If you give a millennial a cookie, he'll ask for some organic milk to go with it. So goes the food industry's conventional wisdom, which has pegged millennial consumers as caring more than previous generations about the social and environmental implications of their food.
But give a millennial a chocolate bar, and he'll hold off on the questions, according to an April study in the journal Food Quality and Preference.
In a survey of participants ages 18 to 35, millennials reported caring about ethical issues like environmental sustainability and social responsibility in chocolate production. But when choosing chocolate privately, these self-proclaimed ethical shoppers were all chocolate bark and no bite. (Sorry.) Most showed little preference for labels advertising ethical sourcing and instead preferred labels with ingredients they recognized — items like "chocolate" and "butter," rather than "tertiary butylhydroquinone."
Lest you dismiss this as another hit piece on millennials, let me say that as a 25-year-old, I stand among the accused. And the glove fits. Ask me about the importance of sustainability in my grocery decisions, and I'm likely to expound upon the virtue of free-range eggs, between sips of whatever farm-to-cup coffee I'm drinking. But spy on my private shopping decisions, and you'll find a hole in my ethics about the size of a chocolate bar.
"When people choose to consume candy, they're not usually making a choice to consume something that is healthy or good for them in the first place," says psychologist Michael Young of Kansas State University, who co-authored the chocolate study with graduate student Anthony McCoy. Young hypothesized that millennials also set aside ethical concerns when choosing to indulge, despite a reputation in the food industry for caring about responsibly sourced food.
With funding from The Hershey Co., Young set out to test his hunch. First, the researchers conducted eight focus groups, each consisting of eight to 10 millennials. They found that younger millennials ages 18 to 20 expressed little concern about anything other than taste in their chocolate preferences. But older millennials expressed concern about whether chocolate was organic, fair trade, GMO-free and environmentally sustainable. Young thinks this reflects the fact that many people get woke in college. (OK, he didn't use that word exactly.)
Then the researchers presented another group of 214 millennials with unbranded, unpriced labels varying in traits — such as ingredients used, fat content, and ethical endorsement (for example, a label indicating Rainforest Alliance certification). Each millennial was asked to choose between side-by-side label comparisons of varying chocolate products — roughly 400 times. Most participants consistently paid attention to whether or not they could pronounce the ingredients in a bar, but only a small, socially conscious group — representing 14 percent of participants — showed strong preference for ethical labels.
The findings "confirmed what I thought," says corporate sustainability specialist Sandra Rousseau from the University of Leuven, Belgium, who was not involved in the research. She cautions that the study disproportionately sampled college students but says the findings make sense. "You interview young people, and they tend to be quite aware of social issues and environmental issues. But if you push a bit harder, it's a lot of talk, but not always action."
That's not to say that millennials are secretly truffle-munching, Nietzsche-reading nihilists.
Young says millennials are likely more concerned about ethics when buying goods that aren't as indulgent as chocolate. Millennials still care more, he says, about ethical food production than older generations, who grew up before many of these issues were mainstream concerns. This jives with the perspective of Beth Morones, a 24-year-old grocery store clerk in Phoenix.
"I buy organic milk, organic eggs, organic meat," she says. But on social media, she has poked fun at the lapses in her own shopping ethos — admitting she ignores ethical labeling concerns when choosing chocolate, like the Hershey's syrup she uses to make chocolate milk. Why the discrepancy? Morones says it has to do with how frequently shoppers purchase goods. Meat and eggs, in contrast to chocolate, she says, are something "a lot of people consume ... on a daily basis."
What's more, labels are not the only way to identify ethically produced food. For example, Dandelion Chocolate, a chocolate producer in San Francisco, doesn't use official third-party seals certifying ethical sourcing on its chocolate, but it does make its annual sourcing reports available to the public.
"We get all types of consumers," says CEO and co-founder Todd Masonis. "People come in because they just see a sign that says 'chocolate.' " But he says many of these customers ultimately enroll in educational cooking classes, and even travel with Dandelion to Belize to learn about sourcing.
In other words, we millennial chocoholics are reachable; we might just need a little more coaxing to remember our ethics when we're cocoa-crazed. A trip to Belize, anyone?