Few foods are as beloved as chocolate. In the United States, it feels like chocolate is everywhere you look: dessert menus, grocery store aisles, the back corner of the cupboard with the rest of the leftover Halloween candy from 2015. It makes you wonder, where does all this chocolate come from?
By compiling studies from Forbes, international trade centers, and market research groups, the business education site World’s Top Exports broke down where the most candy and dessert chocolate is produced before being sent around the world. European countries lead the pack by a long shot, with more than 73 percent of chocolate exports coming from a European country. These are the 10 countries, in order, that export the most chocolate:
- United States
- United Kingdom
It only takes a quick look at the list to notice a glaringly obvious fact: Chocolate is typically not produced in the tropical regions of the world where its key ingredient, cocoa, is grown. Yet the story behind how many of these non-cocoa growing countries became the world’s most prominent chocolate producers is not so sweet.
Chocolate is made from cocoa, which are the roasted beans of the cacao tree. The plant is native to Central and South America, and there’s evidence of people consuming a cocoa drink as far back as 1500 BCE. The Mayan and Aztec civilizations drank cocoa mixed with chili, honey, and water. It’s unclear how chocolate first got to Europe, with some reports citing Christopher Columbus, others Hernan Cortes, and others still who say it first came as a gift to the king of Spain from a friar returning from the Americas.
It took time for Europeans to get a taste for chocolate, but by the 1600s, other colonial countries like Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and England were importing chocolate. Cacao trees were brought to Africa, islands in the Caribbean, and the Dutch brought it to modern-day Indonesia. It was still consumed primarily as a drink until the latter half of the 19th century when one Swiss man created milk chocolate in 1876 and another invented the conch machine in 1879, which made chocolate easier to chew and melt in your mouth.
Chocolate demand continued to increase all the while in Europe, leading to more plantations in colonies in the Americas, Southeast Asia, and Africa. These plantations largely relied on slave labor or fields with dismal working conditions.
Many of the world’s largest producers of chocolate were once colonial countries that relied on the exploitation of people and land. Belgium, for example, largely sourced its cocoa from the Congo, while companies in England and Germany bought cocoa from Portuguese slave plantations in West Africa. Through the years following World War I, the largest chocolate manufacturers in England and Germany tried, and mostly failed, to source from ethical growers, Lowell Joseph Satre writes in Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business.
The impact of colonialism survives today: Many countries guilty of colonization make most of the finished chocolate sold around the world, still importing their cocoa from the countries they once occupied. West Africa still produces, by far, the most cocoa in the world, according to World Atlas. These are the top cocoa-producing countries in the world:
- Côte d’Ivoire
- Dominican Republic
Thankfully, today there are working good conditions in some of these countries, but the Anti-Slavery Society, which fought against sourcing from Portugal’s West African slave plantations in the early 1900s, still lists chocolate as an industry well known for using child labor alongside the diamond and fashion industries. More than two million children work in cocoa fields in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire for less than $1 per day, according to the US Department of Labor.
Chocolate consumption doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. World Top Exports found that chocolate exports rose by four percent every year from 2014 to 2018, with sales rising fastest in Poland, Italy, Canada, and Mexico. So, as you’re standing in the candy aisle pondering the long history that led to where all the chocolate comes from, maybe also keep in mind the ethical scorecard of the world’s chocolate companies.