How Your Sugar Addiction Fuels Climate Change
Is there a sustainable way to eat chocolate and candy?
Valentines Day has just passed and I will be the first to admit: I love chocolate. It is my favorite sweet and I adore it in pretty much every shape and form. I also have to admit that I probably have a sugar addiction. But so do a lot of people.
Science suggests that in the USA alone, around 75% of people eat too much sugar and many of them have developed a sugar addiction. This is not only due to bad nutritional choices, but also due to industry practices that infuse naturally sugar-free food with additional sugar, to make it more tasteful and more addicting.
This is not only a problem for our immediate heath, both physically and mentally, but also for the health of our planet.
Everybody’s darling: Chocolate
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite: chocolate. It is sweet and delicious and versatile. Unfortunately, it is also one of the worst foods when it comes to environmental impact.
The chocolate industry causes about 2.1 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, according to a study of the University of Manchester, which is approximately the same amount as an entire city.
Why is that?
Many commercial chocolate products use palm oil to make their consistency more creamy. Palm oil plantations cause deforestation and a dramatic increase in CO2 emissions, especially in South East Asia. The palm trees, which are grown in monocultural plantations, are highly flammable. Fires happen often, leading to further damage to the environment and everyone living nearby. In 2019, those fires released 465 megatonnes of CO2, which is about the same amount as the entire UK, according to Greenpeace.
The cacao plant itself is also grown in dangerous monocultures that cause the loss of forests and biodiversity. The largest producer of cocoa, the Ivory Coast, has already lost 85% of its forests and they are not alone with this kind of devastating statistic.
Another crucial ingredient for chocolate is dairy. I do not need to get into the details here, we all know the dairy industry’s ecological footprint. If you are not aware, the WWF has a nice overview. But in short: It is bad. Very bad.
Beyond the ingredients
But chocolate has even more problems than its ingredients. In many cases, the production of cacao is rooted in systems set up during colonization, and the industry is heavily dominated by companies led by white men outside of Africa and South America. The local farmers who actually work in the fields, often under hard conditions, are paid almost nothing. Slavery, human trafficking and child labor are also common.
The wonderland of colorful candy
The environmental footprint of candy is not much better either and certainly not as pretty as all its bright colors. They also heavily rely on palm oil as well as sugar.
Besides the unsustainable and sometimes unethical practices of palm oil plantations, sugar itself is likewise problematic. According to WWF, the farming of sugarcanes has caused significant damage to the world's biodiversity as well as the soil in many regions.
Sugarcane is grown in monocultures after deforestation of an area. This causes a big biodiversity loss and deteriorates the quality of the soil and water in the region. Due to its deep roots, growing sugarcane is highly water intensive, as is the processing of it. The industrial waste of the production also often ends up in nature, especially in freshwater, killing off further lifeforms such as fish and making the waterbodies undrinkable.
While there are currently no statistics or studies on the environmental impact of the bleaching of white sugar and the intense food coloring in many candies, we can be assured that it is not benefitting the planet or our health.
With Valentine’s Day just behind us, we all got reminded once again, how much unnecessary packaging most candy products have. Those huge heart-shaped praliné boxes usually have only a few sweets inside and consist mostly of plastic and paper. But this is not only an issue on the Day of Love.
Sweets are usually heavily packaged. Many bags, which are usually made of non-recyclable plastic, are filled with chocolates or candies that are all individually wrapped in yet another layer of plastic. Or they are sold in small quantities at the check-out line. All of this contributes to the immense problem of plastic pollution and waste that we are facing together with climate change.
It is time to take our heart-shaped glasses off and see our favorite sweets for what they really are: problematic little luxuries.
Is there a sustainable way?
As depressing as all of this sounds, there is some movement towards a better future. Some brands, including the big player Nestlé, and multiple palm oil manufacturers have promised to make their processes and products more sustainable and bring them in alignment with human rights. This is, however, just a promise, and little to no action has been taken so far, at least as far as we know. As chocolate is an industry with a market value of over 100$ billion, it is unlikely that drastic change is coming anytime soon.
So, for now, the best way to eat chocolates and candies sustainably is by avoiding the most common commercial brands and reducing our consumption to a bare minimum. You can also look out for companies that are transparent about their production, do not use palm oil, and practice fair trade.
If you want to take action, you can also hold brands accountable and ask direct questions or challenge their packaging and production practices. Ask for actual proof and do not be fooled by pretty marketing campaigns.
New brands are creating change
The good news is, that there are smaller companies taking off, that are aiming to revolutionize the sweets industry. Brands like Alter Eco focus on sustainable production and brands like Tony’s Chocolonely are taking action against slavery. While none of these brands are truly perfect, they at least offer transparency and improvement.
And there is not only change in the business world, but also on the farms and in the countries where the ingredients originate. Experimental farms like the woman-owned Plenty Plenty Africa for example work on decolonizing the cacao production and in Ecuador farms are testing new techniques to prevent further deforestation.
Reframing sweets in our minds
These sustainable and ethical products might have a higher price tag, but it shows us the reality: Products like chocolates and other candies are luxury items that should be enjoyed on special occasions, not as daily snacks.
By shifting our mindset and reducing our consumption we are doing something good for our own health and the health of the planet.