The month of April once marked an annual festival including ritual sacrifice to honor the cacao god, Ek Chuah. According to mythology, a Plumed Serpent gifted cacao to the Maya people after humans were created from maize by the divine grandmother goddess Xmucane. The Latin name Theobroma cacao literally means ‘food of the gods’, and the tree was a bridge between heaven and earth. Its beans were so valuable that they constituted a major currency system in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations. With international production now in the millions of tons, it could be said that cacao worship has become a global phenomenon. There are few foods as exalted as the confection derived from this sacred plant, known and loved today as chocolate.
Coincidentally, our contemporary consumption of cacao skyrockets in April with Easter accounting for 30% of annual sales. Chocolate has nothing to do with Christianity of course – its popularity only arose after Spanish colonizers introduced to the bean as a beverage had turned it into a fashionable drink for rich 17th century Europeans through the addition of sweeteners. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first solid bar was created. Boxed candy marketed by a little company called Cadbury soon followed, leading to the first dark chocolate ‘eggs’. Nestle pioneered milk chocolate just a few years later – a variation that has dominated the Easter market ever since.
The reality that a ubiquitous treat so freely associated with the joys of childhood remains connected to such egregious human rights violations in the 21st century must seem unfathomable to the vast majority of consumers. But at least 70% of cacao is still harvested in West Africa where the impoverishment of farmers has resulted in children being subjected to daily hazards and horrific treatment.
An estimated 1.8 million are at risk of falling under the worst forms of child labor conditions set by the UN, including trafficking as slaves. The growing demand for chocolate hasn’t helped. Some critics have claimed in recent years that even ‘green seal’ certification schemes aimed at fostering sustainable production haven’t been tough enough to change an industry still rife with “blood chocolate” and are “a cheap way to tap into the ethical consumer market without a substantial change in business practices.”
The Food Empowerment Project (FEP) is one social justice organization determined to hold industry accountable. It is helping a whole new generation of chocolate lovers cut both human and non-human animal cruelty out of their supply chain by maintaining lists of vegan chocolate recommended (or not) based on the origin of the beans involved: foodispower.org/chocolate-list/ As founder lauren Ornelas reminds us chocolate is a luxury item, not a necessity like fruits and vegetables. We can refuse to enable the big players still tied to West African cacao like Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle and support producers instead who are committed to full transparency, a decent wage for farm workers and protection from exposure to toxic chemicals and other dangers.
Denman Island Chocolate is recommended by FEP, and this highly successful local business is celebrating its 20thanniversary this year. Ruth and Dan Terry were passionate about helping grow the organic food movement when they started the very first organic chocolate company in Canada. Today Denman Island Chocolate can be found in retail outlets all across the country and in numerous locations south of the border. Sadly, Ruth passed away in 2004, but Dan has traveled the world searching out the very best edibles to include in the expanded product line he and Ruth co-created. It bears noting that some Fair Trade stand-alone labeling can be misleading – both Terry and FEP consider it inadequate. Denman Island Chocolate only involves beans sourced in Latin America, and they are certified organic as well as Fair Trade. (FEP concurs that neither slavery nor child labour have been documented on cocoa farms in the region, making them a much safer bet than the notorious Ivory Coast when it comes to fair farming practises.) Every single ingredient in all ten varieties of Denman Island Chocolate is in fact certified organic!
The sugar, vegetable oils, artificial flavors, milk and other fillers added to conventional chocolate are all cheaper than cacao. Denman Island Chocolate and similar quality products have a much higher cocoa mass – you get what you pay for. Ever committed to environmental stewardship, Terry also eschews the use of palm oil. And he continues to donate a percentage of his company’s annual gross income to vital conservation causes. Last year he introduced the ‘Grizzly Bar’ – a wildly successful fundraising initiative in support of Coastal First Nations and the Rainforest Conservation Society‘s efforts to help protect the grizzly in the Great Bear Rainforest. What a bonus that commitment to positive change in the world also just so happens to taste delicious!
Fireweed’s Classic Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies
- 7 T. palm oil free vegan butter + 1 T. olive oil (or 1/2 C. vegan butter for a softer cookie)
- 1/2 C. organic sucanat or other brown sugar
- 1/4 C. cane sugar
- 1 flax egg: (1 T. ground flax seed mixed with 3 T. water)
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 C. whole wheat pastry flour
- 3/4 C. all-purpose flour
- 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 cup organic dark chocolate chips (Cocoa Camino is also FEP recommended… fair trade, organic and vegan-friendly!)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Mix flax egg, set aside. With a mixer beat the vegan butter until fluffy, add sugars and beat again until creamy. Beat in the flax egg, followed by the remaining ingredients, but fold in your fair trade organic chocolate chips. Position parchment paper on baking sheet. Form individual balls of dough and press down gently on paper. Bake for 10-12 mins. Let cool on cookie sheet for 5 mins. before moving to cooling rack. Bon appetit!