When chocolate isn’t just about eating and enjoying

My following review appears in today’s Weekend Australian newspaper:

Chocolate Wars: From Cadbury to Kraft, 200 Years of Sweet Success and Bitter Rivalries, by Deborah Cadbury, Harper Press, 340pp, $35.

Deborah Cadbury is a descendant of the Quaker family whose name has become synonymous with chocolate. In this entertaining and insightful book she reveals just how central confectionary was to the rise of modern capitalism.

In the early 19th century the discovery and consumption of cocoa — a tropical commodity, according to the author — was a source of enjoyment. But soon enough it became a way to make a profitable living. The deeply observant Cadburys discovered a financial appetite for chocolate. Quaker capitalism, a quaint concept in the 21st century, was what launched the Cadbury brand on England and the world.

When the Cadbury family started their enterprise in Britain, about 4000 Quaker families ran 74 banks and more than 200 companies. Very quickly the Cadbury brothers discovered how to manage a fortune and “helped shape the course of the industrial revolution and the commercial world”. Social justice and reform were integral to the early rise of the then exclusive cocoa product but it took two enterprising brothers to revolutionise the industry.

Chocolate Wars opens with a Dickensian scene in mid-19th-century Birmingham. A struggling family was on the verge of financial ruin. The “little bean imported from the New World” was not initially a money spinner. Simply turning cocoa beans into a drink didn’t bring the Cadbury family success and something new was required, a treat that would charm Victorian England at a time of religious and social upheaval.

At the same time, contamination scares — red lead found in cocoa products, supposedly to improve texture — increased public wariness. So it was up to advertising to transform perceptions, despite Quaker hesitation at the ethics of commercial assaults on supposedly unsuspecting customers.

“Cadbury Essence” captured the mood of the time. “Absolutely Pure, Therefore Best”, were the words under a smiling child enjoying a cup of cocoa. In 1869, the Cadbury brothers sealed a patent for a new kind of chocolate biscuit. From this point, Chocolate Wars takes on the spirit of a thriller, as the Nestle family in Europe starts developing rival chocolate products.

Interestingly, Nestle had early success with baby milk formula, a product that remains contentious to this day.

Cadbury was also involved in a controversy that has contemporary echoes, the use of slave labour in plantations. More than a century later, with the Ivory Coast the world’s leading provider of cocoa, child slavery and exploitation remains an area of great concern.

Chocolate Wars uses the struggle over slavery to highlight the battle to end the practice in a different age but a BBC Panorama program earlier this year found a litany of child slavery issues in Ghana, a country where Cadbury sources its cocoa from an advertised Fairtrade supply chain. It’s an uncomfortable reality largely ignored in this book.

But Deborah Cadbury does an admirable job of documenting the conflict between a family’s Quaker beliefs and the moods of the day. For example, their anti-war stance aroused suspicions during World War I.

Fast forward to 2003 and Cadbury chief executive Todd Stitzer expressed concern that the company was growing so fast it would lose touch with its original, humanitarian beliefs. He talked about “principled capitalism”, which included, for example, the need to reduce carbon emissions.

The takeover of Cadbury by American food giant Kraft early this year prompts the author to speculate on the fate of a once-proud British name and image. She rightly worries about the viability of altruistic objectives in today’s corporate world, values that seemed so necessary to her enterprising family in the 19th century.

She is sceptical about the Kraft stewardship and laments a more honourable time when “revenue synergies” were not in the business lexicon.

This aspect of the Cadbury story will resonate in Australia because foreign takeovers of local companies — Kraft owns our national spread, Vegemite — invoke a combination of pride, anger and passionate nationalism.

Antony Loewenstein is a journalist and author. His most recent book is The Blogging Revolution.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common