Conventionally grown cocoa beans are likely to be contaminated with pesticide residue, according to Good Housekeeping. Lax regulations in many underdeveloped nations that grow cocoa for the chocolate sold in our country result in the use of pesticides that are considered moderately or highly hazardous by the World Health Organization. Even the International Cocoa Organization recognizes the need for a better consensus regarding safe pesticide use for cocoa.
Chocolate that is certified organic isn’t grown with pesticides or fertilizers. It also doesn’t contain GMOs or artificial ingredients. All of the ingredients that go into a piece of certified organic chocolate must also be certified organic.
Organic food is regulated by government-accredited agents. The farmers and processors of organic foods follow strict federal standards to avoid using toxic products that can be harmful to people, animals or the environment.
Foods that are labeled “natural” may or may not be organic. There is no standard that regulates the use of this term, and many manufacturers use the word to attract environmentally responsible or health-conscious consumers to their brands.
Plus, you may be buying homemade chocolate from a specialty retailer. There might not be a label on the product at all. Whether you’re purchasing gourmet chocolate from a shop or scouring the aisles at the local grocery store, these tips will help you pick out organic chocolate.
A piece of chocolate that is certified organic should say so on the label. A seal that reads “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” indicates that at least 95 percent of the ingredients are certified organic. That means that no pesticides, chemical fertilizers, dyes, industrial solvents, irradiation or genetic engineering are used in the production of the ingredients. The organic ingredients must be highlighted with an asterisk or similar mark on the nutrition label.
The other 5 percent of ingredients may contain additives from an approved list. The non-organic ingredients must not contain GMOs, be irradiated or fertilized with sewage sludge.
To use a non-organic ingredient, an organic version has to be difficult to obtain. Some non-agricultural ingredients, like minerals, enzymes and bacteria, aren’t eligible for organic certification. These may be included in the 5 percent of ingredients that isn’t organic.
A label that reads “100 percent organic” contains only certified organic ingredients. “Made with organic” means that 70 percent or more of the ingredients are organic. A product that is “made with organic” ingredients can’t use the “USDA Organic” seal.
Many small farms and food producers can’t afford the organic certification fees. However, they may still use organic ingredients. If they do, they won’t be able to notify you with a “USDA Organic” label without the certification, though.
That’s why it can benefit you to contact the company directly. Feel free to ask them about their practices and where they get their chocolate from. This is an ideal way to ensure that the chocolate you get from boutique chocolatiers is organic even if they don’t advertise with the “USDA Organic” seal.
Organic chocolate won’t contain foods containing GMOs. That means that it likely won’t have high-fructose corn syrup. The Sustainable Table says that most of the corn that’s found in the U.S. is either genetically modified or combined with genetically modified corn. If high-fructose corn syrup is made from a GMO product, it can’t be included in organic chocolate.
That’s not to say that some producers may create chocolate using organic, non-GMO high-fructose corn syrup. It’s just not likely. Organic chocolate also won’t contain artificial preservatives or colors.
Most people agree that organic chocolate tastes better. Obviously, this is a subjective matter. However, true chocolate connoisseurs can pick up the subtle notes from the pure chocolate, which is more pleasing than chemical fillers and artificial flavors.
In fact, the FDA regulates food products that are labeled as chocolate. Cocoa liquor is the first product to come out of cocoa beans when they’re processed. To qualify as chocolate, an item has to contain a certain amount of chocolate liquor.
If it doesn’t, it’s considered to be chocolate flavored. That’s not only not organic; it’s not chocolate at all.
High-quality chocolate uses cocoa or cacao butter as the fat source. That’s what produces the melt-in-your-mouth texture of fine chocolate. Compound chocolates are made with vegetable oils, which don’t have much flavor and prevent the food from having the silky texture that you crave.
Even organic chocolates can contain emulsifiers, such as soy lecithin and cellulose fibers. The highest quality chocolate—whether it’s labeled organic or not—will contain cocoa or cacao beans, sugar and maybe cocoa or cacao butter.
If the chocolate is used to make other types of treats, like truffles, you’ll have more ingredients in the mix. If these are homemade or created by your favorite supplier of gourmet goodies, ask about the other ingredients that are used.
There are several reasons to stay away from non-organic chocolate.
There are serious concerns about the effects of pesticide exposure on the health of humans and the environment. Pesticides are developed with strict regulation processes to minimize their impact on ecology and human safety. However, many cacao farmers don’t follow the standards.
One study found that farmers in a specific region of Ghana applied pesticides at rates that were much higher than recommended.
The World Health Organization classifies pesticides by different classes. Many of the products that are used in Ghana are class II chemicals. These are moderately hazardous, and it is recommended to take great care while using them. Farmers who don’t have access to effective protective equipment can be at risk for health problems while using these pesticides.
Furthermore, the residues have been found in cocoa beans that have been harvested and dried. Pesticides have been linked to:
Many fruits and vegetables with shells are supposed to be safer to eat because they don’t retain as much fertilizer and pesticide residue. Although cocoa beans have shells, they also have a high fat content. This absorbs the active ingredients in the pesticides.
The use of pesticides and fertilizers also has a significant impact on the environment, especially when they’re not used properly. Over-fertilization of soil can cause algae blooms and oxygen depletion in bodies of water, leading to the death of specific species.
This doesn’t just affect the animals that live in those bodies of water, though. High levels of nitrogen have been found in the water supplies in developing countries. These have been linked to a disease called blue-baby syndrome.
Inappropriate applications of insecticides can lead to environmental problems. Spray drift and runoff from plants can contaminate the soil. Water can become polluted from spills or washing equipment.
Organic cocoa products that include minimal fillers are great for your health. They contain amino acids and flavonoids. The flavonoids are phenols, which act as antioxidants. They have been shown to reduce the incidence of migraine, improve cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and even prevent the cognitive decline that occurs with aging.
The body needs 20 amino acids to function optimally. Cocoa contains 14 of these, including the eight essential ones. Amino acids help repair tissues and build cells. They also act as antioxidants.
If you’re consuming pesticide residue along with your dark chocolate, you’ll really need the benefits of those antioxidants.
Another reason to eat organic chocolate is that organic ingredients cannot be processed with hexane. Hexane is a solvent that’s used to extract many vegetable oils, including canola. The Harvard School of Health says that refined vegetable oils that have been extracted with hexane retain 0.8 milligrams of the chemical per kilogram.
Although no studies have been done to determine the potential health effects from oral consumption of hexane, industrial research has found it to be carcinogenic when inhaled. Products with the “USDA Organic” seal cannot contain oils that are processed with hexane.
Cocoa has been shown to reduce obesity-related inflammation in mice. If you’re not eating organic chocolate, however, you might be negating those benefits.
Synthetic preservatives have been called “chemical obesogens.” These additives, which include artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, emulsifiers and pesticides, have been known to interfere with hormone regulation, insulin production and fat cell function.
Scientists are only just starting to understand the impact of chemical additives on the human body. As consumers, we can avoid putting these into our bodies by sticking to organic foods with as few additives as possible. That’s another reason to choose organic chocolate over its conventional counterpart.