June 2018

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25th June

Ever since I launched Herstory, one of my most popular lectures has always been A History of Chocolate (which I’ll be delivering again next month for a group in Doncaster). Over the years I’ve tweaked and amended it many times, and now I’m about to add another chapter. Alas, it makes a sad ending to an otherwise cheerful and often humorous story: the adulteration of my perennial favourite sweet treat with one of the food industry’s most pernicious products, palm oil. Chocolate has always been a highly-processed indulgence, although in its early days it was quite pure, consisting solely of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and milk fat/milk solids; and some brands (like Lindt and Green & Black’s organic range) still are.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for the vast majority of ‘bulk’ confectionery, including many sweets I’ve enjoyed since my childhood such as Mars Bars, Yorkie Bars and Toffee Crisp. In recent years, palm oil has sneaked stealthily into all these, and many more best-sellers, as a cheap alternative to other vegetable fats and cocoa butter, the most expensive; it’s also present in a wide range of associated products like mass-produced chocolate-coated cakes and biscuits.

You may ask, ‘So what?’ Well, apart from the difference in flavour and texture, (some brands taste unpleasantly greasy to me), palm oil is extremely controversial. Scientists can’t agree whether or not it’s harmful to human health, especially in the quantities we now consume it. But beyond dispute is that’s it’s harmful to the planet – increasing demand means that vast areas of rainforest are being felled and replaced with sterile mono-culture oil-palm plantations, destroying the habitat of many other plants and animals like the orang-utan and Sumatran rhino.

I bet our great Quaker families like Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry are turning in their graves to see what their delicious, wholesome foodstuffs have degenerated into over the past 150 years. So I certainly won’t be buying or eating any more palm-oil-contaminated ‘junk’ chocolate – and I’ll certainly be telling audiences at future History of Chocolate talks the reason why!

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