Pretty much every natural food store in the country is bursting at the aisles with organic chocolate peanut butter cups... and it just may be a sign of the apocalypse.
If you’re old enough to remember when health food stores were those funky little spots that smelled like wheat germ and Dr. Bronner’s soap, you’re probably also old enough to remember when chocolate wasn’t a health food.
The natural foods industry has always been about making healthy knock-off versions of conventional foods. And before chocolate’s health benefits were all the buzz, carob reigned as the dark waxy alternative to mass-produced chocolate candy products. We didn’t complain much about it back then, although, it was before public shaming on the Internet was a thing. And while we may have thought #CarobSucks, we didn’t make a public fuss about it. I can recall eating quite a few carob bars while I was a line cook at a little health food co-op. Those carob bars were so good and satisfying that even in the gloomy western Pennsylvania winters where hot chocolate would have soothed the soul, it felt as if the world was a little bit brighter with that carob, even though it wasn't chocolate.
Fast-forward a century or two and the organic food industry is a booming multi-billion dollar mecca glorified by the Temple of Whole Foods. The little health food stores of yesteryear focus more on vitamins and dietary supplements these days while big box stores sell us our food. (Some of it healthier than the rest.) Not only are we obsessed with eating healthy these days, but eating seasonally, insuring better wages for workers around the world and more transparency and accountability in our food system. But have you noticed anything else? Like shelves and shelves full of organic chocolate peanut butter cups?
While carob’s heyday has come and gone now that chocolate has bona fide health benefits, chocolate seems to be legitimizing the burgeoning organic candy industry—and it is totally insane. From Whole Foods to Costco, you will find astonishing giant end caps, displays and shelf after shelf (after shelf!) filled with Justin’s chocolate peanut butter cups, the darling of the organic candy industry. The dark and milk cups are becoming the top-selling items in health food stores across the country. They are to the checkout impulse buy areas what kombucha is to the cold case.
At the recent natural products industry trade show held in Anaheim, Calif., Justin’s took home the coveted “Best of West” award for its mini peanut butter cups, launching soon at a store near you. Technically speaking, these peanut butter cups are natural (isn’t everything on earth?) and they’re cleaner than the product they’re designed to mimic. (You know the one: the conventional brand best known for ads exclaiming, like it’s a bad thing, “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!”) But the best product at a natural foods trade show? Shouldn't that award go to wheatgrass or oatmeal or everyone's supposed favorite: kale?
Made with organic ingredients, Justin’s is certainly cleaner than the conventional chocolate peanut butter cups. Justin’s doesn’t contain TBHQ (a preservative in Reese’s) or polyglycerol polyricinoleate, an emulsifier, but the rest of the ingredients are pretty identical save the organic distinction: chocolate, sugar, palm oil, cocoa butter, peanuts and dairy. Justin’s manages to deliver a few less grams of sugar per serving (Reese’s is 21 grams, Justin’s 16), the equivalent of about a teaspoon and a half of sugar. But none of those factors make it anything less than a candy bar conveniently divided into two little paper-wrapped “cups” stamped with the word organic.
Sales of Justin’s products (the brand also makes nut butters including a Nutella knock-off) grew 227 percent from $5.3 million in 2010 to $20 million in 2012, according to BizWest, and while the company won’t disclose its current revenues, it does say it’s in the $50 million-$100 million range. That’s a lot of chocolate-covered peanut butter.
Whole Foods Market, where Justin’s does a huge amount of its business, doesn’t market itself as a health food store—but it does certainly allude to it. And we already know consumers are continuously confused by claims on product packaging, particularly when it includes the words “organic” or “natural”, and especially when those products are purchased in stores like Whole Foods. Ignorance is blissful, and in the case of what's sold at Whole Foods, it’s also delicious.
So are we buying tens of millions of dollars worth of organic peanut butter cups because we think they’re healthy? Or because they taste better? Or just because they’re at the check out aisle clocking our inner Reese’s-loving child like an older brother about to raid our Halloween spoils?
I put the question out to Facebook and got a few interesting answers, most of which boiled down to people who say they buy them “on occasion” because they’re a healthier treat than the “real thing” (Hershey’s Reese’s cups).
Healthier than the “real thing.”
Organic is better for us than conventional without a doubt, but better can mean a lot of things. Conventional peanuts can contain residue from a number of pesticides and herbicides. The USDA found eight in recent samples. There can be as many as 15 pesticides on conventionally grown chocolate. Pesticide reduction benefits the farmers and communities where the crops are grown. It keeps dangerous toxins out of waterways, our air and the soil. But what are we really buying here?
From the Organic Authority Files
Just because something is free from pesticides doesn’t make it a health food. And as much as Whole Foods toots its horn about a genuine commitment to fresh and healthy ingredients, I’ve never seen apples or watermelons stacked at the checkout aisle. Just chocolate. And where there's chocolate, there's sugar.
Above is a picture I snapped at my local Whole Foods earlier this week. Granted, they pushed Justin’s to the bottom shelf, but that's because they know people will bend down to reach for them. No other brand at checkout gets two shelves for just five items (they also sell white chocolate cups and bags of individually wrapped Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups, not to be confused with the award-winning bags of minis I mentioned earlier, which will come wrapless).
Justin Gold’s story is a familiar one; a vegetarian who tired of plain old peanut butter, he started making his own nut butters and a booming business was soon born. According to Justin’s website, the company has ranked “15 on the Inc. 500/5000 Fastest Growing Companies list in the Food and Beverage category two years in a row, and has been recognized as Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young.”
Of course, it’s not just Justin’s. Theo Chocolate, which makes delicious organic and Fair Trade chocolates has launched its own peanut butter cup. UNREAL chocolate has its versions too. And let’s not forget Newman’s Own, which was making peanut butter cups long before Justin’s was even selling anything.
So why has the organic peanut butter cup category taken off now? I can see only two possible scenarios:
- We’re about to enter an age where major food companies become forces for good. Like, for real good. After all, Hershey’s, which owns Reese’s, just announced plans to ditch genetically modified ingredients from its top-selling products, and rival Nestlé is ditching artificial ingredients.
- Or, we’re simply going to replace unhealthy junk foods with slightly less unhealthy junk foods and continue to make excuses for not eating fresh, wholesome ingredients instead.
Which brings us right back to where this story started. Maybe we traded away those tiny, dimly lit health food stores and their definitions of "healthy" too soon. Maybe we need to reevaluate our old friend carob (and celery, for that matter). Because even if Nestle’s, Hershey’s and Justin’s are going to make candy “better”, we can’t afford to lose sight of the fact that they’re still making candy--and we're still eagerly eating it up.
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Image of peanut butter cup stack via Shutterstock