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By Lindsey Berk, co-founder of The Origins of Food

Chocolate. Has there ever been another single food item that evokes such emotion?

Lovers exchanging truffles on Valentine’s Day, childhood memories of eagerly biting into a hollow bunny ear on Easter Sunday, cookies strategically placed for Santa’s arrival.

There are self-proclaimed chocoholics, chocolate therapies, meals themed around chocolate. Movies feature it as a lead star: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Chocolat, Like Water for Chocolate. We’ve come up with killer combinations, too: peanut butter and chocolate, s’mores, and currently riding a wave of popularity, bacon and chocolate. It is irrefutably, and happily, a part of our food culture.

But have we stopped to think where this source of pleasure originates, or how it affects our food system? Sure, we’ve started seeing an awesome trend of ethical chocolate bars pop up on our neighborhood cafe counters and co-op displays: fairly traded, Rainforest-happy, non-GMO…

What about its locality?

The Origins of Chocolate
{{ image(3161, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:”300″, “height”:”200″, “method”: “img”}) }}For U.S.-based locavores, you’ll be hard pressed to source a chocolate bar that is made entirely within 100 miles of you, whether you’re in Seattle or Miami, Sante Fe or Burlington. Due to geographical limitations, chocolate simply does not come from the continental U.S. (Hawaii, you are our exception). It never has and never will. Because it grows in the “cacao belt” tropical regions along a band located 20° on either side of the equator.

Cacao, that unsung hero of chocolate, was originally domesticated by pre-Mayan people in ancient Mesoamerica (Mexico to Costa Rica), and has been used for at least three-thousand years as a currency, a drink for improved health as well as a sacred food for ceremonial sacrifices, well before a guy named Hershey ever touched it. The scientific name itself, Theobroma, translates to “food of the deities.”

{{ image(3162, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:”300″, “height”:”200″, “method”: “img”}) }}Despite having its origin in Latin America, Western Africa is now responsible for producing almost two-thirds of the world’s cacao, and 1,000 times as much as Guatemala’s production. The majority of today’s commodity chocolate is made with African cacao, using distasteful labor practices and creating a large carbon footprint. As quitting chocolate is definitely not on anyone’s to-do list, we at The Origins of Food encourage Americans to hunt down artisanal bars that haven’t traveled halfway across the world, incentivizing more cacao production by small farmers in Latin America.

Beyond milk, dark and white
{{ image(3163, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:”300″, “height”:”200″, “method”: “img”}) }}If someone asks you what kind of chocolate you prefer, the typical answer would be milk, dark or white. But these are simply a product of how the chocolate is made (more specifically, the amount of chocolate liquor or cocoa solids used), not what it was made from. There are at least 10 varieties of cacao, with the four most commonly used being Criollo, Forastero, Nacional and Trinitario. Much like the grapes of fine wine or the beans in your specialty coffee, blends are used to create the ideal flavor the chocolate maker is attempting to achieve. If you happen to live near a bean-to-bar chocolate maker, ask them what varieties they use and if it’s possible to sample the difference.

Take time to know where your chocolate comes from and to experiment with different varieties. You’ll be supporting producers that take more care with people and the environment, while discovering the vast variety of cultures and flavors that exist beyond the big brands.