About Passover, Chocolate, and Freedom

Chocolate-covered matzo for Passover

This post is the second of an educational series about the hidden side of chocolate. You can read the first installment about how chocolate is made here.

When I have trouble falling asleep, I run a mental list of the things I am grateful for. It may be a piece of chocolate I had that day, a kind email from a reader, or a good book I read. On Passover, the list grows to include something that I tend to take for granted on most nights: freedom. The holiday, which starts on April 10 this year, commemorates the escape of Jews from Egypt 3000 years ago. This Monday, like millions of other Jews across the world, I will pause and reflect on what it means to be free.

The holiday is known for its food restrictions and, for eight days, I’ll eat unleavened bread called matzo, while excluding wheat, oats, rye, barley, and spelt from my diet. Some Jews also avoid corn, soy, and legumes that week and, a few years ago, I wondered what that meant for chocolate, since most mass-produced bars contain an emulsifier called soy lecithin. Growing up, my family did not eat chocolate on Passover but, as an adult, I did not want live sans my favorite food if I did not have to. One night, I opened a window on my internet browser and asked Google for guidance.

The Problem is Not Soy…

The first hit took me to a 2009 article published on a blog called “Small Farmers. Big Change.” The title made us consider the real problem about chocolate: child slavery. Slavery? In the 21st century? I kept reading.

“On Passover every Jew is obligated to imagine that he or she had once been a slave in the land of Egypt. We try to envision the experience of our ancestors: the sadness of their lives under brutal day-to-day work conditions.  It’s unfortunate that in order for Jews (and others) to imagine slavery, we only need to look at slave labor conditions for cocoa workers in West Africa today, where 70%* of the world’s cocoa is grown for the chocolate candy that many of us enjoy eating.”

*While the number has changed, Ivory Coast and Ghana remain the world’s two largest cacao producers.

I stared at my computer. Here I was worried about soy lecithin, when the main ingredient in my favorite food involved slavery, the very condition my people once escaped. I was stunned. Did my friends know about this? What was I supposed to do? I was so upset I did not eat any chocolate that Passover.

Cacao pods from a plantation in Bijagua, Aljuela, Costa Rica. Photo credit: Bar & Cocoa.

What about Fair Trade?

After I read that article, I started buying more Fair Trade certified chocolate at the grocery store. While the certification has its limitations, it still “ensures that farmers receive a fair price, allows farmers to invest in techniques that bring out the flavors of the region, and strictly prohibits slave and child labor.” (source: Fair Trade USA) For instance, I love that Equal Exchange has partnered with T’ruah and Fair Trade Judaica to develop a line of chocolate products and that is both Fair Trade and certified Kosher for Passover. You can learn more about it here.

The practice of slavery having been recorded on West African plantations, I started buying chocolate made of cacao that did not come from Ghana or Ivory Coast, unless it was certified Fair Trade. Thankfully, the craft chocolate movement has brought more transparency to the industry and a simple look at the wrapper is usually enough to inform us about the origin of the beans. If you don’t find it, ask the maker about it.

Today, I can say with confidence my chocolate shopping habits no longer supports slavery. I order most of my bars from the Bar & Cocoa shop (there’s even a Kosher selection) because I trust Chris and Pashmina to ask the hard questions. On Passover, I will eat chocolate that is free of soy and slavery because, as Simran Sethi puts in in her book Bread, Wine, Chocolate, “I don’t want my joy to come at the expense of someone else’s misery.”

To learn more about child labor and slavery on cacao plantations, check out the following links:

2 thoughts on “About Passover, Chocolate, and Freedom

  1. You should check out Taza chocolate! Based in somerville, ma, this chocolate is direct trade (ensuring cacao beans are not cultivated with the help of slave or child labor among other great things). also, it is organic, vegan, and soy and gluten free! Talking about a passover dream! That said, its an incredible chocolate any time of the year.

    • Thanks so much for the recommendation, Ayala. am very familiar with Taza; in fact, It was the very first chocolate i ever tried on passover! I like their bars moRe than their discs, their belize is quIte lovely.

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