Chocolate Might Never Be the Same

Good chocolate, I’ve come to learn, should taste richly of cocoa—a balanced blend of bitter and sweet, with notes of fruit, nuts, and spice. My favorite chocolate treat is nothing like that. It’s the Cadbury Creme Egg, an ovoid milk-chocolate shell enveloping a syrupy fondant center. To this day, I look forward to its yearly return in the weeks leading up to Easter.

Most popular chocolate is like this: milky, sugary, and light on actual cocoa. Lots of sugary sweets contain so little of the stuff that they are minimally chocolate. M&M’s, Snickers bars, and Hershey’s Kisses aren’t staples of American diets because they are the best—rather, they satisfy our desire for chocolate while costing a fraction of a jet-black bar made from single-origin cocoa.

But chocolate isn’t as economical as it once was. By one estimate, retail prices for chocolate rose by 10 percent just last year. And now this is the third year in a row of poor cocoa harvests in West Africa, where most of the world’s cocoa is grown. Late last month, amid fears of a worsening shortage, cocoa prices soared past $10,000 per metric ton, up from about $4,000 in January. To shoulder the costs, chocolate companies are gearing up to further hike the price of their treats in the coming months. Prices might not fall back down from there. Chocolate as we know it may never be the same.

Chocolate has had “mounting problems for years,” Sophia Carodenuto, an environmental scientist at the University of Victoria, in Canada, told me. The farmers who grow them are chronically underpaid. And cocoa trees—the fruits of which contain beans that are fermented and roasted to create chocolate—are tough to grow, and thrive only in certain conditions. A decade ago, chocolate giants warned that the cocoa supply, already facing environmental challenges, would soon be unable to keep up with rising demand. “But what we’re seeing now is a little bit of an explosion” in the crop’s struggles, Carodenuto said.

The simplest explanation for the ongoing cocoa shortage is extreme weather, heightened by climate change. Exceptionally hot and dry conditions in West Africa, partly driven by the current El Niño event, have led to reduced yields. Heavier-than-usual rains have created ideal conditions for black pod disease, which causes cocoa pods to rot on the branch. All of this has taken place while swollen shoot, a virus fatal to cocoa plants, is spreading more rapidly in cocoa-growing regions. Global cocoa production is expected to fall by nearly 11 percent this season, Reuters reported.

In the past, when supply fell and prices rose, farmers were motivated to plant more cocoa, which led to a boost in supply five years later, when the new trees began to bear fruit, says Nicko Debenham, the former head of sustainability at the chocolate giant Barry Callebaut. Already, some West African farmers are racing to plant new trees. But they may not be able to plant their way out of future cocoa shortages. “Climate change is definitely a challenge” because it will make rainfall less predictable, which is a problem for moisture-sensitive cocoa trees, Debenham told me. Furthermore, rising temperatures and more frequent droughts will render some cocoa-growing regions unusable.  

Climate change isn’t the only problem. Cocoa crops in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, where 60 percent of the world’s cocoa come from, may already be in “structural decline,” Debenham said, citing disease, aging cocoa trees, and illegal gold mining on farmland. More important, the farmers who tend to the crops can’t afford to invest in their farms to increase their yields and bolster resilience against climate change. The bleak outlook for cocoa farmers threatens to doom cocoa-growing in the region altogether. In Ghana, the average cocoa farmer is close to 50 years old. A new generation of farmers is needed to maintain the cocoa supply, but young people may just walk away from the industry.

No matter how you look at it, the future of cocoa doesn’t look good. With less cocoa available all around, chocolate may become more expensive. For high-end chocolate brands, whose products use lots of cocoa, the recent price hikes are reportedly an existential threat. Barry Callebaut has predicted that the companies it supplies with cocoa will raise chocolate prices by up to 8 percent in the next few months. Because companies buy beans in advance, it will take some time before retail prices reflect the current shortage, so further increases are likely.

When cocoa prices go up, companies start reducing bar sizes and adding in substitutes such as fruit and nuts to reduce the amount of cocoa content. “They’ll try and use every trick in the book to keep the consumption levels up,” Debenham said. My beloved Cadbury Creme Egg, for example, is markedly smaller than it used to be. Now, as Bloomberg has noted, companies are promoting candies that contain less chocolate, such as the new Reese’s caramel Big Cup from Hershey’s, or treats that have no chocolate at all, such as gummies.

Cocoa shortages will affect all kinds of chocolate, but mass-produced sweets may change beyond just the prices. The erratic temperatures brought about by climate change could change the flavor of beans, depending on where they are grown. Variability is a concern for commercial chocolate makers, who need to maintain consistent flavors across their products. They may counteract discrepancies among different batches of beans by combining them, then roasting them at a higher temperature, Johnny Drain, a food-science expert and co-founder of the cocoa-free chocolate brand Win-Win, told me. Doing so can eliminate unwanted qualities, but it may also remove desirable ones, resulting in a less interesting flavor overall. Even if an M&M contains a minimal amount of actual chocolate, a longtime consumer could notice a change in flavor.

Commercial chocolate makers may also tweak their recipes to amp up or mimic chocolate flavors without using more cocoa. These candies contain relatively little cacao to begin with; only 10 percent of a product’s weight must be cocoa in order to qualify as chocolate in the eyes of the FDA. Some already use chocolatelike ingredients such as cocoa-butter equivalents, cocoa extenders, and artificial cocoa flavors. In some cases, the swaps are noticeable: Cadbury’s use of an emulsifying filler to reduce the amount of cocoa butter in its Caramello bars diminished “the rich creaminess of the original,” Bon Appétit noted in 2016.

Newer chocolate alternatives may provide more satisfying counterfeits. Win-Win isn’t the only start-up producing cocoa-free chocolate, which is similar in concept to animal-free meat. The company uses plant ingredients to emulate the flavor and texture of chocolate—as do its competitors Foreverland and Voyage Foods. Another firm, California Cultured, grows actual cacao cells in giant steel tanks.

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Cocoa-free chocolate is currently far more expensive than chocolate, but Drain hopes it will eventually become “cheaper than the cheapest chocolate.” At that point, he said, it’ll likely find its niche at the lowest end of the market, where chocolate plays a supporting role rather than a starring one—think chocolate-coated ice creams and granola bars with chocolate chips. Already, some of these products are labeled as having “chocolate flavor” or being “chocolatey” instead of “chocolate,” which has a strict FDA definition.

Yet change is always tough to swallow. So much of the appeal of cheap chocolate is that it’s always been there—whether in the form of a Hershey’s Kiss, Oreo cookies, a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, or the shell of a fondant-filled egg. “You grow up with those tastes. It’s hard to fathom how pervasive it has been,” Carodenuto said. Chocolate lovers have weathered minor tweaks to these candies over the years, but the shifts happening today may be less tolerable—or at the very least more noticeable. The change that has been hardest to ignore is that cheap chocolate is no longer that cheap.