Last Update: December 9, 2022
Jeremiah McElwee is most definitely a Cool Dad. But he’s also got high standards when it comes to food—a product of his decades-long career in the natural grocery industry. So when his kids reached for conventional candy bars at the gas station during a recent family car trip, he had to put his foot down.
“‘This isn’t chocolate, this is some weird Frankenstein experiment!’” McElwee recalls telling them with a laugh. “‘Can’t do it kids; I’m sorry.’” Turns out, road trip pit stops just aren’t the same when your dad is in the health food biz.
That’s not to say McElwee, who oversees Thrive Market’s entire catalog and exclusive product line, denies his kids chocolate (which would be decidedly uncool). He just makes sure they eat the good stuff. “In my opinion, [chocolate] is better when it’s just high-percentage cacao, maybe organic, fair-trade sugar if you want sweetness,” McElwee says.
Accordingly, Thrive Market’s new Regeneratively Grown Organic Chocolate Bars are nothing like the highly processed confections lining convenience store shelves and grocery store checkout lines—and they’re definitely up to McElwee family road trip standards.
Available in several varieties, like Almond Sea Salt, Twilight Mint, and McElwee’s favorite, Salted Caramel (as well as two no-sugar-added varieties made with stevia), these organic chocolate bars are made from single-origin cacao sourced directly from farming communities in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This remote, mountainous region in the northern part of Colombia is home to thousands of farms (including a unique mix of smallholder farmers and indigenous farmers from the Arhuaco tribe) growing cacao, coffee, and other crops.
In Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombian farming communities eschew row farming, monocropping, and heavy chemical pesticide use—practices of industrialized agriculture that squelch biodiversity and degrade soil health—in favor of regenerative techniques like composting and intercropping cacao with coffee.
When left to grow wild as nature intended, McElwee says, cacao flourishes in Colombia, especially when integrated with other crops. “It thrives in a more diverse environment. It doesn’t need technological advances,” he adds. “This is what’s so dynamic about Colombia.”
It’s also why regenerative organic agriculture rejects the latest technology in favor of going back to the basics—and why it makes so much sense. Not only are many practices of conventional agriculture bad for the environment, but ironically, they don’t even necessarily pay off for farmers and others in the supply chain. “It definitely doesn’t pan out for the Earth, but it doesn’t always pan out for yields and quality either,” McElwee says. This is a reality he wishes big chocolate manufacturers, who default to these practices in pursuit of efficiency, would embrace.
Cacao farming at scale can also carry a significant human toll. McElwee notes that cacao is among the worst crops (along with coffee and cotton) for human rights violations like poverty wages and slave labor. “It’s an area of a lot of human strife so that Western countries can have chocolate,” he says. “To me, that’s the biggest issue.”
By sourcing cacao via direct trade partnerships with Colombian farmers, Thrive Market is able to help ensure farmers are paid fairly (in this case, 25 to 50% more per bar than they’d normally get) and that no unethical labor practices are being used. The company’s efforts in the region and the resulting increase in demand for cacao has resulted in the planting for more than 50,000 additional cacao trees in 2021—a kind of insurance for future profitable harvests.
Giving back to local communities goes beyond farming. School infrastructure is notoriously poor in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, with many schools lacking basic essentials like electricity and working plumbing. By working with local experts and materials instead of relying on foreign entities, Thrive Market and its partners in Colombia are able to not only help provide critical upgrades (like solar panels, plumbing improvements, and even refurbishing libraries), but also, to equip the community to maintain them independently over time.
Ethical, sustainable sourcing is one way Thrive Market’s new organic chocolate bars are superior to the conventional stuff. Their simple recipe—one that minimizes processing to let the high-quality ingredients shine—is another.
“Chocolate is so adulterated,” McElwee says about the mass-market candies many people know and love. “You read the ingredients and you’re like, why are they adding all this crap?” A long-time vegan, McElwee says he was questioning the addition of milk (not to mention other additives, like chemical processing agents) to chocolate bars long before all the plant-based options available today existed.
So why choose to sweeten Thrive Market’s regenerative bars with sugar, an ingredient that’s so often vilified in the health food world?
McElwee explains that cane-sugar-sweetened chocolate remains popular among Thrive Market members, so the company wanted to offer an option of the best possible quality. That required using organic, ethically sourced cane sugar first and foremost. “There’s a big departure from conventional cane sugar to organic in the way it’s processed,” McElwee says. “Conventional cane sugar is not even vegan; it’s processed using bone char, which gives it a whiter color and more granulation.” He adds that “with cane sugar, you want to make sure it’s fair trade,” as sugar is another problematic crop.
Chocolate is one of the world’s most popular vices, and there are thousands of ways to get your fix. Yet McElwee laments the way the industry has taken the humble cacao fruit and mass produced it into something unrecognizable. “It’s so strange that this plant got taken in that direction so quickly,” he says, adding that most people don’t even know cacao is a fruit. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Thrive Market’s new regeneratively grown organic chocolate bars are proof that when you keep it simple—the best ingredients, minimal intervention—you can reach something that’s pretty close to perfection.
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