowest level for which a cacao crop may be sold, and have more bargaining power during trade negotiations.

Rainforest Alliance seal of approval

Chocolate products that bear the Rainforest Alliance seal of approval (including an illustration of a frog) are certified to contain cacao that has been cultivated and brought to market with methods and practices that are considered by the organization to be both environmentally sustainable and humane.

USDA Organic label

Chocolate products that bear the USDA Organic seal ensure that the chocolate products have gone through the organic certification process, where cocoa farmers need to follow strict production, handling and labeling standards.

Certified Vegan

Cacao beans, by default, are a vegan product, so what does it mean when chocolate companies state on their packaging that they are a vegan product?

Because there are no U.S. government regulations or guidelines for vegetarian or vegan labeling, companies may label their product as "100% Vegan" or "No Animal Ingredients" with no restrictions. However, some chocolate products may include honey, beeswax, lanolin, carmine, pearl or silk derivatives.

Some chocolate makers, though, may have the certified vegan logo displayed on their products. Independent agencies like the Vegan Action/Vegan Awareness Foundation provide vegan certifications using internationally recognized vegan standards and guidelines to evaluate the products. Receiving the seal of approval adds a layer of confidence and trust to a brand. Still, consumers may want to do their due diligence and read ingredient lists and the company's standards to ensure that the brand is credible and trustworthy.

Potential drawbacks of certifications, seals and labels

While third-party certifications benefit farmers and producers to a certain extent, they also occasionally draw criticism from some in the industry for not going far enough to support farmers. For instance, Laiskonis says that a great deal of cacao grown by smallholder growers is organic by default. However, the hefty-priced certification process may be out of reach for these growers, preventing them from being one step closer to fair pay.

study found that Fairtrade certification successfully increased the income of coffee producers and had benefited their local community. However, unskilled workers saw no increase in their wages. There were also cases of child labor found on cocoa plantations under the Fairtrade system.

With that in mind, Tim McCollum, CEO and founder of Beyond Good, suggests, "Look beyond certifications. Understand the problems at a high level. Look for brands that are doing something different."

Laiskonis agrees, "The more visibility a [chocolate] maker provides, from sourcing to manufacturing methods, the greater the promise of a more ethical and tasty transaction."

Are there nutritional differences between ethical and conventional chocolate?

There are no differences between ethical and conventional chocolate from a nutrition standpoint. Cacao beans are naturally bitter, and chocolate producers may add sugar and milk to mask the bitterness of the beans. As a general rule of thumb, the higher the listed cocoa percentage, the lower the sugar content. Generally, milk chocolates are higher in sugar and less bitter-tasting than dark chocolates, which contain less sugar and taste more bitter.

Chocolate made with plant-based milk alternatives, such as coconut, oat and nut additives, have become increasingly popular. These ingredients may offer sweeter and creamier textures than traditional dairy-based chocolates. Laiskonis advises, "Pay attention to the ingredient statement on chocolate packaging … dairy-free bars may be manufactured on shared equipment that also processes those containing milk products."

Where can I buy ethical chocolate?

Due to the growing demand for ethical chocolate, you can now find them in your local grocery stores in addition to artisan markets and online. Food Empowerment Project has also come up with a list of dairy-free, vegan chocolate brands.

Bottom line: Should I buy ethical chocolate?

While your decision to purchase ethical or conventional chocolate is a personal choice, knowing where your favorite chocolate (and food in general) comes from makes you appreciate the farmers, the food system and the environment more, as well as reflect on the underlying socioeconomic issues.

"Understanding the journey of a cacao bean from farm to factory provides transparency, [making visible] the care and effort farmers put into growing their cacao," says Troy Pearley, executive vice president and general manager, North America, of Divine Chocolate

Matt Cross, the co-founder of Harvest Chocolate, adds, "Buying chocolate from makers who support farmers' prosperity is a good way to make a change."

Laiskonis agrees, "Seeking out responsibly produced chocolate is the best way a consumer can effect change for farmers upstream in the supply chain."