It was predictable that one day Adisa Azapagic, who studies the carbon footprint of various foods, would get around to chocolate. Little was known about the environmental impact of producing that guilt-and swoon-inducing pleasure, and for many, ignorance was bliss. “My husband wasn’t amused when I suggested he consider switching to dark chocolate,” which has a smaller carbon footprint than milk chocolate, she said. “He said it was a divorcing issue.”
To be clear — and to the relief of chocolate lovers everywhere — Azapagic, professor of sustainable engineering at the UK’s University of Manchester, is not telling people to swear off chocolate. But she does hope consumers will think more about the impact of chocolate production when they make decisions about the treats to eat.
Agriculture has a major role in climate change. Beef, for example, is the most carbon-intensive food to produce because cows burp and fart large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. One recent study recommended consumers substitute beans for beef, while another proposed doing the same with edible insects or imitation meat. But, it’s not just livestock that are fueling climate change. Farmers are burning down forests to clear land for growing crops. Setting trees aflame releases the carbon stored in their leaves and branches into the atmosphere.
Chocolate producers contribute to climate change by buying milk produced by methane-belching cows and by buying cocoa beans from regions where growers are razing forests to clear farmland. Cocoa beans are harvested from Theobroma cacao, a tree indigenous to South America. The major producers and exporters of cocoa beans include the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Ecuador and Brazil.
Azapagic analyzed chocolate’s ingredients, manufacturing processes, packaging and waste to assess their environmental effects, and found — in Britain — the chocolate industry produces the equivalent of more than 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, roughly the carbon output of a UK city the size of Belfast. Her study, which appears in the journal Food Research International, also determined that it takes about 1,000 liters of water to produce a single chocolate bar.
The study focused on the three most popular types of chocolate products in the UK, which make up 90 percent of the market there: milk chocolate bars, sharing bags — which are plastic bags with lots of bite-sized chocolates in them — and small, snack-sized chocolate bars. The team found the sharing bags were worst for the environment.
Chocolate’s raw materials, including milk powder, cocoa derivatives, sugar and palm oil, and its packaging are major environmental villains. Cocoa, sugar and, in particular, palm oil production are driving deforestation. The production of milk powder also is very carbon-intensive, largely because dairy cows generate a lot of methane while producing milk. For this reason, milk chocolate is more environmentally harmful than dark chocolate.
“Most of us love chocolate but don’t often think of what it takes to get from cocoa beans to the chocolate products we buy in the shop,” Azapagic said. “Cocoa is cultivated around the equator in humid climate conditions, mainly in West Africa and Central and South America, so it has to travel some distance before it makes it into the chocolate products we produce and consume in the UK.”
The research focused on the UK, which in 2015 ranked sixth in the world in chocolate consumption, with a decided preference for milk chocolate, according to the study. (Since then, the UK has climbed to 4rth place, Asapagic said. The United States currently lies further down the list at 19th, she said.) The average American eats almost ten pounds of chocolate annually, while the typical British person consumes nearly twice that amount, she said — the equivalent of about 157 Mars bars.
She said the chocolate industry should look to reduce packaging, conserve energy at manufacturing plants, and guard against deforestation. “We hope this work will help the chocolate industry address the environmental hotspots in the supply chains and make chocolate products as sustainable as possible,” she said.
And what is an environmentally conscientious chocolate aficionado to do? “The key is to be moderate in consumption, like with anything else,” Azapagic said. “It’s better to avoid chocolates that have large amounts of packaging. Typically, Easter eggs and those for Mother’s Day will be over-packaged, as they are selling you the ‘attractive’ packaging, rather than the product in it.”
Also, she said, stick to dark chocolate, rather than milk. It will be good for your health, too. Dark chocolate has less sugar than milk chocolate, and eating too much sugar contributes to obesity and other problems. Dark also has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce bad cholesterol and lessen inflammation, all of which contribute to heart disease.
“I do love chocolates,” Azapagic said. “I used to be a milk-chocolate person before, but over the years I acquired taste for dark chocolate and can no longer eat the milk one, as I find it too sweet. And this was much before I knew that dark chocolate had lower impacts.”
Also, be forewarned. She may be finished with chocolate for now, but there’s more sweet stuff to study. “We’re also working on biscuits [cookies], cakes and ice cream,” she said.
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.