All About Organic Chocolate, Part I

In a sense, all chocolate is organic (after all, it's made from beans), but to earn the official title of "organic chocolate" it has to be grown and processed a certain way. We'll tell you all about it in this two-part article.

Organic chocolate is a complicated beast. It's one thing to grow cacao beans organically, but it can't be forgotten that what we call "chocolate" is in fact a medley of ingredients, from cocoa to sugar to milk, along with vanilla and other flavorings. It can't be considered organic unless it's organic through and through.

On top of all that, organic agriculture also has to be sustainable -- that is, maintainable without exhausting the land. Is it any wonder, then, that honest organic chocolate is both rare and expensive? However, it does exist, delightfully enough, and in this brief primer we'll introduce you to its delectable secrets.

Clean and Green

While there's no doubt that any agricultural methods are going to disrupt the ecosphere to some extent, people need to eat chocolate, and there are ways to grow it that limit the ecological impact. For one thing, cacao trees grow best in the shade of larger trees, which makes planting organic chocolate a lot easier.

Cacao is an "understory" tree in the forests where it grows best, so no clear-cutting is necessary, as it is with many crops. All you need to do is clear out some brush and plant the cacao trees beneath larger canopy trees.

As a result, cacao plantations tend to be diverse ecological environments characterized by a wide variety of plant and animal species -- more like what nature intended. This is a large part of the appeal of organic chocolate, at least among those of us concerned about the ecology (which we all should be).

Flavor, yes ... chemicals, no

Needless to say, "organic" means no chemical pesticides -- a stricture that's especially necessary to maintain the health of the beneficial fungi that live in symbiosis with cacao trees, helping them maximize the uptake of both water and nourishment. There are natural, effective ways to control bugs and weeds.

This means organic chocolate growers can't use artificial fertilizers, either. Here again, there are plenty of organic alternatives available. They may not be as effective in the short run as chemical fertilizers, but they don't result in the long-term damage that chemicals do, either -- so sustainability is easier to maintain.

Ecologically speaking...

Fortunately for us chocoholics (extreme or otherwise), growing organic cacao isn't so difficult. The secret is keeping chocolate organic all the way through to the final product, while making the process fair and profitable for the people who work so hard to grow the crops and spin it into our favorite ambrosia.

All that takes a lot of effort, but we think you'll agree it's worth it in the end. In the second half of this article, we'll show you what else it takes to make truly sustainable, truly organic chocolate.