Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet


326 pages
Contains Index
ISBN 0-679-31319-2
DDC 338.4'7664153





Reviewed by Trevor S. Raymond

Trevor S. Raymond is a teacher and librarian with the Peel Board of Education and editor of Canadian Holmes.


Journalist Carol Off travelled to Europe, Central America, and West
Africa “investigating the dark side of the world’s most seductive
sweet,” and the result is an unsettling book that she admits might
“damage [one’s] ability to enjoy chocolate.” It is a fascinating,
if depressing, account of chocolate from “the predawn of human
history” to its current status as a vast global industry. We read of
men such as Joseph Fry, Henri Nestlé, and the Saskatchewan-educated
inventor of the Mars Bar, Forrest Mars, and how each refined the
chocolate process. The idealistic Brit Joseph Cadbury and his American
counterpart Milton Hershey who attempted to create utopian towns for
their workers provide few of the positive aspects of this story because
from the beginning, growing and harvesting cocoa beans has involved

Much of the book deals with the Cфte d’Ivoire, a West African nation
that “sets a whole new standard for Third-World graft”; it produces
nearly half of the world’s cocoa beans, but millions of chocolate
dollars disappear into a “network of fictitious agencies.” Off tells
of being stopped by gun-toting uniformed thugs every couple of
kilometres during a journey she made to the plantations, each experience
“more threatening—and expensive—than the one before.” She
reports on children lured from neighbouring countries, kept in
windowless barracks, starved, beaten, and worked to death. Easily
replaced, they are, as one chilling chapter heading says, “The
Disposables.” When an American senator tried to have chocolate bars
labelled “slave free” if it could be proved that they were, powerful
lobbying defeated him. Those who attempt to investigate the chocolate
trade are met at best with bureaucratic walls; at worst, they vanish, as
did a Canadian/French journalist whose work and whose murder are
discussed in the chapter “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

The rise of organic and “fair trade” chocolate is encouraging, as
are educational efforts in our schools (many of which sell chocolates to
raise money), but ultimately, the gulf between “the hand that picks
the bean and the hand that unwraps the candy” shows no sign of


Off, Carol., “Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 22, 2024,