We’ve looked at a life cycle assessment called “Environmental impacts of chocolate production and consumption in the UK” and have simplified it so that we can all be more aware of chocolate's impacts. The main ingredients in chocolate are sugar, milk powder, cocoa, and can also include flour and palm oil.

Photo credit: Cacao

These raw materials tend to be more damaging on the environment than the packaging, transport, or manufacturing processes. Across 14 different environmental impacts (underlined further on), raw ingredients were identified as the major hotspot for 12 impacts with packaging only accounting for two: water footprint and water consumption.

Within those raw ingredients, here are the most negative:

  • Milk powder: this ingredient was the main contributor to raw ingredients' impact for around 8 of the environmental issues.
  • Cocoa: which includes cocoa powder, liquor, and butter came up for 6 impacts.
  • Sugar: came up for 4 impacts.
  • Flour and palm oil: only came up for one impact.

These 14 environmental impacts and their main ingredient hotspots are outlined in more detail below:

Primary energy demand

How much primary energy (extracted from nature, like crude oil or coal) is needed to produce the chocolate (Arvidsson & Svanström).

  • Majority of impacts are associated with the production of raw materials (49% - 66%)
  • The main contributing raw material was: milk powder (31% - 47%)

Global warming potential

How much a given ton of gas warms the earth compared to a ton of CO2 (EPA).

  • The production of the raw materials is the major hotspot of impacts (67% - 81%)
  • The main contributing raw materials were: milk powder and cocoa depending on where it was sourced

Fossil fuel depletion

The extraction of natural gas, oil and coal reserves at a rate higher than nature replenishes them (Sustainable Minds).

  • The main contributing raw material was: milk powder (33% - 48%)

Ozone depletion

How substances deplete the ozone relative to CFC-11 (Sustainable Minds).

  • Raw materials account for 61%–71%
  • Main contributing raw materials were: milk powder, sugar, cocoa butter and cocoa powder

Freshwater eutrophication

The excessive growth of aquatic plants or algal blooms, due to high levels of nutrients in freshwater ecosystems (Biggs et al.).

  • Majority of impact from production of key ingredients (57%–72%)
  • Main contributing raw materials were: milk powder, sugar, flour and cocoa butter

Marine eutrophication

The excessive growth of aquatic plants or algal blooms, due to high levels of nutrients in marine ecosystems (Biggs et al.).

  • Almost entirely due to the raw materials production (97%–99%)
  • Main contributing raw materials were: milk powder and sugar

Human toxicity

The effects of toxic substances on the human environment (Durante et al.).

  • The majority of the impact is related to the raw materials (77%–85%)
  • Main contributing raw materials were: milk powder and sugar

Terrestrial ecotoxicity

How environmental pollutants (eg. pesticides) affect land-dependent organisms and their environment (Fairbrother, A. & Hope, B.).

  • Raw materials cause the majority of impact (90%–92%)
  • Main contributing raw materials were: milk powder, sugar, palm oil and cocoa butter

Freshwater ecotoxicity

The impacts of toxic substances on marine ecosystems (MFE).

  • The main impact came from the raw materials (91%–96%)
  • Main contributing raw material was: cocoa cultivation (more than half of the total raw material impact)

Terrestrial acidification

Changes in soil chemical properties following the deposition of nutrients (namely, nitrogen and sulfur) in acidifying forms (Azevedo et al.).

  • Raw materials were the main hotspot (92%–96%),
  • Main contributing raw material was: milk powder production (89%–90%)

Land-use change

The change from forestry to agriculture, but also from one agricultural purpose to another, e.g. from meadow to field (Finnish Environment Institute).

  • The impact on agricultural and natural land is largely due to the cultivation of raw materials (71%–99%)
  • Main contributing raw materials were: milk powder followed by sugar but this depends on the farm used to cultivate cocoa, which can sometimes have a much larger impact than milk powder or sugar

Mineral depletion (aka abiotic depletion)

The depletion of nonliving (abiotic) resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, clay, and peat (Lettieri, P. & Tagliaferri, C.).

  • Mainly due to the raw materials (71%–88%)
  • Main contributing raw materials were: cocoa butter and liquor together contribute more than a third and the milk powder another third.

Water consumption

The amount of water used taking into account blue water (Irrigation water withdrawn from rivers and aquifers OR rainfall that enters lakes, rivers and groundwater. This is the main source of water that we use and manage for industrial, domestic and irrigation purposes.) and green water (water used for plant growth between naturally available water from precipitation) (Benini, L. et al.).

  • Majority of green water consumed was entirely due to the raw materials
  • For the blue water consumption, raw materials accounted for (24%–43%) which was less than packaging (44%–65%)

Water footprint

Impacts associated with water use, and the subsequent effect on water availability for humans and ecosystems, as well as direct impacts on the water resource and its users from emissions to air, soil and water (WULCA).

  • Only blue water was considered here
  • Packaging was the main hotspot (55%–73%)
  • Raw materials production contributed to (16%–30%)  

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