Where Does Chocolate Come From? We've Got the Answers

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Chocolate Grows on Trees

Chocolate is the end result of harvesting and processing cocoa beans, which grow inside cocoa pods.
Cocoa pods, Cocoa tree ((Theobroma cacao), Dominica, West Indies. Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Well actually, its precursor—cocoa—grows on trees. Cocoa beans, which are milled to produce the ingredients needed to make chocolate, grow in pods on trees located in the tropical region the surrounds the equator. The key countries in this region that produce cocoa, in order of production volume, are Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, and Peru. About 4.2 million tons were produced in the 2014/15 growing cycle. (Sources: UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and International Cocoa Organization (ICCO).

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Who Harvests All That Cocoa?

Cocoa beans covered in milky white residue inside a cocoa pod.
Mott Green, late founder of Grenada Chocolate Company Cooperative, holds an open cocoa pod. Kum-Kum Bhavnani/Nothing Like Chocolate

Cocoa beans grow inside the cocoa pod, which once harvested, is sliced open to remove the beans, covered in a milky white liquid. But before that can happen, the more than 4 million tons of cocoa grown every year must be cultivated and harvested. Fourteen million people in cocoa-growing countries do all that work. (Source: Fairtrade International.)

Who are they? What are their lives like?

In West Africa, from where more than 70% of the world's cocoa comes from, the average wage for a cocoa farmer is just 2 dollars per day, which must be used to support an entire family, according to Green America. The World Bank classifies this income as "extreme poverty."

This situation is typical of agricultural products that are grown for global markets in the context of a capitalist economy. Prices for farmers and wages for workers are so low because large multi-national corporate buyers have enough power to determine the price.

But the story gets even worse...

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There's Child Labor and Enslavement in Your Chocolate

Rates of child and forced labor on cocoa plantations in West Africa.
Child labor and slavery are common on cocoa plantations in West Africa. Baruch College, City University of New York

Nearly two million children work unpaid in dangerous conditions on cocoa plantations in West Africa. They harvest with sharp machetes, carry heavy loads of harvested cocoa, apply toxic pesticides, and work long days in extreme heat. While many of them are children of cocoa farmers, some of them have been trafficked and enslaved. The countries listed on this chart represent the majority of the world's cocoa production, which means that the problems of child labor and enslavement are endemic to this industry. (Source: Green America.)

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Prepared for Sale

Cocoa beans dry in the sun in Ivory Coast, where much of the world's cocoa is grown.
Villagers sit in front of their house while cocoa they harvested dries in the sun in Brudume, Ivory Coast, 2004. Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images

Once all the cocoa beans are harvested on a farm, they are piled together to ferment and then laid out to dry in the sun. In some cases, small farmers might sell the wet cocoa beans to a local processor who does this work. It is during these stages that the flavors of chocolate are developed in the beans. Once they have dried, either at a farm or processor, they are sold on the open market at a price determined by commodities traders based in London and New York. Because cocoa is traded as a commodity its price fluctuates, sometimes widely, and this can have a severe negative impact on the 14 million people whose lives depend on its production.

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Where Does All That Cocoa Go?

A map shows where cocoa is produced and where is it consumed around the world.
Major global trade flows of cocoa beans. The Guardian

Once dried, cocoa beans must be turned into chocolate before we can consume them. Most of that work happens in the Netherlands—the world's leading importer of cocoa beans. Regionally speaking, Europe as a whole leads the world in cocoa imports, with North America and Asia in second and third place, respectively. By nation, the U.S. is the second largest importer of cocoa. (Source: ICCO.)

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Meet the Global Corporations That Buy the World's Cocoa

Chart shows largest chocolate and cocoa producers in the world.
The top 10 companies that produce chocolate treats. Thomson Reuters

So who exactly is buying all that cocoa in Europe and North America? Most of it is purchased and turned into chocolate by just a handful of global corporations.

Given that the Netherlands is the largest global importer of cocoa beans, you might be wondering why there are no Dutch companies on this list. But actually, Mars, the largest buyer, has its largest factory—and the largest in the world—located in the Netherlands. This accounts for a significant volume of imports into the country. Mostly, the Dutch act as processors and traders of other cocoa products, so much of what they import gets exported in other forms, rather than turned into chocolate. (Source: Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative.)

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From Cocoa Into Chocolate

Cocoa liquor is the result of grinding and mixing cocoa nibs, and is an important part of the process of making chocolate.
Cocoa liquor produced by milling nibs. Dandelion Chocolate

Now in the hands of large corporations, but also many small chocolate makers too, the process of turning dried cocoa beans into chocolate involves several steps. First, the beans are broken down to leave just the "nibs" that reside inside. Then, those nibs are roasted, then ground to produce a rich dark brown cocoa liquor, seen here. 

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From Cocoa Liquor to Cakes and Butter

Cocoa press cakes are what remain after the cocoa butter is extracted from cocoa liquor, an important part of the chocolate making process.
Cocoa press cake after butter extraction. Juliet Bray

Next, the cocoa liquor is put into a machine that presses out the liquid—the cocoa butter—and leaves just cocoa powder in a pressed cake form. After that, chocolate is made by remixing cocoa butter and liquor, and other ingredients like sugar and milk, for example.

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And Finally, Chocolate

Dark, milk, and white chocolate bars lie waiting for consumption.
Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate!. Luka/Getty Images

The wet chocolate mixture is then processed, and finally poured into molds and cooled to make it into the recognizable treats we so enjoy.

Though we lag far behind the largest per capita consumers of chocolate (Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Ireland, and the U.K.), each person in the U.S. consumed about 9.5 pounds of chocolate in 2014. That's more than 3 billion pounds of chocolate in total. (Source: Confectionary News.) Around the world, all the chocolate consumed amounts to a more than 100 billion dollar global market.

How then do the world's cocoa producers remain in poverty, and why is the industry so dependent on free child labor and enslavement? Because as with all industries ruled by capitalism, the large global brands that manufacture the world's chocolate do not pay their vast profits down the supply chain.

Green America reported in 2015 that nearly half of all chocolate profits—44%—lie in sales of the finished product, while 35% are captured by manufacturers. That leaves just 21% of the profits for everyone else involved in producing and processing cocoa. Farmers, arguably the most important part of the supply chain, capture just 7% of global chocolate profits.

Fortunately, there are alternatives that help address these problems of economic inequality and exploitation: fair trade and direct trade chocolate. Look for them in your local community, or find many vendors online.

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Your Citation
Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Where Does Chocolate Come From? We've Got the Answers." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2020, thoughtco.com/all-about-the-global-chocolate-industry-3026238. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, September 7). Where Does Chocolate Come From? We've Got the Answers. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/all-about-the-global-chocolate-industry-3026238 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Where Does Chocolate Come From? We've Got the Answers." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/all-about-the-global-chocolate-industry-3026238 (accessed March 31, 2023).