It’s pretty obvious that something like “milk chocolate” isn’t vegan—it has “milk” in the name. But what about cocoa powder itself?
Is cocoa powder vegan? Cocoa powder, in its pure form, is vegan. If “cocoa” is the only ingredient on the label, there are no animal products in it. However, some cocoa products do have milk included. There are also issues with child slave labor to consider when choosing a brand of cocoa powder.
I’ll cover more below about slave labor in cocoa production and why many vegans choose to only buy Fair Trade cocoa brands. But first, let’s cover checking for dairy ingredients in your cocoa.
Making Sure There Isn’t Dairy in Your Cocoa Powder
Most basic cocoa powder will be sold as just pure cocoa powder. Sometimes the ingredients will just say “Cocoa.” Nothing else. In that case, you know it is dairy-free.
But there are many products where cocoa powder gets mixed in with milk products.
Here’s how to quickly check whether there’s milk in a product, at least in the United States. Look at the bottom of the ingredients list for an allergy warning.
If there is milk in a product in the United States, there will be an allergy warning that says “Contains Milk,” “Contains Milk Ingredients,” or something like that.
Often, any allergens in the ingredients list itself will also be bolded. That will allow you to quickly see the milk ingredients in the list, too.
Milk ingredients to possibly look for: Milk chocolate, milk fat, nonfat milk, whey.
Overall, it should be pretty quick and easy to see whether the cocoa product in question contains dairy. If you need more help reading ingredients lists to see if products are vegan, you can check out my post all about it here.
Should Vegans Only Buy Fair Trade Cocoa?
As a vegan, what I’m about to discuss very likely matters to you. Even though there may not be animal ingredients in cocoa powder itself, that doesn’t mean cruelty wasn’t involved in its production.
Slave Labor and Cocoa Powder Production
Depending on where your cocoa powder came from, there might have been child slave labor involved in its production.
This is important to most vegans, particularly if you adopted your diet for ethical reasons.
This is not an issue everywhere that cocoa powder comes from. However, a lot of cocoa powder comes from West Africa where children are misled and forced into working on farms that supply cocoa to major-brand companies.
In Western Africa, especially Ghana and the Ivory Coast, the cocoa bean is a commodity export and one of the most highly demanded products in the world, due to chocolate’s popularity among people in all countries.
With that in mind, slavers promise children and their families a better life by allowing the children to work on the farms with the promise of a decent wage.
The reality is far from what is advertised, however. Once the children arrive, they are forced to work and aren’t compensated for their time. And this leads to some of the most horrific forms of child labor, slavery, and human trafficking.
Child cocoa slaves are provided with chainsaws and machetes to harvest the cocoa beans for their slaver’s operation. These tools are clearly dangerous and shouldn’t be in the hands of a child.
After harvesting the cocoa, the child laborers must place the beans into bags weighing more than 100 pounds and carry them through the forest. Often, if they don’t move fast enough, they are beaten.
How Do I Know If My Cocoa Has Been Produced Ethically?
When trying to determine whether your cocoa powder was ethically produced, look at where it was sourced from. Most Latin American countries produce organic cocoa, which is free from child labor.
Another thing to look for on a cocoa powder label is whether it has “organic,” “fair-trade,” or “slave-free” on the label. These are good indicators that the cocoa powder is cruelty-free (if it also doesn’t contain any dairy products).
There have been some instances in the past where West African slavers have tried to find ways to sell cocoa to fair trade buyers, but they have not succeeded. So, if you see “Fair-Trade” or “Slavery Free” on the label, it can be trusted.
If you want to be sure about your cocoa, do a bit of research. Check out the company online, and see if you find clear proclamations of their cocoa being produced ethically and cruelty-free. If one company doesn’t have the proof clearly outlined on their website, perhaps you take your business to one that does.
Here is an awesome resource by the Food Empowerment Project (FEP)—their Chocolate List. They’ve done a ton of research into which companies ethically source their chocolate.
What’s convenient is that FEP is also a vegan organization, so they also focus on companies that do offer vegan chocolate products.
What is Fair Trade Cocoa (Slave-Free Cocoa)?
There are some criteria that a business has to meet to be considered fair trade, and these criteria can differ from place to place. However, here are the basic guidelines for a business to be considered fair trade and get the labeling and approval:
- Fair Trade allows farmers to organize in cooperatives so they can earn fair prices for their products.
- Fair Trade orgs regularly inspect cocoa producers to ensure that they meet child labor standards. When infractions are found, Fair Trade orgs act immediately to protect the children involved.
- Fair Trade standards promote environmental sustainability in producing cocoa. They prohibit dangerous agrochemicals and GMOs.
- The higher price of Fair Trade cocoa guarantees that farmers are paid a sustainable price. In cocoa cooperatives, buyers also give money to community development.
How Else Does Fair Trade Affect Farmers and Children?
Cocoa is typically purchased at a low cost from the farmers who work to sell it. On the Ivory Coast, they typically only make about 50 cents a day from what is brought in, so they turn to children to fill the gap in their workforce.
Fair Trade standards and regulations financially help farmers and children who live and work in the region.
Purchasing cocoa powder that is Fair Trade certified helps to put and keep children that live in developing countries in school instead of working on a farm. And it ensures that the farmers who produce the cocoa will be provided a fair wage for their efforts.
This will help with improving not only the economy by providing better and sustainable employment opportunities for the people there, but also improve the education of the children who live in the region.
Fair-trade regulations ban child labor. Children shouldn’t be forced to work on a farm using chainsaws and machetes where serious and life-changing (or deadly) accidents can occur. This promotes a safer life and environment for children to learn and grow up.
What Can I do as a Vegan to Promote Fair Trade Cocoa?
The best things that you can do to help end child slavery in cocoa farming is to help educate others on the cocoa situation, and to purchase only Fair Trade and slave-free cocoa powder.
Again, Food Empowerment Project is an awesome vegan organization doing work to stop child slavery in cocoa production. Check them out and support them.
You can also get involved in and support organizations like Global Exchange. Global Exchange is an international human rights organization and they work to end child slavery on cocoa farms.
I can’t strictly say that non-Fair Trade cocoa powder isn’t vegan. It depends on how you see the issues and what veganism means to you. But hopefully, I’ve clearly laid out why many vegans try to only buy fair trade cocoa as a regular habit.
Personally, my view is that veganism is not about personal purity with every single crumb of food that enters your mouth. And eating vegan can be a positive change to your life no matter how strictly you follow all details of it.
So I wanted to share this information about cocoa production—but at the same time, please don’t feel like you can’t call yourself vegan if you ever eat non-Fair Trade cocoa. It’s just something to keep in mind as you make your decisions each day.
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