21 October 2012


Photo by author of chocolate-bar packaging, front lower portion, October 2012.
Photo by author of chocolate-bar packaging for Fearless brand, back upper portion, October 2012.
I am bitter, perhaps, but so is the chocolate. Could it be that today's chocolate is more bitter the more it's trying to do good? I'm beginning to think so. That's my (admittedly impressionistic) conclusion after (unscientifically) sampling over ten brands, what I roughly guess is just under half, of the chocolate bars lately sold at my local Whole Foods.

An admirer of good package design as much as a lover of indulgent chocolate, I found myself drawn to trying as many brands of bars as I found flavors and visuals to intrigue me. I was also tempted by the eminently Whole Foodsian prospect of reconciling my hedonism with my desire to do good. Save the world by eating the best of it? Win-win.

Almost all of the chocolate brands now available at Whole Foods have some ethical angle. And the angles are gorgeously wrapped. Since nearly all brands print company stories on the verso--a packaging quirk chocolate shares with specialty juice and water drinks--the consumer "experience" of chocolate brands has a literary layer. So much care is taken, as well, with materials that to hold the narrative tablet is as texturally thrilling as a trip to a handmade-paper boutique.

For some of the exquisitely swaddled, it's enough to be organic. However, these bars are starting to seem like dinosaurs in a market where the social causes are multiplying. I see brands that save rainforests and endangered species. Others assure me they are "fair trade." The brand I've pictured above crowdsources for its causes. Organic is merely a baseline.

Still, every such brand that I've tasted is overwhelmingly bitter. Of course, I expect dark chocolate to be more bitter than milk, and I recognize that, in recent decades, there's been a mainstreaming of this more "adult" (read: bitter) taste for dark chocolate. But these facts still beg the question of why so many do-good brands fall into the bitter camp and are intentionally more bitter than commercial brands (e.g., Dove) of dark chocolate.

I associate this bitterness with medicine. I then associate medicine with something that's not pleasant but is supposed to be good for you. Could the bitterness of so much "ethical" chocolate be engaged in a kind of moral-sensory trade off, and could it be that fans of these bars, however few there may be, want their chocolate to taste of piety?

Do the bars have a puritanical streak...on purpose? I'd like to know what do you think.