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Sugary sweet and much too fat

Klaus Esterluss
March 29, 2018

On Easter Sunday, it starts again, the hunt for the Easter eggs. But even if it makes children's eyes shine, we should be aware that a chocolate bunny has two sides and only one of them is sweet.

A row of chocolate Easter bunnies without packaging
Image: Imago/Nordlicht/F. Hormann

This Sunday is that magical day, once again. Children press their noses to the windows, looking out into the garden hoping to see him as he strolls through the grass and hides small, colorful eggs. He hides them well, so they won't see them right away but hopefully not so well that they won't be discovered until next year. He's nice that way.

Surely, just like every year, none of these children will see him because he is quick and nimble, he zig-zags. He knows how to hide in the thick grass. You may wonder if he doesn't want to be seen. Perhaps he is shy? Or he just really likes to play hide and seek? In the end, it won't make a difference to the kids with their flattened noses and big eyes because they will surely discover their little nests and in them, aside from other sweets, there will at least be the easter bunny's little brother, the chocolate easter bunny.

Illustration of the amounts of different ingredients contained in the average chocolate bunny.
A chocolate Easter bunny consists primarily of sugar. Fat comes second.

The sweet side and the other side

And that could be the end of the story. The kids will stuff themselves. But there is a different side to what they do it with: the chocolate. Metaphorically speaking, that chocolate has an aftertaste that is quite bitter.

Problem: Sugar

The primary ingredient in chocolate bunnies is sugar. This past year, chocolate manufacturers produced202 million of these sugary sweet rabbits in Germany alone.

But why do they contain so much sugar? Should there be more chocolate in the bunnies instead?

"Sugar is simply a cheaper raw material compared to cocoa beans," says Mandy Hecht, the head scientist for the online nutrition database CodeCheck. The recommended maximum amount of sugar children should eat per day is 45 grams. And average chocolate bunny (see illustration) often exceeds that amount significantly, says Hecht. "The sugar content of milk chocolate is particularly high, by the way. Dark chocolate is considered significantly lower in sugar and also healthier."

Cheap sugar is abundant here in Germany – the other ingredients of the chocolate bunny from from far away lands.

Easter bunnies that look like bodybuilders
They look sweet and they are. Very sweet!Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

Problem: cocoa (butter)

Customers buying a chocolate bunny, often don't think about where the raw materials that go into their sweet snack come from. The country that produces the most cocoa worldwide by far is Ivory Coast. More than 75 percent of the cocoa beans come from there.

The harvest 2016/17 yielded a total of 4.7 billion tons of the fruits, grown mostly on gigantic plantations. And the cocoa beans are often harvested by children. Corporations are well aware of the problem and some of them try to do something about it by growing cocoa themselves, or promising to only buy from plantations, which don't use child labor.

Close-up photo of a palm oil fruit
Another bad thing about chocolate - this is the fruit of an oil palm. Large pieces of rainforest are cleared to grow oil palms and cocoa plantsImage: DW/K. Döhne

Problem: Palm oil

Just like cocoa, palm oil, which is also often used in chocolate products, requires huge swaths of land to grow. Those are often attained by ecologically questionable means. In Peru, for example, foreign investors are trying to buy up landon a large scale. Once they own it,  the Amazon rainforest disappears. And they keep clearing forest for ever more land for cultivation. In the process,indigenous people are also frequently evicted from their traditional homelands.

In the end, the palm oil grown on such plantations is also just another cheap raw material that replaces the more expensive cocoa butter, says Mandy Hecht.

"In general, pure chocolate products like easter bunnies don't seem to contain palm oil," says Hecht. "If they did, they wouldn't have that characteristic melting quality, which is only created by a high percentage of cocoa butter."

Cocoa butter already starts to melt at very low temperatures of around 28 degrees celsius. Palm oil, on the other hand, doesn't until it gets as hot as 45 degrees. That's why it is primarily used in products with a filling or in cookies.

A photo of crumpled aluminum foil
Aluminum foil: Its production is bad for the environment every step of the way. But it can be recycledImage: Imago

Problem: Packaging

If things aren't very green and clean on the inside, then what about the rabbit's colorful shell?

It is extremely light, bendable, withstands heat and cold and painted in all sorts of colors, it covers the bunny's chocolate body like a second skin. Unfortunately, the aluminum its made of is ecologically similarly questionable as the candy it covers.

Aluminum isn't just found in nature. It always occurs in combination with other materials, especially the ore bauxite, which contains 60 percent aluminum. Thebiggest deposits of it are in Guinea and Australia, but China as well.

Ever step in the production process of aluminum foil is harmful to the environment. Just as with the cocoa and palm oil plantations, it often requires the clearing of rainforest to get to the ore. One waste product of the production process is red mud, which contains heavy metals. All too often, it still ends up in rivers and lakes, where it destroys the ecosystems. Furthermore, the production of aluminum is extremely energy intensive. It requires almost 25 times more energy than the production of glas.

Photo of a giant inflated rabit lying on a hill
Now let's not over-react. Having some chocolate is okay, just maybe not too much of itImage: picture alliance/Photoshot/W. Qingqin

One thing that could help make the chocolate bunny's clothing at least a bit more eco-friendly is recycling. However, for now, only about two-thirds of aluminum trash gets recycled. That bears great potential because aluminum can be completely recycle using a fraction of the energy needed to produce new aluminum.

Enjoy, but consciously

So now what? Should we just leave our kids at home, glued to the window and ban the easter bunny from hiding colorful nest with sweet chocolate bunnies? Of course not.

However, it would be much easier to enjoy the chocolate if we didn't end up with several aluminum-wrapped chocolate bunnies in every nest and if we steered clear of chocolate products that contain palm oil in the future.

And if we end up with a bit less chocolate and more fruits and colored eggs in the nest, everyone wins – even the chocolate bunny. Because after all: nobody likes getting their ears bitten off!