According to Euromonitor, the average U.S. consumer eats about 9.5 pounds of chocolate per year. While this seems significant, consider that the Swiss eat 19.8 pounds per year.

Clearly, we have significant room to use more chocolate in snacks and baked goods.

Product manufacturers have similar sentiments. According to Mintel’s April 2015 “Chocolate Confectionery—U.S.” report, formulations that include chocolate are on the rise, with new product launches growing 18 percent between 2013 and 2014. Mintel reports that an estimated 85 percent of U.S. consumers buys chocolate.

For much of the population, chocolate ingredients—including cocoa powder, coatings, fillings and inclusions—bring a craveable level of appeal to snack products and baked goods. Chocolate can also bring much to products in terms of its backstory.

A question of sustainability

On a recent trip to the Pittsburgh Aviary, our guide discussed rhinoceros hornbills, near-threatened, large, black birds with colorful horns and feathery legs native to islands like Borneo and Sumatra. At the end of her talk, the guide handed out cards with a QR code that provided a sustainable shopping guide. The hornbills have seen much of their habitat threatened by deforestation, sometimes in connection to palm oil production, an ingredient often used in chocolate ingredients and products.

Such supply-chain connections increasingly resonate with shoppers. “We are now in the era of the ‘conscious consumer,’” says Laura Cooper, marketing manager, Global Organics Ltd., Cambridge, MA. “Consumers are thinking more about our food and where it comes from. We’re thinking about the farmers that grew that food and how those people are treated. We’re thinking about the growing practices. We have become more conscious of many supply-chain issues, which leads to a demand for improvement in these areas.”

It’s often a matter of shoppers becoming part of a food’s story. “Consumers want foods they perceive that don’t harm the environment or take advantage of those with poor economic conditions,” says Ron Heddleson, senior director of R&D, QualiTech, Chaska, MN.

As a result, many major chocolate producers have established programs related to sustainability—programs that also factor in a steady supply of chocolate in light of increasing global demand, particularly in the Asian market.

“The demand for chocolate is soaring, with some estimates that global demand for cocoa will outweigh supply by 1 million tons by 2020,” says Julie Eno, associate marketing manager, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, Lancaster, PA.

Supporting the supply chain

If you’re a chocolate producer or regularly source chocolate ingredients, that is a pretty unsettling prediction. As a result, both consumers and producers are more concerned about the supply chain. Some chocolate producers have begun to work with cocoa farmers to teach them how to improve yields and employ better land-management practices to sustain more production in a way that minimizes damage to the local ecology. Companies like Agostoni Chocolate, Cargill and Blommer Chocolate Co. have been working on sustainable practices for more than 10 years, and others have more recently taken on the challenge.

Educating farmers about how to change their growing practices can take several years until the results are fully realized. One example of how some basic education on farming practices can have a big impact, says Cooper, is pruning. Teaching cocoa farmers how to properly prune their trees dramatically increases their yield.

Cargill cites similar benefits from educating farmers. Eno notes that farmers attending its Farmer Field Schools have experienced average yield increases of 35 percent.

Kip Walk, corporate director, sustainability, Blommer Chocolate, East Greenville, PA, notes that teaching a technique called “side grafting” can revitalize a farm in 12–18 months. More-traditional approaches to planting seedlings can take—three to four years to achieve crop yield.

Cargill has a sustainability program called the “Cargill Cocoa Promise.” According to Eno, the program “brings together all of our global activities and strengthens their commitment to a sustainable cocoa supply chain.” The company seeks to make a difference in three areas: improving the lives of cocoa farmers, supporting cocoa farming communities and investing in the future of cocoa farming. “So far, we have trained more than 115,000 farmers in good agricultural practices, established 2,500 Farmer Field Schools globally, and through our partnership with CARE International, provided nearly 34,000 children in cocoa-growing communities with improved access to education,” says Eno. “More than 50,000 farmers in Côte d’Ivoire have been certified as sustainable growers, and 342,209 hectares of farmland has been certified by independent certification bodies.”

Blommer has had sustainable efforts in place for the past 14 years and announced last June that it’s supporting CocoaAction, an international collaboration of the largest chocolate brands and processors to rejuvenate the cocoa sector in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana—a region that produces more than half of the world’s cocoa supply.

According to Walk, CocoaAction wants to reach 300,000 farmers in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. There are six major pillars of CocoaAction: yield improvement through good agricultural practices, access to fertilizer, strengthening planting materials, increased access to education, gender empowerment and the elimination of child labor.

Other companies committing to CocoaAction include ADM, Barry Callebaut, Cargill, Ferrero, Mars, The Hershey Co. Mondeléz International, Nestlé and Olam International.

Walk notes that his company views its sustainability efforts as a program, not a project. “A project has a definite end date,” he says. “Our sustainability program is a long-term engagement with our farm base. Additionally, we connect our farmers to our customers so that all stakeholders see the value in participating.”

Responsible sourcing for chocolate also involves other key ingredients, such as palm oil, widely used in chocolate. From a formulation point, palm oil has numerous unique properties that make it a desirable ingredient. It delivers a smooth and creamy texture to baked goods, provides good cooking even at high temperature and adds a natural preservative effect to some foods. Other oils cannot easily replace palm oil. In addition, according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), palm trees produce four to 10 times more oil that other vegetable oil crops per unit of cultivated land.

Palm oil growers interested in responsible farming have followed the guidelines put in place by RSPO, which include environmental and social criteria, such as protecting primary forest area that contains significant concentrations of biodiversity or fragile eco-systems, or areas fundamental to meeting basic or cultural needs of local communities can be cleared (for complete criteria, see “RSPO Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production”). Producers that source from Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) can use the RSPO-certified logo.

Sustainable ingredients

Barry Callebaut’s Van Leer brand began offering a range of compounds and fillings made with sustainable palm oil, certified 100 percent by RSPO, in July 2015. The range includes chocolate, compounds, glazes and sugar-free products in formats including blocks, snaps, chips and chunks.

Other certifications related to sustainability might appeal to snack producers and bakers. Cargill has an increasing portfolio of certification options that includes its Gerkens Cocoa Powder, Peter’s Chocolate (including chunks, chips, liquor and cocoa butter), Wilbur Chocolate (including coatings, compound coatings, chunks and chips) and Veliche Belgian Chocolate (buttons in types like milk and varying percentages of bittersweet chocolate). The brands are available with certification options like UTZ Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade International, as well as RSPO Certified.

QualiTech, a member of RSPO, provides a wide range of sustainable, off-the-shelf and customizable chocolate-based particulates and inclusions.

And the industry can look forward to increased availability of certified-sustainable chocolate in the future. Blommer Chocolate reports that 40 percent of its grind is currently sustainable, with commitment to increase that percentage in the future. Major food producers such as Unilever, The Kellogg Co. and General Mills have sustainability initiatives in place. The Hershey Co. has stated that it is committed to buying 100 percent sustainable-certified cocoa for all of its products worldwide by 2020.

“Sustainability is not a fad—it is a critical expectation by consumers and retailers,” says Walk. “It is here to stay.”

 That will give the rhinoceros hornbills something to tweet about.