Mathematizing Happiness

Altruism and the gift of shade-grown coffee
“No one has ever become poor by giving.” ~Helen Keller “When people make donations to privately provided public goods, they may not only gain utility from increasing its total supply, but they may also gain utility from the act of giving” (Andreoni, 1990: 473).
In my previous blog, I explain how it is practically impossible to formulate happiness. However, there may be a way to theorize it. Shade-grown coffee is the perfect example of how we can try to explain human behavior through mathematical equations. Economists are known (and criticized) for their theories of utility, which quantify how much one thing, a good or service, makes people happy in terms of degree of satisfaction. Indirectly, this is revealed through how much people are willing to pay for that thing. To illustrate: if you pay $5 for a cup of shade-grown coffee over $2 for a standard cup of Joe, this is the indirect way of measuring your underlying preferences that the expensive cup because brings you greater satisfaction, which economists call ‘utility.’ This is the neoclassical way of explaining human behavior. Let’s dig deeper: what is actually different about the shade-grown coffee that makes you willing to pay more? Is it just a cup of coffee, or does it also embody something else like a fuzzy feel-good feeling that you have contributed to a greater cause like protecting the Amazon rainforest and lifting a farming family out of poverty. (For a really great example of marketing with brilliant emotional appeal, see Follow the Frog. Okay, so maybe I actually did that…(and will be doing it again soon). We all want to be good people. We all want to save humanity, save the rainforest, and be Robin Hood of the 21st century. We also—in a very selfish way—want to help ourselves. Intrinsically, we are both selfish and altruistic beings. It’s in our human nature [1]. It might seem like good and helping others break the rules of economic rationality. After all, we could purchase the cheaper cup of coffee, invest the $3 saved, and with the right savings vehicle and the magic of compound interest, eventually strike it rich [2]. Yet, people still opt for the more expensive cup of coffee. Economist, no surprise, have found a way around to clean up this blemish to their equation with theory on impurity. To explain this, there is something called impure altruism [3]. When people act in benevolent ways, like make donations to charity, they are doing so for their own benefit too. Andreoni (1989) developed a warm-glow model that presents a new utility function for impurely altruistic behavior: U=Ui (xi, gi, G) [4] ,[5] Which means that we can drive maximum utility through the following equation: max Ui (xi, gi, G) | xi + gi = wi, G=G-1 + gi Kotchen (2006) has shown that the same model can be used to explain the markets for ‘environmentally friendly’ goods by mathematically illustrating how charitable giving is akin to ethical or green-consumption. I’ll try to explain this through the $5 cup of shade-grown coffee example. Suppose you can measure happiness in one-unit increments, which you can think of as golden utility points expressed in units of dollars. We can break down the intrinsic utility of shade-grown coffee:
  • $2—It tastes good and wakes you up (or xi points as a ‘private good’ which you, and only you, receive)
  • $3—It does good, by sustaining the tropical rainforest with shade cover as opposed to more agro-intensive farming (or G+gi points as the ‘public good’ that benefits the entire ecosystem, and that hypothetically includes you).
Notice that the $3 donation is the sum of G and gi because we treat coffee as a quasi public good [6]. The big “G” is the public good dimension, in other words, the shade-grown effects of coffee as helping the entire tropical rainforest. The small “gi” is your private benefit. After all, you’re part of the global environment too, so if the coffee is helping sustain a rainforest, even if it’s thousands of miles away, that is helping you in some indirect way. Does shade-grown coffee make us happy? By the logic of this formula: yes. But do we really need a formula to know that? Perhaps there’s something more to shade-grown coffee that doesn’t fit neatly into the equation. It makes us feel like we’re doing good. It’s as though we are willing to pay more for shade-grown coffee because it gives us some deeper satisfaction for that “um-good” feeling like psychological umami[7] that we’ve just saved (one leaf of) the rainforest, all through our guilty pleasure of morning coffee.  


[1] Taylor, Ken. “Psychological vs. Biological Altruism.” Philosophy Talk. 2010. <>. [2] Einstein called compound interest the eighth wonder of the world, and with good reason. As an extreme example, suppose you invested the $3.00 in a stock paying an annual interest rate of 15%, compounded quarterly. Then the balance after 50 years is $4,728.71. If instead the interest rate is 20%, compounded quarterly, then after 75 years you would have a whopping $6,821,988.3. [3] Andreoni J. (1990) Impure Altruism and Donations to Public Goods: A Theory of Warm-Glow Giving? The Economic Journal 100: 464-477. [4] Capital letters indicate the sum or total and lower case letters indicate individuals. So G is the utility for society and gi is the utility for the individual, for the same good. [5] Two extremes would deviate from this utility function. The first is the case of pure altruism, by which the individual does not gain any utility for him/herself from the warm-glow feeling gi=0 such that Ui=Ui(xi, G). The other is the case of pure egoism by which the individual does not care at all about the greater good, G=0, and they act only in self-interest such that Ui=Ui(xi, gi). However, when people are motivated by both self and society interest, i.e. they are impurely altruistic, then both G and gi fit into the utility function. [6] In Econ talk, shade-grown is public in the sense that the environmental benefits are non-excludable. The missing half to be a pure public good is that, on a per-cup basis the coffee is does not fit the criteria as ‘non-rival’ because when you drink from that cup there are fewer sips for another consumer to enjoy. [7] Umami is the Japanese fifth taste that inexplicably explains why food is delicious. The term psychological umami is my own concoction.  

Additional References

Andreoni J. (1990) Impure Altruism and Donations to Public Goods: A Theory of Warm-Glow Giving? The Economic Journal 100: 464-477. Kotchen MJ. (2006) Green Markets and Private Provision of Public Goods. Journal of Political Economy 114.

Humanity in the Face of Crisis

It is hard to put into words all the emotions that describe the November 13th Paris attacks and subsequent reactions. The horror was beyond imagination. In many ways it is hard to believe that such could have been an act of humankind; which is why, in a paradoxical sense, the events also give me great hope for the spirit of humanity. I had been living in Paris for nearly three months leading up to the attacks and had grown to call Paris my new home. So much of about this city of lights enchanted me—and still does today: the slow culture of eating, the beautiful architecture and countless cultural sites, and the amalgamation of socio-economic classes and nationalities. Not surprisingly, I feel quite at home in a place where chocolate is a food group unto itself. Coffee with pain au chocolat for breakfast is a normal yet extraordinary way to start the day. Things changed not only for Paris but also for the world on November 13. Within instants, confusion turned into fear, and fear turned into rage. But there was another powerfully strong emotional reaction: love. Social media helped string together friends, family, and loved ones in words reassuring their safety. My inbox was flooded with messages. I am one of the fortunate who was out of harm’s reach. That day, I happened to be home on a return visit to California celebrating my Chinese grandfather’s 99th birthday. Seeing him again and being back with family put me at a loss of words and instead filled me with laughter—the kind that makes you want to cry—to see him and distant family again. The events in Paris only intensified our emotions. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of grief, compassion, and deep gratitude for life all at once. Now back in Paris, I am appreciating the simple pleasures of life with an air of melancholy. The morning ritual of coffee has a different note of sweetness. The autumn air feels an edge sharper. When people ask: “How are you?” it seems they more genuinely mean it. Trying to place what seemed different, I turned to neuroscience for the answer. What parts of the brain are activated when we are confronted with traumatic events? Why do some people react with love and compassion; and others, with fear and rage? Disasters are times when people have intense, often irrational feelings. These times can bring out the best and the worst in people. So I did a quick search on neuroscience behind emotions (get ready): The amygdala, located in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex region of the brain, is known to control emotional reactions, decision-making, and memory.[1] It sends off an ‘alarm system’ when we experience threats, including perceived threats, of harm. On the flip side, when we feel extremely socially connected, this taps into the very same part in the brain.[2] Pretty cool, right? Now, I do not claim to be a neuroscientist but there seems to be a link between our ability to cope with these traumatic events and the strength of our social networks. Additionally, those neurophysiological processes will play out in our physical health and interpersonal relationships, like how nicely or aggressively we act toward one another.[3] To put things more simply: there’s feedback between our behavior on the outside and our feelings on the inside. None of this comes as a surprise and yet we sometimes forget about the basic nature of the human spirit. We can re-wire our brains to help cope with trauma. Social support may be the path to resilience. Steps so simple as telling someone “thank you” or giving a cheerful “bonjour!” may not only brighten their day but also yours.[4] In times like this I hope that we may turn to forget past resentments to embrace instead the beauty of humanity. We can overtake the fear with love. Then, if that triggers a positive neural emotional response, fostering connectivity over fear and anxiety, we can light back up this city with compassion.   References [1] Good old Wikipedia. [2] Eisenberger NI, & Cole SW (2012). Social neuroscience and health: neurophysiological mechanisms linking social ties with physical health. Nature neuroscience, 15 (5), 669-74 PMID: 22504347 [3] Swencionis JK and Fiske ST. (2014) How social neuroscience can inform theories of social comparison. Neuropsychologia 56: 140-146. [4] Zak, Paul. “The Science of Generosity.” 22 November 2009.
The Formula for Quality

The Formula for Quality

What’s the secret to the perfect cup of coffee? For the past two years I have tried to formulate quality, specifically trying to draw linkages between high quality coffee production and quality of life of coffee farmers in Veracruz, Mexico. It was a seemingly perfect study design: In 2010 the Agroecological Center for Coffee (CAFECOL) introduced a new certification to assess the quality of coffee on a 100-point Q-score.[1] Any coffee that scored at least 84 points could be sold through an online auction directly to specialty coffee roasters. CAFECOL wanted to evaluate their program by comparing three broad groups of farmers: those who produced high quality coffee and successfully sold through the online auction, those who produced high quality coffee but were not successful in selling through the auction, and those who were unable to reach the 84 minimum point score. They posed the following question: What make the ‘successful’ coffee farmers different than the rest?

The hypothesis: Farmers who make high quality coffee have a high(er) quality of life.

For the first three months I developed an interview protocol with the partnering organizations CAFECOL and the Institute of Ecology (INECOL). For the next nine months I interviewed 40 coffee farmers and their families (including 20 living stays) in the high altitude micro-regions of Coatepec, Huatuasco, and Zongolica. Then I spent the next 12 months cleaning up the data, revisiting the literature, and writing up the methodology as part of my MPhil degree at Cambridge.

Now, degree in hand, I have a sinking feeling that I have failed miserably to address the initial question. The thing is, there is no one typology for a ‘successful’ coffee farmer, and no simple measure for quality of life.

I tried everything. I ran statistical tests, controlling for regions, gender, age, income, and education level. To deal with the issue of too many possible explanatory factors (>300), I ran a statistical analysis called Principal Components Analysis (PCA) to compress these into new variables and search for patterns in the data. From the qualitative side, I coded and re-coded pages of interview transcripts and ran text queries in search of salient themes. While these revealed some important insights (and importantly, methodological limitations), questions remain of how to combine multiple analytical methods.

We had assumed that quality for coffee could be simply measured through the Q-Score. The initial sampling design controlled for farmers with different Q-scores to understand differences between groups. However, we had not accounted for the possibility of variation within the Q-scores themselves. It is hard enough to achieve high quality in one instance, harder still to achieve consistently high quality. Nor was this outcome always an active decision. A farmer may have done exactly the same from one year to the next--harvested from the same plants, using the same inputs, and with the same processing techniques, yet due to uncontrollable factors like climate and disease, not achieved the same level of quality. Just as persistent happiness is not a realistic goal, quality coffee seemed to come in cycles.[2] Thus scoring high on quality one year did not guarantee success the following.

Importantly, how do you relate quality of coffee back to quality of life? That relationship is far more complex than any statistical analysis, for embedded within the notion of ‘quality living’ are the intangible aspects that make life worth living but really cannot be measured: e.g., love, compassion, spirituality, place attachment, and health. Proxies such as income and weekly expenditures can be helpful approximations, but should not be used to assess the holistic notion of human wellbeing.

What is my final assessment? I have no concrete findings, only intuitive “hunches.” Indeed, there was something different about the farmers scored higher on the quality coffee assessment, such as an entrepreneurial spirit, a spiritual connection to their land, and a deep concern for the future generations. On a personal note, living with those farmers taught me to live differently. I learned to relish the simple gifts of life like running water, toilet paper, and a pillow for one’s head. I saw through their eyes the joys of waking up to breathtaking landscapes and feeling the soul-warming comfort of corn tortillas. I listened, feeling helpless, to their hardships, yet inspired by their tenacity to live. Those farmers taught me something very important: quality of living is about being present.

So what is the formula for quality? There is no recipe of success. I may have failed at the initial task, but succeed at a different goal: learning to live and to experience wellbeing. It has not been an easy journey, but that’s what makes it worthwhile. As Confucius once said, “by three methods we may learn wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; And third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

 Coffee is a bitter story. The journey has been rocky. In the end, I have learned to savor life sweetness and see through different eyes. Perhaps, that was the goal of this degree—and why it’s called a Masters of Philosophy.

[1] The Q-score is an internationally recognized quantitative assessment of 100 points derived from a composite of factors like the cup profile, body, and aroma

[2] Coffee plants tend to have three-year cycles of good and bad years. Plants may be working day and night, but that’s not to mean that they are always productive (like us humans).

Eating Like a Hobbit

This article was inspired by the NY Times Article How to Live Wisely and gives special thanks to Corri Taylor, my first Economics professor and ongoing mentor on the philosophy of life.

I have no idea what hobbits eat for breakfast. All I know is that they eat four breakfasts, and they relish each one of them.

Four meals don’t sound so bad when you’re out on the field. It’s all about context. At a discussion with the Gates Cambridge Trust we learned that each person has a “rhythm of life.” Whether that applies to years spent in a job, time it takes to finish school, or even the number of meals you eat in a day, we each have our own rhythm of life.

Over the past year I have been writing the academic work of my fieldwork and am just starting to reflect on the personal lessons learned. There are some similarities, strangely, between that year of fieldwork and the past year at Cambridge. One is the open-ended schedule and limitless activities. How we decide to divide and use our time is about preferences. This brought me to a recent article in the NY Times on living wisely.

Sometimes it can be more productive to be less productive.

The philosophy of economics may strangely explain the secret to success, and shine light on this burning question: Why do some coffee farmers produce higher quality coffee than do others? Perhaps because they’ve figured out how to allocate their time and limited resources doing the most productive activities, not only in terms of the coffee itself but also in terms of their own wellbeing. Though I cannot test it by any statistical means, and it would be unethical for me to judge whether one farmer is “happier” than the next, it seems that there is something about balance. No doubt, farmers who make great coffee work really hard. But they also play, love, and laugh really hard.

Take, for example, the concept nonseperability of labor: time spent at work is not all “work” or conversely we work when we should actually be relaxing at home. We are all guilty of mixing the two. For farmers, this is especially true, though it is not necessarily a bad thing. They might stop halfway through pruning coffee bushes to pick a fruit, nourishing the body and taking a pause to enjoy the sounds of the birds. They might wake up early in the morning to put coffee out on the patio to dry before joining the family for breakfast. For this reason it’s really hard to estimate how much time they actually spend “working,” and how productive they are relative to those hours. But perhaps that’s not the important question.

It seems to me that high quality coffee farmers have figured out their own rhythm of life, how to ride the waves of ups and downs, of seasonal changes and market fluctuations, as is the nature of the business. Just as persistent happiness is not a realistic goal, quality coffee seemed to come in cycles. Coffee plants tend to have three-year cycles of good and bad years. Plants may be working day and night, but that’s not to mean that they are always productive (like us humans).

How we choose to allocate our scarcest resource of all—time—could be one of the most important facets in determining our wellbeing.

Rainforest for Breakfast

Rainforest for Breakfast


This is the variety plátano cuadrado (also known as 'bolsa').

Bananas: the perfect complement to coffee I love bananas, don’t get me wrong. But I hardly eat them in the UK. Bananas represent, to me, both the perils of globalization and the opportunities of local production. Let me start with the former before moving into the dark side of bananas. Much of worldwide banana production goes to local consumption. Especially for smallholder farmers, bananas can be a staple food and important source of income to local markets. While living in Mexico, I learned about all about banana diversity: the diverse banana species, the diverse uses of bananas, and how bananas even promote biodiversity on the farm. Bananas are one of the more common shade-trees on coffee farms in Veracruz. Unlike the more seasonal fruits like oranges and guavas, it seemed like bananas were available year-round. That’s because banana is not one fruit; eight species of banana are commercially grown in Mexico[1] and during my fieldwork I encountered 15 banana species on the coffee farms. I grew to love each for different occasions: the small, firm plátano roatan to quench the sweet tooth after a meal; the creamy plátano morado early in the morning to satisfy the morning fast; and the plátano tabasqueño when I wanted a hearty afternoon snack. Also true for many farming households, bananas were a staple part of my diet: I consumed one, two or sometimes three each day. Bananas are also a cheap form of food security. When money runs out to buy fruit from the market, there are usually bananas on the farm.

An itsy bitsy banana (unknown variety).

Bananas have an incredible diversity of uses apart from food: the leaves can be commercially sold for uses in cuisine (such as the steamed Mexican tamales or Puerto Rican arepas) or as a vehicle for offerings on festivals like Día de los Muertos. Different bananas have different nutritional value, and even cultural significance. The plátano morado, for example, is claimed to alleviate gastritis, but some believe that it should only be eaten in the morning because it could harm the body eaten later in the day. Nutritionally packed with Vitamin C, high in potassium, and excellent source of carbohydrates there are many reasons why these locally grown bananas are so good for farming households in Veracruz, Mexico. The story is different in Costa Rica where large banana companies convert vast areas of land to banana monocultures. Costa Rica has a history of logging and deforestation associated with bananas since the early 20th century. After a spell of devastating fungal disease, the Standard Fruit Company (more commonly known by its banana brand, Dole) began to increase plantations in the 1950s. Soon other large companies began to join in, and Costa Rica experienced a massive banana expansion in the 1990s. This was in part aided by trade agreements with the US, which supported infrastructure like roads and bridges to ultimately favor expansion of the banana companies. Today, these large companies are criticized for interrelated social and environmental damages like deforestation and pesticide abuse that have consequences to human health. A case in the 1970s showed that thousands of banana workers were rendered sterile due to negligence of the fungicide DBCP (dipromochloropropane). Increasingly workers are also coming from other countries like Nicaragua and are drawn into rural wage labor. IMG_5708What’s the solution? Shall we smash our demand for bananas? But then, would we grow hungry for some other exotic fruit? Bananas are not unique—for countless tropical fruits are becoming mainstreamed into global diets. But perhaps there is a way to find a happy balance with this diet: bananas and coffee. Bananas and coffee, when grown together on small-scale agroforestry systems, could help feed the people without costing the planet.   References [1] “Eight types of bananas are grown commercially in Mexico.” Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of Modern Mexico. 20 March 2014. Vandermeer JH and Perfecto I. (2005) Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Political Ecology of Rain Forest Destruction: Food First Books.  

The Secret to Happy Productivity: Eat a Chocolate Frog

What’s the secret to happy productivity? Swallow a chocolate frog first thing in the morning. That’s right, a chocolate frog.

For most of us, there is something looming on our To Do list that we need to get done but keep putting off. Whether it’s the paper to write, the email to send, or the grant application to submit, these activities take us away from what we may more enjoyable, like frolicking in the sunshine, spending time with friends, or sometimes even staring at the wall. But alas, those less pleasant tasks will not disappear instead only grow bigger-- and uglier--the more we put them off.

At the Cambridge EnterpriseWISE conference, we were advised to think of these unpleasant tasks as frogs. You probably have a box of frogs. Some of them are bigger and nastier looking than others. The key to happy productivity is to start the day by picking the biggest, ugliest frog, staring at it meanly in the face, taking a deep breath, and gulping it down.

Didn’t that feel good?

Now everything else will seem sweet in comparison. Of course, practically speaking sometimes frogs are so large that you cannot handle them in a single gulp. You’ll need to break it down into parts and swallow a little piece every day. (Apologies if this has turned into a revolting metaphor.) Then sooner than you know it, that frog will be conquered.

That may last for a couple weeks, months, years, or even an entire lifetime. If you can keep it up, I applaud you. But sometimes we all crave a little sweetness and cannot bear the thought of an ugly frog first thing in the morning. One approach is to look at the chocolate lining, so to speak, of the unpleasant circumstance. Be grateful that you have Internet connection to send that email. Think long-term about the potential payoff from making that grant application today. Attitude change is one approach. Another is to insert fun activities like listening to music or treating yourself to coffee, while doing the activity. Whatever strategy works for you, there are ways to make that frog seem less unpleasant.

Follow this Harry Potter recommendation to eat a chocolate frog first thing in the morning. You will spend the rest of the day bouncing happily from your morning burst of productivity.

Why coffee tastes so bitter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA short poem about the bitter life of coffee.

Why coffee tastes so bitter

Because it is good for you

Some like it sweet

Some like it neat

Some leave it on the pot to overheat

But those who know coffee at its best,

Drink it black, fresh, and undressed

Because good coffee is purity

Pristine like clean water and rejuvenating like fresh air,

Rich like the colors of an artist’s palate,

Complex like emotions, from rage to compassion, from sorrow to love

Coffee is dark.

It sometimes makes me want to cry

                                                            or pray

                                                                        or sing

Because, for many, del café vivimos

Coffee is life.

Why coffee tastes so good 

Because it is bitter

© Madeline R. Weeks

It’s a Matter of Taste

It’s a Matter of Taste

What happens when you give a group of 30 middle school students chocolate? Do they squirm with delight? Nope.

“It’s gross.” “Yuck.”

To be honest, I was horrified. Here I am trying to tell people to eat better chocolate—when I realize that my own concept of “good” chocolate is not what most kids are used to eating.

I had asked students to evaluate chocolate in terms of taste, and the respective chocolate companies on their pledges to social and environmental sustainability. The activity was immediately off to a bad start when I handed out the cacao beans and showed students how to crack open the shells and munch the bitter nibs. The disillusionment continued as these students moved through the dark end of the chocolate spectrum, tasting bars of 85%, 72%, and 70% cocoa mass.

It would have been horribly easier—and more popular—to throw in a sugary Cadbury Dairy Milk or Kinder bar.

Doing so would have been betrayal of my own beliefs about chocolate. I was on a mission to educate their palates and train the future connoisseurs of high quality chocolate. Yet, what these kids demanded was the sugary milk chocolate that they were familiar to eating. In all fairness a handful of students actually liked the dark chocolate selection. It may not be their fault that they are raised eating sweet milk chocolate. Even my first love of chocolate started with (and I hate to admit) a Hershey's’ peanut butter cup.

Are kids more hard-wired to like sweet?

This motivated me to do some research. It turns out that our taste buds really do change over time and can develop just as bodies and minds do. One study in 2002 by the University of Western Sydney, Australia indicated that female children were slightly more sensitive to tastes sweet, salty, and bitter than are male children. Another study by the University of Copenhagen corroborates this, adding to it that male children have a stronger preference for sweet. Not until around age 13-14 do kids begin to demand less sweet and become more comfortable with bitter. This may also be cultural and overall there is relatively little scientific research on children’s sense of taste and exactly how it changes over time. Because kids have 10,000 taste buds compared to adults who have about 5,000 working taste buds, kids are more sensitive to extreme tastes like bitter and have more proclivity for sugar.

The flavor of chocolate is the most important factor in determining consumer preference, and is the result of a complex process starting from the genetics of the plant to the post-harvest treatment like fermenta tion and drying. At least 800 flavor compounds are associated chocolate, which is even more than fine wine. This flavor will obviously be influenced by the quality of the ingredients, including the non-cocoa ingredients like sugar. Texture will influence our ability to perceive these flavors. By changing the particle size it is possible for more cocoa flavor to emerge with less of the raw cocoa ingredient (Voltz & Beckett, 1997). Grinding chocolate for longer periods of time through a process called “conching” will break down the chocolate into smaller particles.

As chocolate is ground, its chemical matrix will go through a series of alterations to its crystalline structure. According to a talk at the Cambridge Science Museum, the tongue cannot taste particles below 15 micron, which is why chocolate conched for longer periods of time, like the Galaxy bar, has a smaller particle size and thus tastes smoother. This also has to do with the viscosity, which changes how long the particles linger on the tongue. Since sugar is a hydrophobic compound, emulsification allows the fat to come into contact with the sugar, and we perceive this chocolate as smoother.

Flavor perception is the result of a complex process involving different parts of the body: the teeth (touch like snap and mouthfeel), the tongue (sour, bitter, salty, sweet, and unami), the nose (aroma), and the throat (flow, viscosity). From the moment we unwrap a chocolate bar our eyes and nose have already begun to assess the chocolate. The longer we allow chocolate to melt on our tongue, the greater the release of volatiles that increase our perception of flavors (Engelen et al, 2003). Chocolate with a higher viscosity will stay on our tongue for longer (Afoakwat et al, 2008d), which may explain why we can easily perceive the melt-in-your-mouth quality of milk chocolates. Dark chocolate takes longer to go through the full journey of taste to really appreciate its full flavor profile.

Getting kids to like the dark chocolate may not be just a matter of taste, but also a matter of patience.

  1. Sensitivity of taste in children and adults: C. James and D. G. Laing. University of Western Sydney, Australia. Appetite, 24, 68.
Afoakwa, E. O. 2011. Sensory character and flavour perception of chocolates. Chocolate Science and Technology. Wiley. Culter, Jennifer. “The Difference Between the Taste Buds of Adults & Kids.” Demand Media. 20 March 2015. Engelen, L., de Wijk, R. A. Prinz, J.F. Janssen, A.M., Van Der Bilt, A., Weenen, H. & Bosman, F. (2003). A comparison of the effect of added saliva, alpha-amylase and water on texture and flavor perception in semisolid foods. Physiology and Behavior, 78, 805-811. University of Copenhagen. “Girls Have Superior Sense of Taste to Boys.” 18 December 2008. 20 March 2015. Voltz, M. & Beckett, S.T. (1997). Sensory of chocolate. The Manufacturing Confectioner, 77, 49-53.    
The Making and Tasting of Chocolate

The Making and Tasting of Chocolate

Dinner & Dialogue in partnership with the Gates Scholars and the Global Scholars Action Network Tasting can be a great way to engage the senses. Tasting in groups can be a great way to engage people in a lively discussion. In the spirit of bringing action to the table, the Global Scholars Action Network partnered with the Gates Cambridge community to launch Dinner and Dialogue: The Making and Tasting of Chocolate. The discussion topic was “What is good chocolate?” from a multi-disciplinary perspective. After a 15-minute presentation led on the seed-to-bean-to-bar process of making chocolate, participants were invited to explore the concept of “good” chocolate starting with a sensory evaluation of different types of chocolate, including certified (i.e. organic, Fair Trade, vegan), single origins (i.e. Madagascar, Ecuador) and a spectrum of intensity (i.e. 70%, 80%, 85%). With the story of chocolate in mind, students embarked on a Chocolate Challenge to taste and evaluate chocolate. Mindfully tasting
“We are not here to eat chocolate. We are here to taste chocolate. And there’s a difference.”
While it can be tempting to simply pop a square of chocolate in your mouth or gnaw from a chocolate bar, the art of tasting is really a practice of mindfulness (see Headspace). Chocolate is such an incredible food because it can take you on a journey, from the moment you open the package and observe the sheen of the chocolate bar, break off a square to hear the “snap,” and place it on the tip of your tongue. As the chocolate melts you’ll move through waves of sensation, starting with that first impression, then the core or real “essence” of the flavor, and finishing with the memorable aftertaste. That journey can depend on your mood, time of day, and what you ate beforehand. It is about the interaction between you and the chocolate in that particular moment. Students took the first challenge to taste the first sample in complete silence. It actually takes a lot of concentration to taste chocolate, yet so often we consume without really thinking about that process. And it is easy to be swayed by a fancy brand name or how we think the chocolate should taste. Thus, all the chocolates in this exercise were sampled blindly to remove any preconceptions about taste. Critically engaging IMG_7781During this tasting students used flavor wheels developed by TCHO and Chocolopolis as examples of the range of vocabulary that can describe flavor. In the wine industry, there is the Robert-Parker 100-point wine scoring scale; and in the coffee industry there is the Q Coffee System. Yet to my knowledge there is no standardized method for evaluating the quality of chocolate. I developed scorecards based on the wine and coffee criteria to assess the different sensory components like the aroma, first impressions, and aftertaste. Students then ranked each chocolate based on a 5-point scale then decided as a team whether the sample was “bad” “average” or “good.” While the sensory evaluation is one component, assessing good chocolate is really much more complex. The social and environmental factors should be just an important a part of the decision. Unlike other agricultural commodities, cacao thrives in biodiverse environments when it has the protection of a shade canopy and is surrounded by pollinators like an insect called the midge. So cacao grown in the traditional, or organic manner, can arguably be in line with efforts of environmental conversation. Certifications that specifically target the environment include Bio-Siegel (Germany), Soil Association Organic Standard (UK), and the Organic Certification.
"A brilliant way to connect and build ideas around the issue of ‘ethical farming’ while enjoying many varieties of our favourite treats!” (Student of the University of Cambridge)
There is also the people component. 90% of the cacao in the world is grown on small-scale farms and yet these farmers receive only 3-5% of the final price of the product. This is where certifications like the Fairtrade Mark, Fair for Life, the Ethical Award, and independent seals like It’s One World incorporate social standards like decent working conditions and reinvesting in children’s education. Each of the companies featured during the tasting matched at least one criteria of social or environmental “goodness” to varying degrees. Below is a snapshot of the different certifications of chocolates from the tasting. TastingResults2 Certifications tell one side of the story but usually not the complete picture. In fact, some of the best chocolates I know do not carry any certification. The challenge for many smallholder farmers, especially those in remote areas or without local structures of community organization, is the lack of information and market access to these certification schemes. Thus, it’s important to think about the overall transparency when evaluating good chocolate. In general the more information you know about where the chocolate comes from, in terms of where it is grown and how it is made, the easier it is to evaluate the goodness of chocolate in its holistic sense. Terms like “bean-to-bar” and “single origin,” and “direct trade” are all good indications of a more transparent value-chain.
"It was a taste-opening, multisensory experience that has heightened my awareness of the social context in which chocolate is produced. Each chocolate has its own story to tell, both with regard to its origins and its complex flavours. And the company was superlative!" (Student of Oxford University)
Consciously acting IMG_7776The final question remains: How do I support good chocolate? One of the best ways is to start with your own consumption choices. By the end of the session students were eager to find out where they could purchase their favorite chocolate. There are a handful of online retailers like CocoaRunners and Bean to Bar Chocolate and specialty chocolate shops in the UK like Paul A Young Fine Chocolates Ltd and Cocoa Cabana. In Cambridge, the wholefood grocery shop Arjuna offers a nice selection. It can also be a fun social activity to discover great chocolates. One example of a social enterprise that is helping customers discover and support good chocolate is The Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto, California. This model supports “Happy Chocolate,” with direct-trade and bean-to-bar chocolate that connects small cacao growers, artisanal chocolate makers, and consumers. Chocolate is about making happy connections and being conscious of the role you play in the overall value chain.
“We realised that there was a lot more to good chocolate and the need to change peoples thinking in this area.” (Student of the University of Cambridge)
Tasting chocolate is an individual and collective journey, which begins the first decision of which chocolate to purchase. It is a process of discovery that can open us to new ways of thinking about how we interact with chocolate and with each other. And not to be forgotten, active tasting is about active being. It is about being present to fully appreciate the beauty, complexity, and captivating quality of chocolate. IMG_7782  

Fairtrade in the UK: Mars Chocolate Announces Partnership with Fairtrade Sourcing Program

Here in the UK, Fair Trade products abound. Grocery stores are lined with Fair Trade products from Divine Chocolate to major household chocolate brands like Dairy Milk, Green & Black’s, Maltesers, and KitKat. Shop online and you can find an array of household products like wooden stools and even Fairtrade Fashion. It’s no wonder that Fairtrade seems so omnipresent: the UK is the largest market for Fairtrade products. 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the FAIRTRADE in the UK and the next question is: What will 2015 hold in store? One of the most popular chocolate bars in the UK—the Mars bar—is soon to be made Fairtrade. Or, at least sourcing some ingredients according to Fairtrade standards. Customers may not notice a change on the label because this time the focus is not on the certification. This month Mars Chocolate announced its partnership with the new Fairtrade Sourcing Program (FSP), a new scheme launched in 2014 “to enable producers to sell more cocoa, sugar and cotton on Fairtrade terms” (Source: Fairtrade International). As it currently stands, the FAIRTRADE Mark demands that 100% of the product is Fairtrade; thus for a chocolate bar to be FAIRTRADE certified not only the cacao but all other ingredients like sugar must be purchased according to Fairtrade standards. This can be challenging for chocolate if the cacao is sourced Fairtrade but the sugar is not, especially in countries like Switzerland where coveted traditional Swiss chocolate is made from locally grown beet sugar (Source: Fairtrade and Sugar). Under the new Fairtrade Sourcing Program, businesses can commit to purchaing products according to the Fairtrade standards even if not all ingredients carry the Fairtrade mark. So it takes the focus off the certification and labeling and emphasizes the supply chain and sourcing. Bottom line, this program could make it easier for large companies like Mars to scale up purchases of Fairtrade cacao. The goal of the FSP is “more Fairtrade for everyone.” But we’ve got to ask: Is this more of a commitment to helping the smallholder or to the large corporation? It seems like there is huge market potential from the smallholder perspective. Globally, only 1.2% of the world’s cacao is sold on Fairtrade terms (Source: Fairtrade International). In Cote D’Ivore, where Mars will be focusing this new initiative, roughly 30,000 Fairtrade certified producers are capable of selling 75,000 tons of cacao on the market, yet only 16% of their production is actually sold as Fairtrade. (Source: Interview with FortinBley). According to Mars, the new scheme would increase premiums paid to West African cooperatives to over $2 million by 2016. (Source: Press release). These premiums can be re-invested to support programs like training and increasing yields and disease resistant crops. While this is sweet news for the confectionary industry, and does represent a positive step in promoting more transparent sourcing, it’s important not to lose sight of what good chocolate is all about: quality. Even if this partnership does bring Mars “one step closer to sustainable, ethically sourced cocoa becoming the norm in the chocolate industry,” (Blas Maquivar, president of Mars Chocolate UK, Source: The Scotland Herald), one cannot help but wonder the if helping smallholder cacao farmers is best done by promoting a large corporation like Mars. Yet, the sustainability discourse is also changing. Large companies, according to the State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) Review of 2014 may be an important part of the equation to drive market growth for sustainable commodities. Initiatives like the Mars partnership with the Fairtrade Sourcing Program are part of a larger equation to address sustainability from a global scale. Yet there is no panacea for trade-offs that may arise. Would sourcing in bulk diminish the quality? What are the implications for small- and medium-scale chocolate makers? How might this impact the cacao farms that don’t have access to the program? And lastly, will this make consumers buy more Mars bars? My dentist is already starting to squirm.