Word of Mouth

Howard Shapiro, chief agronomist for Mars, dishes on good-for-you chocolate

You might think that Mars -- one of the world's biggest candy companies -- and sustainability would be mutually exclusive concepts. But that just means you haven't met Howard Shapiro, the chief agronomist for Mars and the man behind the chocolate you can now taste in goodnessKnows, a snack that melds berries, nuts and toasted whole grains with dark chocolate and can only be described as "decadent." (Right now, Denver and Boulder are the only places in the country where you can find goodnessKnows; look for them at Sunflower markets, King Soopers and Sprouts stores.)

Shapiro founded the Seeds of Change organization before it was bought by Mars; now he uses his plant know-how to create a better planet for chocolate farmers and consumers alike. "Not all chocolate is created equal, and claims are so easy to make and so difficult to defend," Shapiro says. But before he gets into the science behind flavanols -- the compound in chocolate that many scientists contend improves both cognitive and cardiovascular health -- Shapiro emphasizes that the farmer takes precedence over the cacao bean. And he's dedicated to making the lives of 6.5-million small farmers better through sustainable practices.

"Someone has to raise the bar," Shapiro says. "We're raising it on certification. Eventually there will be a standard for sustainability certification for cacao crops." And that certification process is bound to be complex.

"It'll be one more piece of a really complex puzzle that begins with productivity," Shapiro explains. "There's a social element, which means the fabric of the community is strong. Cultural, which means the cultural ties still exist, because the farmers want to be rural, and not urban. And then you have the environmental issues -- whether they grow organically, with compost. And then the ecology -- whether the landscape is robust. All of that has to eventually be part of the equation."

Shapiro feels he's been successful in Brazil, where he and his colleagues nursed nutrient-deficient, yellowing soil back to health by planting annual crops until it was rich enough to support cacao again -- and high-yielding cacao plants, meaning farmers could plant fewer of them and use the rest of their available space for other crops.

"We're working on trees that are much more disease resistant but not enough yet," he says. "You have to do interim steps. Here's a statistic: 30 percent of trees produce 70 percent of cacao pods. If we fix 30 percent of trees to produce 300 percent of the pods, so the others can be fruit trees, nut trees, oil seed trees -- and if everything else fails, many of the oil seed trees are very good in drought, so you can even eat them. We're building a portfolio of knowledge, economics and nutrition."

"Brazil is quite successful," Shapiro continues. "It's changing from a disaster into something that we can see the future of. East Asia, Papua New Guinea, the Phillippines ... there has been a long-term understanding of productivity, and farmers won't do something unless it makes money. We'll take on the country that produces most of the cacao in the world, Ivory Coast. We've signed a memorandum of understanding with the World Bank, other chocolate companies, NGOs and the agencies in the government -- extension, service, science, agriculture ministries. Plus, we will, by 2020, use 100 percent certified sustainable cocoa only. If we stand alone and do it, it's not so easy ... but if our competitors join in with this, which they have, then we will have that famous moment, the tipping point, to sustainability versus unsustainable practices in four to five years."

That's the broad view, and when you pull the lens in a little bit, you can still see how Shapiro's work is affecting people in a positive way every day. It's all about the flavanols: "Are flavanols really healthy for you?" he asks. "And can I tell you that we knew from the very first day that they are. When we found something that looked promising, we were told to go back and do it again. 'How can this really be good for you, how come no one else knows it and how come you know it now?' Another trail, another paper." (To date, around 140 peer-reviewed papers on the benefits of flavanols have been published by Shapiro and company.)

"Finally, we realized we really do have something here, and from a series of medical centers and research studies, we realized that as an efficacious dose, if you take 200 milligrams of flavanols a day, it's good for your heart," he continues. "The goodnessKnows products, at 150 calories contain 200 milligrams of flavanols, which is a heart-healthy snack.

"There's nothing to retract on this. Most dark chocolate, almost all dark chocolate, does not contain flavanols, unless you know how to harvest it, process it and then manufacture it into a unique experience like goodnessKnows, because not everyone knows how to do it. And the genius of what Mars has done is understand how to retain the flavanols throughout the entire manufacturing process. So when someone says, 'I can't believe you really know how to do this,' I put my tools on the table and verify that they are accurate. So we are able to do this where almost no one else is able to do this today. Will they in the future? We hope so, because why would we want to be the only one selling something that is good for cardiovascular health?"

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Amber Taufen has been writing about people, places and things in Denver since 2005. She works as an editor, writer, and production and process guru out of her home office in the foothills.
Contact: Amber Taufen