Where are all the American chocoholics?

man eating chocolate
CC BY 2.0 Geoffrey Fairchild

U.S. chocolate sales have been dropping and the industry is very worried. What's going on?

In news you never thought you'd hear, Americans appear to be falling out of love with chocolate. The United States is the world's biggest chocolate market, but sales have been slumping in recent months. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on the Hershey Company's dismal performance:

"[It] took a beating last week as investors digested a drop in fourth-quarter sales and underwhelming 2018 guidance. The chocolate bellwether has now delivered underlying growth of less than 1% for three straight years and 2018 isn’t shaping up to be much different."

Swiss-owned Lindt & Sprüngli is doing poorly, with a 1.6 percent decline in U.S. sales last year. Lindt and Ghirardelli brands saw hardly any growth, and Russell Stover lost 10 percent last year.

What's going on?

There seem to be a few factors at play.

Analysts agree on the fact that Americans are choosing healthier foods. As WSJ wrote, "It is getting harder to believe chocolate is so different to other fatty foods." People are turning away from sugary, heavily processed snacks and opting for healthier alternatives.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Americans have long associated chocolate with guilt, as Michael Pollan revealed in his 2008 book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. He quoted a study in which:

“He showed the words 'chocolate cake' to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. 'Guilt' was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of French eaters to the same prompt: 'celebration.'"

That leads to another factor -- the poor quality of ordinary American chocolate. Compared to European varieties, conventional American chocolate bars simply do not compare. (It's been said that Brits describe Hershey's chocolate as having a faint vomit aftertaste, which is rather off-putting.)

Similar to the craft beer and high-end coffee industries, which have exploded in recent years, so too are chocolate lovers seeking out a higher-quality product, made using artisanal techniques, with shorter, recognizable ingredient lists and a purer, less sugary, more cacao-y taste. And once you start eating this on occasion, you don't want to go back to cheap $1 chocolate bars from the gas station counter.

Shoppers are also becoming more concerned about the ethics of production. The Fairtrade logo, once hard to find, is now mainstream, and this has educated many shoppers in the importance of buying slave-free chocolate.

A final factor, I'd add, is simple oversaturation of the retail market. Chocolate is everywhere; it is so cheap and so accessible that, sadly, it has ceased to be special -- an unfortunate consequence of living in an affluent society. That's why, when a holiday like Valentine's Day rolls around, gifts like artisanal chocolate truffles seem more fitting than any of Hershey's (relatively) cheap offerings.

While the chocolate industry may be scrambling to figure out what's happening, I don't really see this as a bad thing. If people are buying better quality, healthier, and more ethically-produced chocolate, and presumably eating less of it because it's more expensive, all of us -- from cacao producer to chocolate eater -- will be better off.

Where are all the American chocoholics?
U.S. chocolate sales have been dropping and the industry is very worried. What's going on?

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