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Drinking Chocolate and Heart Health

a.i. generated image of chocolate and a heart

One of the more intriguing achievements of chocolate marketing over the last few decades is how chocolate is promoted as being a delicious treat or reward, and also one that’s healthy.

We passionately believe that upgrading to craft chocolate from sugar-filled, ultra-processed chocolate confectionery is far healthier for us all, and also far better for the planet, farmers, and makers.

But the story as to how chocolate and health (especially heart health) became so intertwined is extraordinary. Its origins lie in a 1940s study by Dr Benjamin Kean of the Kuna, a remote tribe living in Panama. Dr Kean himself life was full of adventure (read on for more).

Even though many have been extensively criticised and debunked, health claims spur interest and sales. And once these claims are made, they are really hard to debunk, and all too easy to copy.

Just make sure you read the label of chocolate bars for their ingredients and sourcing practices, but also to read the fine print of any health claims.

spoon full of sugar

Chocolate and Health

Explore our whole ‘Chocopedia’ section about the health impact of chocolate. There’s a lot to discover, and some of it may surprise you!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Kean

Dr Benjamin Kean was born in 1912 and over his eighty-one years rose through the ranks of the US Army Medical Corps and later became an eminent cardiologist and Professor of Medicine in New York.

Until recently he was best known for his (disputed) role in the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979, where his diagnosis persuaded President Carter to allow the Shah to enter the US for medical operations, and that in turn kick-started the hostage crisis. Before this, Kean was well known for his work on malaria, toxoplasmosis, and the causes of traveller’s diarrhoea (which lead to his oft-quoted advice that tourists only eat lettuce that was “sterilised with a blowtorch”). He also convinced US President Franklin Roosevelt to issue navy pilots with shark repellent by showing him shark teeth he’d extracted from US pilots who’d downed in shark-infested waters.

For chocolate, Dr Kean’s claim to fame dates back to the 1940s when he was stationed by the US Army at the Panama Canal. He discovered that the Kuna, an isolated tribe living 20 kilometres off the coast of Panama in the San Blas Archipelago, were extraordinary for their lack of “coronary diseases, stress and … [low] blood pressure”.

Although he published research in various medical journals, little was made of these discoveries until the 1990s when a Harvard professor, Dr Norman Hollenberg, stumbled across the findings. Hollenberg was looking for a genetic condition that would help explain cardiovascular problems (especially heart attacks) and he realised that the Kuna, isolated for centuries from the mainland, might provide valuable insights.

His initial findings were promising: The Kuna did enjoy extraordinary heart health. However, he also rapidly discovered that this couldn’t be entirely genetic as Kuna who moved to Panama City had all sorts of cardiovascular illnesses.

But Hollenberg also made an extraordinary discovery; as he wrote; “the relative risk of death from heart disease on the Panama mainland was 1280% higher than on the islands and death from cancer was 630% higher for … mainland Kuna“. So he started to look for alternative explanations. And he soon found one that led to a long programme of (sponsored) research: The Kuna drank HUGE amounts of chocolate!

The Kuna are exposed to more cocoa than anyone else on Earth, and they are living longer. This could reflect the exposure to flavonoid-rich cocoa, and if it does, then this is the most important observation since anaesthesia“.

This kicked off a bonanza of scientific research and journalistic articles about the benefits of cacao as “being rich in flavonoids” and therefore able “to stimulate nitric oxide production leading to vasodilation and decreased blood pressure” which in turn “led to the island Kuna’s increased life expectancy, and decreased incidence of common chronic conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer“.

Journalists, and marketing departments, lapped this up. Chocolate was touted as a superfood and a cure for heart disease, stress, and multiple other conditions.

kuna woman living in panama city
A Kuna woman, living in Panama City.

Too Good To Be True

Since the publication of Hollenberg’s work, his methodology and conclusions have come under increasing challenge. It turns out that whilst the Kuna do drink a lot of chocolate, they also eat a lot of fish and fruit (to be fair, Hollenberg did acknowledge this too).

Unfortunately, the cocoa that the Kuna were drinking at the time of Hollenberg’s work, which was supposedly so full of flavonols and epicatechins was NOT the claimed special, local superfood. Instead, it turned out that most of the local Theobroma cacao trees had been destroyed by various diseases far earlier, so they were importing processed cocoa powder from Colombia. Jeffrey Barnes’ and James Howe’s critiques of the work are excoriating and excruciating; suggesting that these studies were a case of “wishful thinking, inattention to context, and tremendous pressure for positive results“.

Too late to put the cat back in the bag?

One key learning from the Kuna for chocolate makers was that health claims about chocolate REALLY WORK. Or at least, these health claims work really well in persuading consumers to purchase.

Most chocolate is purchased ‘on impulse’, and positioning a chocolate drink or bar as “healthy” and a “superfood”, gives consumers a justification for their impulse purchase. It helps consumers feel good about their little indulgence.

How else to explain the extraordinary success (and marketing genius) of “raw” chocolate? Sold in snack-size bars in health food stores all over the country, raw chocolate has invented more and more spurious health claims as a superfood, a “gift of the gods” which is full of anti-oxidants, high in flavonoids, ORACS, etc. But no (serious) scientific study bears out any of these claims. And given that ‘raw food’ is generally defined as being capable of ‘sprouting’ and never being heated above 45 degrees, it’s hard to understand what “raw chocolate” really means. To make chocolate, you need to take cacao seeds from a pod and ferment them into cocoa beans (which can’t germinate), a process which takes them above 45 degrees. But even though the term is nonsense, and the claims bogus, raw chocolate now has an aura that helps consumers justify their impulse, snack purchases.

(Note: Having said this, unroasted bars from Raaka, and lightly roasted bars from Conexión, Forever Cacao, Minka etc. do have very distinctive flavour profiles that are worth a try!).

An Unfortunate Footnote

One other major criticism of the science is that Mars, who stepped in to sponsor many of the studies by Hollenberg and his colleagues, were extremely careful not to publicise their involvement, even in the footnotes and acknowledgements. Less surprisingly, Mars has remained absent and silent post the publication of all the debunking. The critical research has been met by a deafening silence; ‘big chocolate’ stonewalls journalists here in much the same way they kicked the can down the road with child labour and deforestation.

Alternative sugars are another case in point. For example, coconut blossom sugar is often cited as “better” than refined cane sugar as it causes lower sugar spikes. This ‘scientific’ claim was based on a study of 11 (eleven!) subjects, was sponsored by the Philippine Sugar Marketing Board, and has never been repeated… Hmm.

But it’s REALLY hard, once the health claim is made, and the cat out of the bag, to counteract and challenge. It’s especially hard when you meet with a wall of silence, as in the case of the criticisms of the earlier heart studies. Even harder as most of these studies are NOT what we really want to hear. It’d be great if drinking (or eating) chocolate really did ward off heart attacks.

To quote Tim Spector, just as you need to read the label when choosing a chocolate bar or drinking chocolate (i.e. check the ingredients, the farm where the beans are from, where the chocolate is made), you should always ask of any chocolate and health study:

  • How many people, and over what time period, was the research carried out?
  • Who paid and sponsored the study?
  • Where’s it been published?

So What’s the Bottom Line?

It’s very, very clear that ultra-processed foods, including mass produced chocolates that are full of sugar, additives and preservatives, are NOT good for you.

It’s also clear that drinking chocolate, even as much as the Kuna used to do, isn’t going to solve anyone’s hypertension or stop heart attacks.

But at the same time, drinking CRAFT chocolate should delight you, and may well calm you down. Craft drinking chocolate is all about the beans; it’s completely different from high street drinking chocolate and cocoa powders that are full of sugar and preservatives, and the little cocoa in them has been alkalinized to reduce bitterness. The theobromine in craft chocolate won’t give you the same caffeine buzz a coffee will, so for most of us, it won’t stop you from sleeping. Plus, drinking chocolate is wonderfully filling; great at any time of the day; after a walk, run, bike ride and, my personal favourite; a quick winter swim.

So give it a go!

Here are some great craft chocolate drinking options, including our newest gift set.

Just remember to read the label and read the fine print of superfood health claims.

Thanks as ever for your support.

Spencer

Further reading:

  • https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12937-019-0469-8
  • https://doi.org/10.1525/GFC.2012.12.1.43
  • https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1933171108002167
  • https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/chocolate-s-health-touters-may-have-misunderstood-local-reality-of-tribe-1.2883561
  • https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/01.HYP.29.1.171
  • https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1933171108002167
  • https://repository.si.edu/handle/10088/21854

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Black Friday and Craft Chocolate

Black Friday for retailers is a little like what the “bliss point” (an ‘optimal’ combination of sugar, salt and fat) is for snack and confectionery makers. They are both all about encouraging consumers to scoff; to purchase more and more and more! It’s hard not to resist an “unmissable discount” or “great bargain”. Just as it’s hard not to reach for a second Pringle, or scoff a Snickers.

But without wishing to be a killjoy, we’d like to argue that discounting and scoffing aren’t very good for craft chocolate. Not for craft makers or cocoa farmers. Not for the rainforest and our planet. And not for consumers either!

So we will NOT be offering you “amazing prices”, “buy-one-get-one-free”, special “never to repeated” deals, etc.

savouring versus scoffing infographic

Why Cheap Prices And Discounts Are Not Great Value

We believe that craft chocolate, with most bars at between £4 and £7 (US$5 to US$8) is already great value.

‘Value’ isn’t about getting to the lowest price. When you pay £1 for a bar of mass-produced confectionery, or even buy-one-get-one-free, there are all sorts of other costs involved; look at the chart below; cheap mass-produced chocolate can be almost as bad as processed beef for the environment!

But if you pay a fair price, chocolate becomes one of the best foods for the environment.

graph of carbon emissions of common foods and drinks

Beans and Savouring, Versus Low Cost Scoffing

Craft chocolate is all about savouring the amazing flavour of great cocoa beans. To secure these beans, craft chocolate makers (and retailers) work with farmers to find, plant, grow, harvest, ferment and dry GREAT BEANS.

The price craft chocolate makers pay for their beans is guaranteed with long-term contracts, and is two to five (or more) times the price paid for commodity beans.

In contrast, mass-produced chocolate is all about cost, consistency, and getting consumers to scoff by abusing our infatuation with foods (and drinks) containing lots of sugar, salt and fat (the ‘bliss point‘).

Discounting, Pricing, and Customer Disappointment

Mass-produced confectionery and chocolate is often an impulse or unplanned purchase. Special promotions, combined with carefully engineered positioning in stores, (at the checkout, near the counter) are key sales drivers. And these special promotions, such as ‘buy-one-get-one-free’, and ‘listings fees’ (payments for prominent shelf position positioning and vending machine slots) are built into the prices of mass-produced confectionery snacks. The price contains huge margins that pays for these things. Makers (and retailers) anticipate that they’ll make most of their sales when they go on offer, and they set their ‘regular’ prices accordingly.

Everyone loves the idea of a bargain. However, not only are these mass-produced confectionery bargains rarely great value, but they also make consumers who’ve recently bought at ‘normal’ prices feel like they’ve overpaid, and been “had”. They make consumers over-purchase too; you don’t really need that second extra supersized bar… but it’s a bargain… and when is it next going on sale?

Our Philosophy

At Cocoa Runners we try to offer great value on ALL our bars, drinking chocolates, gift boxes, and everything else! We do not sell off “special discounts”, “not-to-be-missed bargains” or specially lowered prices for Black Friday. These price games run counter to the ethos of paying farmers and makers for the great value they provide. And they run the risk of turning craft chocolate aficionados like yourselves into ‘bargain hunters’, or upset someone who has recently paid a non-discounted price.

We’d rather offer great, ongoing value. Our bars aren’t the cheapest, but almost all are under £9. Most are between £4 and £7; less than the price of many big-brand makers who don’t tell you where they make, or the farms/cooperatives where they source their beans, and whose main ingredient is all too often sugar.

Having said this, we do offer special subscriber benefits for their regular, ongoing support. We also encourage people with small ‘first-time’ discounts such as when signing up for more information. Similarly, for anyone who enjoyed one of our virtual tastings, we offer a small discount to encourage sharing the experience with friends, and welcome them to the craft chocolate revolution.

And when we run into supply chain issues (as we have done with Brexit) we also offer great value “lucky dip” boxes for bars that are short-dated. But we deliberately don’t do individual bar discounts.

So savour, don’t scoff. And focus on real value, not discounts.

Thanks as ever for your support.

Spencer

p.s. If you want to know more about the origins of the term “Black Friday”, please SEE HERE. In short: As Thanksgiving became more and more of a U.S. national holiday on the fourth Thursday of November (thanks to FDR in the 1940s), retailers saw the opportunity to have “national sales”. And by the 1960s, the traffic on the roads in Philadelphia during these Thanksgiving weekend sales was so bad that local police and bus drivers coined the phrase “Black Friday” as shorthand for the terrible traffic jams. And over the last decade, internet retailers have joined in the melee with the likes of “Cyber Monday”.

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Advent Approaches

As the nights draw in and December approaches, thoughts of Christmas and Advent can’t be far away.

This year we’re delighted to have secured a few of Casa Cacao’s 2022 advent calendars, made with their sister company, Rocambolesc.

We’ve also persuaded Mikkel Friis-Holm to part with a few of his amazing wreath-shaped advent calendars.

And of course we’ve both Zotter’s ‘Handscooped’ filled chocolate advent calendar and their ‘Labooko’ single farm/cooperative calendar.

The Origin of Advent

Although we now treat ourselves with advent calendars stuffed full of goodies, the earliest records we have of Advent comes from 5th Century France, when Perpetuus, the Bishop of Tours, directed his monks to fast three extra times per week between St Martin’s Day (11th November) and Christmas.

These extra fasts were called “Advent” based on the Latin term Adventus (which means ‘arrival’) as they marked the start of celebrations to mark Jesus’ first arrival on Earth (i.e. his birth). And by the time of Charlemagne, three hundred years later, they were celebrated throughout Europe.

Over the next few centuries, in most of Catholic and Protestant Europe, the practice of fasting during advent faded away. By contrast, Orthodox Christians often do still fast during Advent (although this fasting comprises abstaining from animal products, not giving up all eating or drinking).

Learn more about how this fasting led to chocolate’s initial spread in Europe via the Jesuits at one of our virtual tastings!

Modern Day Advent Traditions

In the 19th century, German Protestants began to mark off the days in the run-up to Christmas by burning a candle a bit each day, or by marking walls and doors with a chalk line.

Historians now generally suggest that a German, Gerhard Lang, adapted this tradition to make what we’d now recognise as an advent calendar (along with windows and doors) in the late 1900s.

As a child, Lang’s mother had helped him countdown the days to Christmas by sewing 24 cookies onto the lid of a box. Each day, he was allowed to eat a cookie: When they were all gone, he knew Christmas had arrived.

Lang took this family tradition and decided to sell them to family, friends, and neighbours; effectively launching the first ‘advent calendars’, including one version of a cardboard house with windows and doors, into which sweet treats could be placed.

However, these practises were severely challenged in World War 2, when the Nazi regime tried to replace “frivolous” religious traditions with their own ideologies. They changed the name of the season from ‘Advent’ to ‘pre-Christmas’ and replaced the calendars’ Christian imagery with nationalist symbols.

Post World War II, an enterprising German entrepreneur, Richard Selmer, reintroduced this custom when, after months of pleading, he persuaded the American occupation forces to supply him with some scarce cardboard and paper to make some advent calendars. Armed with this paper, he turned his living room into an assembly line to hand-build a series of “little town” advent calendars, resuscitating the tradition of advent calendars in West Germany.

75 years later, the company Selmer launched in his Stuttgart living room has become a hugely successful international business; in part at least via some canny influencer marketing with US presidents, starting with Eisenhower who was photographed with his grandchildren opening one such calendar.

During the 1950s, various UK companies experimented with adding chocolates to their advent calendars. Initially, these experimental products were a flop and fizzled out. However, Cadbury launched a more determined marketing effort for their first chocolate advent calendar in 1971, and by the 1990s, they had formalised an annual tradition with regular advertising, continuous production, etc.

Over the last twenty years, chocolate advent calendars have joined the ranks of mince pies, turkey, and stuffing as Christmas traditions. Indeed, eating them fast has even been accepted into the Guinness Book of World Records with Kevin Strahle holding the record for the fastest time to consume a chocolate advent calendar, at 1 minute 27.84 seconds. 

We strongly recommend that you DO NOT try to break Kevin’s record with any of our craft chocolate advent calendars: They’re designed to be savoured, not scoffed!

As ever, thanks for your support.

Spencer

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Thankful for Craft Chocolate

a.i. generated image of chocolate at thanksgiving

Having missed one Thanksgiving (see below), we really didn’t want to miss the upcoming Thanksgiving celebrations in the US, coming up in just over a fortnight, on the 24th November.

To get in the spirit of things, we’ve prepared a quiz about Thanksgiving below, and the winners will enter a draw with a chance of receiving our deluxe Thanksgiving selection box.


Thanksgiving Quiz

To win, and test your Thanksgiving knowledge, all you need to do is answer the questions below by completing our Google Form quiz by midnight on 11th November.

Almost all the answers can be found somewhere on our website, in previous blogposts and articles.


As ever, thanks for your support. And if you’d like to help other people give thanks too, please don’t forget our Stranger Box, supporting Ukraine. We’ve already raised over £500 for their chosen charity (The Prytula Foundation), so please do continue to purchase these great gifts!

Spencer

P.S. The UK also used to celebrate November 5th (Bonfire Night) as a day of “Thanksgiving”; giving thanks for the failure of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot. Hat tip to The Rest is History Podcast for this insight!

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The Power of a Pinch of Salt

spoonful of salt

Most of us know that adding salt to soup, a main course, or even some bread and butter, somehow makes the food “pop”, bringing out flavours, tastes, and more.

And it’s not just savoury foods that benefit from a pinch of salt.

Salt works miracles with chocolate! Many coffee aficionados will add a pinch to their coffee filters, and similarly, many pastry chefs add a pinch of salt to their croissants and pies.

Some Science

Hervé This, the famous French chemist and chef behind ‘modernist cuisine’, extensively researched how salt works these miracles. Along with a team of psychophysiologists at the Monell Institute, he carried out a series of experiments to test how the addition of different salt, sugars, and acids to various foods and drinks impacted people’s perceptions of taste and flavour. And the results were somewhat unexpected:

  1. Salt masks bitterness even better than sugar in many cases (including with chocolate).
  2. It also masks sour and acid tastes across foods, from meat to vegetables, and fruit to coffee.
  3. As well as masking these “unpleasant” tastes, salt also “intensifies agreeable tastes” including sweetness.
  4. Finally, salt also enhances various flavours (note: ‘Flavour’ is complex, involving our sense of smell, ‘taste’ is from biochemical receptors in our mouths (and elsewhere)).

Hervé This has also carried out a tonne of other experiments with salt. For example, he worked out that if you want to use salt to add “crunchiness” to a dish, you should fry the it in some oil. Adding salt directly to meat will cause the salt to dissolve, drying the meat, but coating it in oil adds crunch.

However, This is also remarkably candid in admitting that much more work is needed, specifically on how salt “softens” bitterness and “transforms” flavours.

“It is not yet known how the stimulation of taste receptors produces these effects, but we do now know why salt free diets make us wince”.

If you’d like to do some personal research, we’ve assembled a bunch of bars that really show how a small pinch of salt can provide an intriguing twist to dark, milk, and filled craft chocolates:

taste interaction diagram

An Aside on Liquorice

Omnom craft a range of amazing single farm/cooperative milk and dark chocolate bars, along with extraordinary flavoured bars; everything from ‘cookies and cream‘ to ‘blackened barley‘. But their best selling bar remains their ‘salted liquorice‘ bar.

Salted liquorice is a Scandinavian and Nordic delight that divides people as Marmite does here in the UK; “you either love it or you hate it”.

Salted liquorice also showcases the peculiarity of one type of salt, ‘salmiak salt’ (technicaly salammoniac; ammonium chloride). Salmiak salt works like cocoa, coffee, or wine tannins, causing astringency; that feeling of dryness in your mouth. It also works as an expectorant, and may even have some antibacterial properties: Being slightly acidic, it reacts with alkalines in your saliva, releasing ammonium from the salt, which acts as a disinfectant). It’s these properties that are thought to have given rise to salty liquorice’s use as a medicine.

Salty liquorice is very much an acquired taste. In The Netherlands, Northern Germany, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland, everyone grows up with it. However, for those trying it for the first time, it can be confusing: The smells of salty liquorice are normally associated with sweet tastes and flavours, but it’s taste is very different; sharp, bitter, tangy, and astringent. If you aren’t prepared for this, the discordance is so strong that many people want to spit it out!

Iceland’s Omnom and Sweden’s Standout both make distinctive salted liquorice bars. The chocolate in them provides a smooth mouthfeel, and the flavours provide a gentle entrance to the wonders of craft chocolate combined with salty liquorice.

Thanks again for your support for Ukrainian maker Stranger last week. We’ve already raised over £500 for their chosen charity (The Prytula Foundation), so please do continue to purchase these great gifts!

And don’t forget to order some Halloween treats! Please purchase ASAP given next week’s postal strikes in the UK.

A Final Quote

Over the last few weeks we’ve had two departing British Prime Ministers quote Roman senators in their leaving speeches (Boris Johnson quoted Cincinattus, Liz Truss quoted Seneca). So we thought we’d quote Cicero as you savour your bars enhanced with some salt:

“Trust no one unless you have eaten much salt with them”

Savour these bars, share them with friends, family, or colleagues, ponder the miracle of salt; and help save the planet!

Thanks for your support.

Spencer

p.s. Hervé This didn’t just research salt; he also worked out how to create the most amazing chocolate mousse by just adding water. For more on this, and a demonstration of how you can do this at home, with just some of our 63% Menakao cooking chocolate and some ice cubes, Click HERE.

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Craft Chocolate from Ukraine: Introducing Stranger Chocolate

stranger chocolate banner

One of our mantras at Cocoa Runners is that “craft chocolate tastes better, it’s better for you, it’s better for the farmers, and it’s better for the planet“.

But it’s also a great way to explore the world. And this week we are delighted, and humbled, to be launching our first Ukrainian chocolate maker; ‘Stranger‘, the creation of Tetyana and Ruslan, and their children Anya and Matvii.

Stranger was started in late 2016 by accident. Tetyana and Ruslan are professional designers, and when they tried to help their daughter on a university project they ended up reverse engineering not just the design but the very way that chocolate is crafted. They realised that if they roasted their own cocoa beans, as opposed to merely repackaging cocoa mass with lots of sugar and additives, they could create chocolate that tasted far better. In their own words:

“Our mission is to make a quality and tasty product from cocoa beans. We want to enjoy the taste of cocoa beans from different parts of our Earth. It is important for us that slave and child labor is not used in the process of growing and harvesting cocoa. The conditions for growing and caring for cocoa are also very important to us”.

What’s really extraordinary is that Tetyana and Ruslan are continuing to craft (and even winning awards for) their bars in, to put it mildly, challenging circumstances! Somehow they are still able to import beans, run their small factory, and find a way to deliver their bars to us here in the UK, despite the appalling war in Ukraine.

They are also sending bars to Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines, which adds poignancy to these bars.

ruslan and tetyana receiving stranger chocolate's awards

We’ve managed to import a small number of their 70% 50g bars from four regions – and they provide a great way to delight in very different and distinct origins:

We also have a small number of their 100% Öko Caribe bars, which really are fantastically long, with no harsh astringent notes.

So if you want to celebrate some bars that don’t just taste great, but show some real dedication and have a real sense of history, please join us in supporting Tetyana and Raslan.

We’ve also assembled a gift box where we’ve added a £5 donation from you, that we will also match, to support a charity selected by Tetyana and Raslan.

For every box you purchase, we’ll send £10 to a charity, supporting the Ukrainian people and army. The charity set up by well-known Ukrainian TV presenter and comedian, Serhiy Dmytrovych Prytula; The Prytula Foundation.

And I’d like to leave the final words to Stranger themselves:

“We really need peace in our country and victory. Wherever the war is, it is very scary. Now, in the times of development of the whole world, it is not clear how this could happen. Why are people and many children dying? It is very scary and very sad.

We are very grateful to everyone who supports Ukraine! Truth and goodness are on our side. And that’s the main thing. Let’s stand up and win!”

Thanks for your support.

Spencer

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Avoiding Waste and Saving Water with Craft Chocolate

Despite spending more on chocolate than published books and recorded music (per capita per annum in the UK), we don’t think much about it.

But chocolate is full of surprises. Indeed, it’s a great lens to explore everything from how to minimise food waste to stopping desertification.

Which of the following requires the most water?

  • Avocado?
  • Banana?
  • Snack bag of almonds (25g)?
  • Glass of milk?
  • Cheese sandwich (125g of cheese)?
  • Chocolate bar?

Thanks to some tools developed by Arjen Hoekstra and his Dutch NGO, ‘The Water FootPrint‘, it’s relatively simple to work these out. And it’s fairly eye opening…

graph of the water footprint of common foods and drinks

To grow cocoa, the tree Theobroma cacao, needs a huge amount of water! But before everyone heads for the exit and vows to give up chocolate, it’s worth looking at another chart:

graph of carbon emissions of common foods and drinks

Chocolate has an extraordinary range of environmental impact… so choose wisely!

Cacao flourishes with rainforest diversity, playing a key role in ‘agroforestry’. Forest canopy provides the shade that Theobroma cacao requires to thrive, and habitat for the pollinators that allow cocoa pods to grow. Agroforestry also reduces the spread of disease and pests, whilst also enhancing soil fertility.

Cacao farming could, and should, be a win-win; it’s why craft chocolate is superior to its mass-produced, commodity equivalent. It not only tastes better, it can stop desertification and deforestation. And it’s better for you, and for farmers.

Chocolate’s Environmental Footprint

Unfortunately, cocoa farmer poverty in West Africa, and a desire to grow high yielding cocoa varieties (like CCN51 in South America) has led to the destruction of rainforests.

For example: Cote D’Ivoire’s forest cover decline from over 30% in 1990 to less than 3% today!

And so rather than water being recycled, as happens naturally in cacao agroforests, water is pulled out of aquifers, increasing droughts and even desertification.

before and after maps of deforestation in ivory coast

An Alternative Approach

The good news is that craft chocolate makers are well aware of all this danger.

They work with farmers and co-operatives to preserve and protect the rainforest. Indeed the likes of Original Beans, Moka, Chocolarder and Conexión offer schemes whereby they plant forest every time they sell a bar!

“Canary in the Coalmine”

Cacao trees are very thirsty for water, but therefore also highly sensitive to drought and climate change, creating a “doom loop”.

During the 2015/16 El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), apart from floods and droughts, Brazilian scientists were horrified to discover a spike in cocoa tree mortality (over 15% year-on-year), a massive decrease in cocoa yield (down by 89%), and a huge increase in the spread of the fungal disease ‘witches’ broom’. They found that these catastrophes were compounded by the loss of forest canopy and diversity in Brazilian “cabrucas” (the traditional cocoa farms) in Bahia, a leading cocoa growing area. The same effects were also seen in Sulawesi, Indonesia during the same season.

Ominously; researchers suggest that cocoa growing regions “could be the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ warning of forthcoming major drought effects”.

Solutions and Approaches

The jury is still out on the many supposedly disease resistant and faster growing hybrids like CCN51, CC81, etc. Though hyped, their attributes are challenged by various studies, and even farmers themselves.

What’s clear though is that programmes to plant these through slash-and-burn agriculture, and monoculture, has led to deforestation, biodiversity loss, and pressure on already strained water levels.

Despite these challenges, ‘big chocolate’ is doubling down on plant breeding programmes: Cocoa geneticists are now trying to engineer cocoa varietals and root stocks that need less water. If they succeed, these new hybrids will (like other GM crops) lead to great sales for the companies who have engineered these “miracles”.

But they don’t address the fundamental ‘problem’; that we need the rainforest. We need its canopy and its diversity, and we can’t carry on pulling water out of the aquifers without creating more deserts and more droughts.

Theobroma cacao comes from the rainforest. It’s evolved to thrive in the humidity and rainfall of tropical forest. It needs the rainforest. And in turn, it helps nourish the rainforest.

cacao sapling inspection by original beans

Another Means to End Waste

Another great environmental calculator is found in Professor Sarah Bridle’s work on food emissions.

Part of the power and impact from Professor’s Bridle’s work comes from her unique background: Prior to being Professor of Food, Climate and Society at York University, Sarah Bridle was Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy and Cosmology at Manchester. She’s used her skills as mathematician and statistician to do an extraordinary job illustrating how small changes can make a massive difference.

She explains that the average person in the UK generates 6kgs of greenhouse gases every day; the equivalent of 238 party balloons of gas (as much as would fill a small car). She illustrates the typical breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, showing the consequences of our eating habits, and explaining the impact of actions like going vegan or even adding less milk to your tea. She even compares using a microwave to boiling a kettle.

As is to be expected, mass produced chocolate doesn’t come out very well here! On a par with eggs for the average Briton (about 5 party balloons of greenhouse gases per person per day).

But what comes out even worse is food waste. Most of this is made at home, and accounts for 1kg of our 6kgs (or 43 of our 238 party balloons) of greenhouse gas emissions per day.

Professor Bridle does a great job of explaining why, and how, food home waste is so pernicious: Bottom line, it’s not just the wastage, but also the way that the wate is disposed of; landfill. In landfill, the issue is how methane gas is created, and for how long it disperses (at least 20 years).

Bottom line: Avoiding food waste is a critical action, up there with air miles in terms of impact.

A Mea Culpa

We are still struggling with some of the supply chain challenges caused by Brexit and covid.

We specifically had issues importing internationally last year. In many cases, we had orders sitting in warehouses waiting for containers to ship for 3 months! 6 months in a couple of cases!

This means that we’ve now a significant number of great bars that are unfortunately ‘short dated’. And we really, REALLY, don’t want to dispose of them!

We’ll send many to food banks and our ‘Chocs for Docs’ programme. But we’re also making up more ‘lucky dip boxes‘ with bars close to their best-before and use-by dates. It would help us, and the environment, if you’d purchase these boxes.

Don’t let them go to waste. Even though the water’s been recycled, it would be shame to not have the flavours savoured.

To give you some encouragement, we’re also offering a limited-time-only 10% discount offer.

We also still have excess stock of this amazing dark milk chocolate from Luisa Abram. Made from wild cacao, grown on the banks of the Tocantins River in the Amazon, combined with rich creamy milk from Jersey cows, this bar is delicious and indulgent.

It has a ‘short’ expiration date, so to help us avoid wasting any, we’re offering to you at a 30% discount (while stocks last).

Thanks, as ever, for your support.

Spencer

p.s. Next week I’ll be participating in the Chocolate e Cacao Festival in Porto, Portugal. If you’re able to travel, or if you’re already there, it would be lovely to meet you in person!

p.p.s Congratulations to Pump Street Chocolate for winning ‘Best Producer’ at The Observer Food Monthly 2022 Awards!

pump street being awarded best producer at the observer food monthly awards
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Craft Chocolate for Less, With ‘Lucky Dip’ Boxes

The ups-and-downs of international chocolate shipping have left us with some extra stock which is “short-dated”. Rather than let it go to waste, we’d like to offer it to you at a discounted rate.

Each of the boxes below contains a selection of these chocolates, but each box will be different! Our ‘luck dip boxes‘ have been really popular in the past, check out which one suits you below!

For a limited time, we’re offering these boxes at a 10% discount!


There’s nothing in dark chocolate which ‘goes off’. They don’t have a ‘use by’ date; but legally all chocolate bars (and pretty much any food) has to have an arbitrary ‘best before date’, and the bars in this box are past theirs.

As milk chocolate contains ingredients which can go off, they must include a ‘use by’ date; all the chocolate in this box is getting close to its use by date and so will need to be eaten quickly!

Use the coupon code LUCKYDIP10 at checkout!


We also have excess stock of this amazing dark milk chocolate from Luisa Abram. Made from wild cacao, grown on the banks of the Tocantins River in the Amazon, combined with rich creamy milk from Jersey cows, this bar is delicious and indulgent.

To help us avoid wasting any, we’re offering to you at a 30% discount (while stocks last).

Use the coupon code BRAZIL30 at checkout!


We know that you love craft chocolate; it’s better for people and the planet, and it tastes better too!

We hope you’ll enjoy these selections even more knowing that you’re also helping to prevent food waste, and getting a bit of a bargain too!

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Trick or Treat!? Halloween is Coming!

halloween pumpkin jack-o-lanterns

What is associated with the colour orange (and increasingly black, purple, and even green), celebrated on 31st October, emerged out of “guising”, “mumming”, and “souling”, is second only to Christmas as a commercial holiday ($6bn spent in the US alone), and one where over 20% of millennials are now dressing up pets in costumes?

The answer is, of course; Halloween!

We know Halloween isn’t for a few weeks, but given there’s some Royal Mail strike action planned soon here in the UK, we encourage you to plan ahead; to make sure you order in plenty of time before the big spooky day!

Try as we might; it’s not easy to find links between craft chocolate and Halloween. Nonetheless, as a treat we’ve assembled two great gift boxes; sets of bars that are coloured, orange, black or purple.

Even though we’ve not found links between craft chocolate and Halloween, we’ve had some fun researching its history and traditions for you to contemplate as you savour these bars.

  • Why is Halloween associated with the colours orange, black and purple?
  • When and where did the word “Halloween” come from?
  • Why do we “trick or treat” on Halloween?

Any which way, we hope you enjoy our range of Halloween inspired craft chocolate treats!

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A tax that we DO want!

a.i. generated image of drowning in sugar

We can all think of those treats that are “naughty but nice”; like ice cream, crisps, fizzy drinks, and, of course, chocolate.

We can also all think of a few times when we’ve been told “don’t eat this”, “don’t eat that”.

But there comes a point when we might want to ask a few questions about WHY we shouldn’t eat those treats that are “naughty but nice”… And why we should tax the sugar in them.

Apologies for the length today, but it’s a complex topic. What follows are some criticisms of the (ab)use of sugar in mass produced, ultra processed chocolate, and of the UK Government’s plans to roll back measures to discourage promotion of products “high in fats, sugars and salts” (HFSS for short). Cutting taxes on sugar is a false economy: This is a tax we NEED.

And also please see below and HERE for some new bars from Marou that are GREAT for snacking, and some other craft chocolate bars that are transparent about their sugar.

Let’s start with a couple of questions:

What proportion does sugar make up of the following products: Mars Bar, Tony’s Chocolonely Milk Chocolate, Dairy Milk, Flake, Aero, and Crunchie?

  1. Over 20%
  2. Over 30%
  3. Over 40%
  4. Over 50%

What proportion of the retail price, does sugar make up of each of these products?

  1. Over 10% of the RRP
  2. Between 5% and 10% of the RRP
  3. Between 3% and 5% of the RRP
  4. Under 3% of the RRP

If you chose option 4 for both questions; well done!

For many mass produced, ultra processed chocolate ‘snacks’ the primary ingredient (comprising over 50% in many cases) is sugar. And the cost of this sugar is pennies.

The History of Sugar (Ab)Uses

For most of history, until about 200 years ago, sugar was rarely added to our food. Historically, it was expensive and rare. And when it was added, it was added for a combination of medicinal reasons, ‘showing off’, and (as with craft chocolate) to enhance flavour.

Sugar is a relatively recent addition to our diet here in the UK. Chaucer barely mentions sugar, but by the time of Shakespeare it’s starting to make more frequent appearances and Elizabeth I was infamous for her black teeth; blamed on her sweet tooth. A century after Shakespeare, Britons were still consuming less than 2kg per capita per annum, and even though by 1800 this had grown to over 8kg pca, it was still a relative rarity and not ‘mass market’.

However, new sugar farming practices (aka slavery) led to cheap sugar, and it’s appearance on every table; added to tea, porridge, and jams by all classes. By 1900 Great Britian led the world in sugar consumption; hitting 40kg pca, with every house having sugar bowls at every meal. Since then, sugar bowls have become more of a quaint anachronism, and most of our sugar consumption is via foods and drinks that are designed around sugar. We now consume sugar as an additive and preservative in everything from snacks to bread, yogurts to energy drinks, and hamburgers to breakfast cereal. The UK now ranks 9th in sugar consumption per capita, where we each consume almost 100g of sugar per day; so around 35kgs pca.

Sugar’s ‘success’ is not just because we like ‘sweet stuff’. Sugar is also an amazing preservative and stabiliser (that’s why often 5-7 teaspoons can be in a single low fat yoghurt). It’s also now cheap to create, and sugar farming also receives huge government subsidies. It’s a cornerstone of what food scientists call “the bliss point”; that combination of sugar, salt, and fat which lies behind the ultra processed food nightmare of ’empty calories. And in the last few decades, sugar has also been lauded as a “green” alternative to fossil fuels in cars (although the jury is clearly still out on this).

A Wake Up Call

Over the last few decades, sugar has increasingly been vilified as a cause of bulging waistlines, skyrocketing rates of diabetes, dental decay, childhood attention disorders, acne, depression, and a host of other ailments.

And governments in Latin America, the UK, the EU, and parts of the US (e.g., New York) have grown more and more concerned.

Various so-called “sugar taxes” have been introduced to curb sales and encourage ‘reformulation’. In parallel, steps have been taken to restrict the more egregious sales and marketing initiatives of products that contain excessive amounts of sugar, especially fizzy drinks aimed at children.

For example, the UK successfully banned the use of vending machines that sold fizzy drinks and soda in schools in the early 2000s.

Then, in 2016, the UK announced that from 2018 the introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (known as SDIL) “reduce childhood obesity by removing added sugar from soft drinks”. This sugar levy introduced newed taxes that applied to sugary drinks with more than 5g and 8g per 100ml (to put this in plain English; a ‘normal’ cup of tea is 150ml, so you’d need to be putting in two or three full teaspoons of sugar to hit these two points).

The fizzy drinks makers tried to argue that this was a restriction of consumer choice, the thin edge of the wedge where a nanny state would control what we could eat etc. etc. And lots of reports were commissioned to show that jobs would be lost, companies bankrupted etc.

But the government persevered, and the sugar levy / SDIL has been spectacularly successful. A recent report from the LSE calculates that the SDIL “delivered a large, 6,500 calorie reduction per UK resident per annum”.

Even more impressively, this benefit started even before the tax was introduced, as makers reformulated their products. To quote from the LSE study “more than 80% of the overall levy-induced calorie reductions were due to reformulation”. The fizzy drinks that weren’t reformulated experienced a decline in overall sales, but these declines were in ‘large format’ or ‘take home’ bottles. ‘On the go’ purchases of these drinks continued to grow DESPITE the increase in prices of these unreformed products.

The Follow Up

Following the success of the sugar levy, the UK Government passed new legislation further targeting the sales of products high in fats, salts, or sugars (so called “HFSS products”).

On the one hand this legislation is quite complex in terms of how it’s calculated, and to whom it applies. For example, as we at Cocoa Runners just sell chocolate, we are exempt from its restrictions on our website. However, because the regulations will apply to many of the other places where we wholesale our makers’ bars, we’ve had to work hard to figure out the various HFSS scores.

On the other hand, it’s VERY clear what the HFSS law is trying to do: It’s trying to stop devastatingly powerful impulse promotions and sales. To quote the Government’s own website, it’s targeting the likes of “buy one get one free” offers for sugary snacks, and the placement of HFSS products in the checkout aisle.

Until recently, this legislation was set to become law, despite the wails of complaints from ultra processed snack and confectionery companies, and various legal challenges (breakfast cereal companies tried to argue that as their product was consumed with milk they should be exempt, even though sugar is very often their primary ingredient!).

Now it looks like HFSS may well be scrapped, sacrificed on the altar as part of the new UK Government’s desire to do  more “tax cutting” and “business simplification”.

A Mis-Step?

Rolling back the sugar levies (like the SDIL) and more recent proposals against impulse sales (like the HFSS) seems like a backward step.

The (ab)use of sugar in mass market confectionery is not good for consumers and not good for the nation’s coffers.

Sugar may well help make ultra processed snacks and confectionery cheaper. It’s clearly a LOT cheaper than chocolate (sugar is roughly a quarter of the price of commodity cocoa, and often less than 10% of the cost of the cocoa beans used in craft chocolate).

But adding sugar is penny wise, pound foolish. Sugar based snacks are a false economy for the consumer and for the taxpayer.

Adding lots of sugar to mass produced chocolate bars and snacks (and fizzy drinks, breakfast cereals, etc.) encourages scoffing. Sugar is addictive, especially when combined with salt and fat (the so called “bliss point”).  Sugar isn’t nutritious. Excessive sugar in any product is a warning sign of so-called “empty calories”. It’s cheap but really bad value.

Consuming products laced with sugar leads to all sorts of other ‘costs’; both financial and physical. For example, it’s pretty rare these days to find a dentist who disputes that consumption of sugar drinks and foods is dreadful for your teeth, and leads to all sorts of costs down the line. Simiarly, it’s hard to find many doctors or nutritionists who don’t beleive that sugar has a major role in the current obesity epidemic we are facing, and the attendant health costs. (Note: This is not to say that sugar is the only, or even that it may be the primary cause here; but it’s increasingly hard to believe that it’s not a MAJOR part of the problem).

If there is to be any rethinking here, shouldn’t the success of the simple sugar levy (the SDIL) approach teach us some lessons? Why not introduce more simple sugar taxes across more than drinks, modelled on the way that alcohol is taxed (i.e. with different bands depending on how much sugar is in the product)? These are easy to apply. They are easy to monitor. We’ve already seen that they work in getting companies to slash the amount of sugar they (ab)use.

The worst that can happen is more taxes (ideally that are paid directly to the NHS or more childhood obesity programmes) and/or that less sugar is added to mass produced, ultra processed foods, and/or consumers buy less of these excessively sugar laden products.

A Final Argument Against Sugar

To date most of the arguments for sugar taxes, levies etc. have been based on preventing obesity, health problems etc., especially amongst children who aren’t aware of the sophisticated marketing that is being aimed at them.

But it’s also worth remembering that sugar has an appalling human rights record and an equally devastating environmental impact. Like ‘big chocolate’, ‘big sugar’ too has a record of using child and indentured/slave labour. Workers are paid far, far less than they need to live on, and work in appalling conditions.

The way sugar is farmed can have devastating environmental costs (this is true for both sugar beet and sugar cane). Similarly, much of the corn being grown to be ultra processed into sugars, like high fructose corn syrup, are also disastrous for the planet.

Back to Chocolate

Since the 1990s, when the BBC “exposed” the use of child slave labour on cocoa farms, the appalling conditions of workers, including children, in growing and harvesting West African cocoa has received more and more attention. Although Harkin Engel sadly never passed, pressure has continued. Journalists like Channel 4’s Dispatches and activists like Ayn Riggs and Miki Mistrati, continue to keep up the pressure.

Craft chocolate’s vision is to create bars that don’t just taste better and are better for you, but also to work with farmers so that they are appropriately compensated, and that they look after the environment.

Mass produced chocolate is also starting to get the message. In particular, Tony’s from the Netherlands have done a bang up job raising the issue of child labour, making it a key part of their sales pitch. But given that in almost all of Tony’s bars the primary ingredient, often over 50% of the total weight of the bar, is sugar (not cocoa) their approach to this sugar seems odd and nonchalant. To quote their website “sugar happens to be an inconvenient ingredient”, and they then have a detailed PowerPoint explaining why sugar is in chocolate, and that this isn’t “ideal”. To be fair, they do come out in favour of a sugar tax too. But given their main marketing thrust is a campaign against child and slave labour, shouldn’t the condition of sugar workers, who supply the major ingredients in most of their bars, deserve a little more attention and transparency?

Transparency Going Forward

Craft chocolate makers often use sugar. Indeed for almost all dark and dark milk chocolate bars, sugar is the second largest ingredient by volume.

But craft chocolate makers add sugar to bring out the flavour of their beans (and reduce its astringency). Sugar is not abused as part of the “bliss point” tool to make you scoff. Indeed craft chocolate makers don’t want you to scoff their bars even though this probably would help their sales! They want you to savour and appreciate all the flavour nuances of their cocoa beans and bars.

And craft chocolate makers are very aware of the social and environmental horrors involved in mass refined sugar. For more on this, please see the excellent blog posts by Zotter, Chocolarder, and Original Beans, to name just a few. And try some of their bars below.

As part of our effort to encourage transparency, we are also about to start listing not just where the beans from where all the bars we sell are grown, but also the origin of the sugars being used by our makers. Watch this space!

And write to your MP (or congressperson etc.): Ask them to raise the tax on sugar in ultraprocessed foods and drinks. It’ll save all of us money, our waistlines and our planet.

As ever, thanks for your support.

Spencer

Further Reading:

https://www.zotter.at/blog/die-suesse-revolution-oder-wie-traeume-wahr-werden

https://tonyschocolonely.com/int/en/our-story/news/facing-up-to-an-inconvenient-truth-were-part-of-the-sugar-problem

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/soft-drinks-levy/

https://www.vice.com/en/article/53jj7z/how-a-gin-craze-nearly-destroyed-18th-century-london

https://www.ragus.co.uk/how-has-brexit-impacted-the-uk-sugar-industry/

https://foodresearch.org.uk/foodthinkers/sugar-politics-ben-richardson/

https://foodresearch.org.uk/publications/sugar-brexit-supply-side/

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/restricting-promotions-of-products-high-in-fat-sugar-or-salt-by-location-and-by-volume-price/restricting-promotions-of-products-high-in-fat-sugar-or-salt-by-location-and-by-volume-price-implementation-guidance