With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, you may be in the market for some good chocolate (although we hardly need a holiday to whet our appetite for this dark, delicious stuff). All chocolates are not created equal. Do the world a favor and choose chocolate with heart, made by mission-driven companies dedicated to making positive change.

Slave-free chocolate

The most important issue I consider in choosing chocolate: was the cocoa harvested by child slaves? Chocolate is big, big business, and it is appalling to learn that two-thirds of the world’s cocoa comes from the poorest countries of West Africa where, according to SlaveFreeChocolate.org, “2.3 million children work in the cocoa fields of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. These children are vulnerable to brutal labor practices.” Industry giants Nestle, Hershey, Mars and others have admitted accountability, and in 2001, they pledged to remedy the situation, but, as the Washington Post reported in June 2019, “in few industries, experts say, is the evidence of objectionable practices so clear, the industry’s pledges to reform so ambitious, and the breaching of those promises so obvious.” Little has changed.

So we must harness our consumer power. Blogger Seth Godin states bluntly: “Cheap chocolate is made from beans picked by poor kids in dangerous conditions. … Some of the poorest people in the world raise cacao beans, and the market is driven by the low bidders. … On the other hand, expensive chocolate turns the ratchet in the other direction. The folks who make the bars, particularly those who do direct trade, keep paying higher and higher wages. They keep children out of the system. And they encourage their growers to use the tastier artisanal Criollo and Trinitario varieties, keeping them from extinction.”

When buying chocolate, read the label. Look for statements that specifically mention fair prices for farmers, no child labor, and indicate where the cocoa is from. For example, Meadowlands Chocolate, made in Meadowlands, Minnesota, states it is “ethically and sustainably harvested and traded” and usually identifies the country of origin, such as Venezuela, Tanzania or Peru.

Here are a few of the ethically-produced chocolate brands available locally. They were purchased from Whole Foods Co-op, which aims to sell only slave-free chocolate. (Emma Ambrosi / For the News Tribune)
Here are a few of the ethically-produced chocolate brands available locally. They were purchased from Whole Foods Co-op, which aims to sell only slave-free chocolate. (Emma Ambrosi / For the News Tribune)

Tony’s Chocolonely brand was created expressly for this mission: “We exist to end modern slavery and illegal child labor in the chocolate industry.” Divine chocolate is owned in part by the cocoa farmers themselves, and they share in the profits. Theo chocolate, by EnjoyLife, states: “We support training and education which enables farmers to produce higher quality cocoa. We pay farmers quality premiums … empowering them to invest in regenerative farming practices which renew and revitalize their farms.”

TheGoodTrade.com specifically lists Alter Eco, Theo, EatingEvolved, Sweetriot, UnReal, Equal Exchange, Endangered Species, Madecasse, Loving Earth, and Divine as “chocolate brands that have made it an integral part of their mission to develop lasting, mutually beneficial partnerships by employing Fair Trade and Direct Trade practices with the farmers who cultivate their cocoa crops.” This is the kind of work you can support every time you buy chocolate.

What makes some chocolate vegan?

Some chocolates are specifically marketed as vegan, but most are not — they just happen to be made without animal products. The most important ingredient in chocolate is cocoa, from the pods of the cacao tree. (The raw product is also called cacao; once it’s roasted, it’s called cocoa.) Other ingredients in quality chocolate include sugar and cocoa butter, and sometimes lecithin and vanilla. All of these come from plants. The higher the percentage of cacao, the darker the chocolate.

“Milk chocolate,” as the name implies, usually includes milk, milk solids or milk fat, so these are not vegan. But heads up: some chocolates labelled “dark chocolate” also include milk in the ingredients. Cheaper chocolates tend to include more milk. And just to keep you on your toes, a few enterprising chocolatiers now offer vegan milk chocolate made with plant milk. So read the labels.

We may quip that we can’t live without chocolate, but honestly, it’s a treat. And this indulgence is so much sweeter when we know we’re helping small farmers and their families to live decently. So go on, buy some really good chocolate and make the world a better place.

Better world brownies

The most chocolaty thing I can think of, next to an actual chocolate bar, is a brownie. If you’re baking, ethical choices apply to buying cocoa, baking chocolate and chocolate chips, too. For example, I use Equal Exchange baking cocoa. It’s organic and Fair Trade, sourced from the Dominican Republic.

Here are two very different chocolate brownie recipes from Courtney Stein and Nan Stubenvoll, two members of the Vegan Cookbook Club.

Fudgy Brownies

These are fudge-like, rich and delicious with three kinds of chocolate. Do not be tempted (as I was) to omit lining the pan and removing the brownies after baking. Leaving the brownies in a glass baking pan to cool resulted in hard, overcooked edges. The original recipe called for lining the pan with aluminum foil, but I prefer to use parchment paper. Also, I substituted whole grain spelt flour for the unbleached flour, because that’s just how I am.

Based on the recipe in “Vegan for Everybody from America’s Test Kitchen”

¼ cup Earth Balance margarine

1 cup whole spelt flour (or whole wheat pastry flour or unbleached flour)

¾ teaspoon non-aluminum baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup unsweetened baking chocolate (1½ ounces) — I used Lily’s dark chocolate baking chips

⅓ cup + 1 tablespoon cocoa — I used Equal Exchange baking cocoa

½ cup boiling water

1¼ cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

¼ cup semisweet chocolate chips — I used EnjoyLife chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350. Line an 8x8-inch baking pan with parchment paper, creasing the edges so it stays in place. Melt the Earth Balance margarine and set aside. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and set aside. In another bowl, combine baking chocolate and cocoa, then add boiling water and stir until melted and no lumps. Add the sugar, vanilla and melted Earth Balance. (Use the last bit of melted Earth Balance to grease the parchment paper lining your pan.) Fold in the flour mixture and semisweet chocolate chips. Pour into lined baking pan and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then lift the whole thing out of the pan by holding onto the parchment paper (this is, ideally, a two-person job) and set it on a cooling rack to continue cooling for at least another hour or two. Do not cut until cool.

Nan’s Black Bean Brownies

No flour, no refined sugar, no oil! These brownies are subtly sweet, soft and chocolaty, and they freeze well. They do not taste like beans! Half a recipe fits perfectly in a loaf pan for 8 brownies.

Makes 16 two-inch square brownies

2 cups cooked black beans (if canned, rinse and drain)

10 medjool dates, pits removed

2 tbsp almond butter

1 tbsp vanilla

½ cup cocoa

Preheat oven to 350. Combine all ingredients in a heavy-duty blender or food processor. Press gently into an 8x8-inch Pyrex baking pan that has been greased with coconut oil. Bake for 20 minutes. Allow to cool before cutting.

Did you know?

“When we buy Fair Trade products, we are casting a vote for the ethical treatment of the laborers around the world who are responsible for the food we eat. Fair Trade certification means not only that workers are paid fairly but also those farmers have safe and environmentally-friendly working conditions. “ — TheGoodTrade.com

Bonnie Ambrosi lives in Duluth and is an organizer of The Vegan Cookbook Club, which meets at 11:30 a.m. on the first Thursday of every month at Mount Royal Branch Library. Contact Ambrosi at bonnieambrosi@gmail.com.