“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”  Charles M. Schulz

Chocolate is undeniably one of the world’s most coveted desserts. A staple during holidays like Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Mother’s Day, chocolate is nearly ubiquitous in many places around the globe.  

And yet, although today chocolate products can be found on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus, few people understand exactly what chocolate is or where it comes from. The truth (although visions of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory may come to mind) is that underneath your favorite colorful packaging lies a fascinating ingredient from the planet’s rich equatorial regions: cacao.

Raw cacao is made from the ground seeds of the cacao tree. Rounded in shape and covered in a protective white slime, cacao seeds are encased inside brightly colored, roughly football-sized pods that grow from the trees’ lower branches. Native to Ecuador, cacao is successfully shade-grown and easily integrated into agroforestry systems alongside products like banana, balsam, and cedar. 

After the cacao seeds are harvested and removed from the pods, they are fermented, dried, ground, and successively heated and cooled: a process that ultimately produces a smooth, rich, and bitter product high in antioxidants. Combined with sugar, milk, and other ingredients (peppermint oil, emulsifiers, etc.), cacao is the centerpiece of nearly all the amazing “chocolate” products we know and love today.

 

Cacao Production & Climate Change

As the global demand for chocolate has increased, cacao plantations have sprung up around the world–often with deleterious social and environmental consequences. However, cacao actually grows best as part of a larger forest ecosystem. By planting a variety of species together in biodiverse agroforestry systems, cacao producers can diversify their income, improve soil fertility, generate habitat for a variety of flora and fauna, create biological corridors between natural preserves and wilderness areas, reduce the use of agricultural chemicals, and sequester nearly twice the amount of carbon that monoculture orchards can.

By supporting local, small-scale producers and indigenous people who have been the traditional cultivators of shade-grown cacao, consumers can infuse important funds into rural communities, incentivize forest conservation, stop the advancement of conventional agriculture and logging, and help support carbon sequestration. 

 

4 Chocolate Brands Changing the World

Are you ready to invest in chocolate that’s good for both you and the planet? Here are our some of our favorite chocolate brands committed to rural communities, invested in product quality, and dedicated to the global advancement of soil health:

1. Loving Earth!

Loving Earth is an Australian based chocolate company best known for its chocolate products, including mint, salted, caramel, and raspberry chocolate bars. 

Loving Earth actively seeks out ingredients that are grown in a way that protects and restores land. The brand strives to purchase ingredients that support local communities, traditional livelihoods, and distinct cultures. Overtime, Loving Earth has slowly built mutually beneficial relationships with people around the world, providing producers with a reliable income, above Fair Trade prices, and ample incentives and resources to invest in the long-term health and resiliency of the land. 

Loving Earth (in collaboration with the Rainforest Alliance in the UK) has slowly expanded its procurement of cacao from the Ashaninka, an indigenous community in the Amazonian region of Peru. Loving Earth pays the Ashaninka harvesters $5 a kilo for their heirloom, wild-harvested cacao (approximately $1.50 above Fair Trade prices), and guarantees the community’s entire yearly harvest.

Organized as a co-op, the Ashaninka cacao harvesters are in turn able to use what they earn from Loving Earth to support their families, protect the forest, and invest in the community. By guaranteeing the group’s yearly harvest, Loving Earth’s relationship with the Ashaninka has enhanced the community’s autonomy, standard of living, and capacity to keep extractive industries off of the land. 

In addition, Loving Earth’s chocolate bars come wrapped in a compostable, plant-based inner wrapper made from a mix of cellulose and non-GMO corn, and their colorful boxes are made from 97% recycled post-consumer cardboard printed with vegetable inks. Learn more here

2. Cacoco

Cacoco defines regenerative agriculture as “a system of farming principles, patterns, processes and practices that actively enrich soils, biodiversity, ecosystems, and watersheds while effectively producing a variety of ecosystem functions and agricultural yields.”

The brand is currently working with Terra Genesis International (TGI) to integrate  regeneration into every level of their business, and is working ultimately towards building a network of businesses committed to building supply webs based on regenerative principles. Today, Cacoco is looking for ways to purchase a greater percentage of its ingredients from systems that are not only certified organic, but that also incorporate micro-climate adapted permaculture designs. The goal of Cacoco is to eventually construct full-circle, regenerative supply webs for all of its ingredientssystems that produce strong agricultural yields while also building soil and supporting local producers.

To this end, Cacoco has teamed up with Cholaca and several other brands to purchase cacao from small-scale producer co-ops in Ecuador (those working with TGI to integrate important soil health practices and enhance biodiversity). These direct relationships have advanced soil health, ecosystem vitality,  agricultural resiliency, and community development in the area. 

In addition, Cacoco has developed its very own “Zero Waste, Leave No Trace” packaging that can be easily home composted. Made from 100% recycled FSC certified, chlorine-free paperboard, printed with vegetable ink, and held together simply through the power of origami (no glue needed), Cacoco’s chocolate boxes are revolutionary in design. The sealed, inner bag containing Cacoco’s custom cacao powder and spices is also made from clear wood pulp and 100% certified compostable and biodegradable materials. Learn more here

 3. Alter Eco

Alter Eco sources 100% of its products directly from small-scale producers and farmer-owned cooperatives. Alter Eco’s ingredients are certified fair trade, organic, and non-GMO. The brand is also working with chocolatiers and producers to advance agroforestry, with the goal of improving soil quality, reducing pests and diseases, and diversifying the number of crops produced to increase biodiversity and farmer revenue. As an added incentive, Alter Eco has discovered that the productivity of their cacao trees within agroforestry systems has actually been higher than those in monoculture systems—meaning that a more regenerative approach can provide a true win-win-win for brands, farmers, and the planet. 

Alter Eco is enrolled in the Regenerative Organic Certification pilot program, and engaged in progressive commitments to soil health, animal welfare, and workers rights. Dedicated to carbon insetting, Alter Eco has partnered with PUR Project since 2008 to plant 27,000 trees directly into its supply chain while simultaneously engaging in reforestation itself. 

Alter Eco is a certified B Corp, and the brand has worked with manufacturers and key partners to invent some of the first product pouches and candy wrappers made from compostable, non-GMO, and non-toxic candy wrappers (the first of their kind!). Learn more here. 

4. Imlak’esh Organics

Imlak’esh Organics is committed to producing sustainable superfoods that empower communities around the globe. The brand’s cacao nibs and cacao powder are sourced from organic heirloom cacao produced in the Peruvian Andes at 6,000 feet of elevation. Working in partnership with Terra Genesis International (TGI), the brand buys from small producer co-ops engaged in ethical harvesting and traditional sun drying processes. 

Imlak’esh pays living wages, and invests 5% of its profits into eco-social projects that benefit both people and the planet. Committed to supporting local agricultural communities and providing producers with greater socio-economic opportunities, Imlak’esh Organics is “guided by a team of inspired, funky superfood pioneers who value environmental preservation, social justice, and healthy living”. 

Imlak’esh sells its products in reusable glass jars and recyclable gallon-sized PET packaging. In addition, the brand offers customers the option of purchasing in bulk—thereby reducing both packaging and price. Learn more here

 

Heading to the natural foods store? 

We all love chocolate or love somebody who does! Buying from regenerative, Fair Trade brands committed to elevating local  communities and dynamic agroforestry systems is a great way to help make a positive impact.

Next time you’re craving something sweet, look for Loving Earth, Alter Eco, Cacoco, and Imlak’esh Organics in your local grocery store, or make an online purchase to support their work. Advancing healthy soils, reforestation, and community development isn’t just part of creating a better future—it’s also about enjoying good food with the people you love too!

Can’t find one of these four brands on your grocery store shelves? Ask your store manager to bring them in, and remember these three tips for finding other progressive companies who are doing things right: 

  1. Look for Fair Trade, Fair for Life, non-GMO, and organic certifications. 
  2. Buy chocolate from brands who know their suppliers and who are investing in agroforestry and producer communities. 
  3. Support companies using compostable packaging. 
  4. Avoid cacao and chocolate products sourced from West Africa if you’re unfamiliar with the brand’s practices & policies. Cacao cultivation in this region has been implicated in human trafficking and slavery.

Together, we can do this!