As 2013 draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on this past year—how quickly the months have passed, how life-changing these months have been, and during this time, how fortunate I’ve been to meet and talk with chocolate enthusiasts.
And in meeting new people, we’ve talked a lot about chocolate—where does it come from; how is it made; what’s in chocolate; and what makes some chocolate better than others. In these conversations, I’ve been talking with people about how smooth and creamy chocolate should taste—your mouth shouldn’t have a waxy coating after eating it, and you should feel like you’ve actually consumed chocolate. And how the chocolate is made and what’s in it determines how delicious (or not) it is.
A chocolate maker works with cacao farmers to ensure proper: (1) soil and tree care in order to cultivate trees that yield premium cacao beans, (2) fermentation after the cacao beans are harvested to develop the precursors to chocolate flavor; and (3) drying of the cacao beans to capture the appropriate flavors. The chocolate maker then begins the exacting processes of making chocolate from the cacao beans, including blending a variety of cacao beans to achieve the right flavor, and roasting and grinding the beans. When chocolate is lacking a full-bodied chocolate flavor, it means that the cacao beans that were used were of a lower grade. It could also mean that what you are eating isn’t actually chocolate.
Cocoa butter, which is naturally found in the cacao bean, is responsible for the smooth mouth feel of chocolate. Some of the factors that affect the taste of chocolate include the quality of the cacao beans used to make the chocolate, the amount of cocoa butter in the chocolate, and whether any of the cocoa butter has been replaced with vegetable oils.
How do you know if the “chocolate” you are consuming has oil? Look at the ingredient list on the packaging. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires ingredients be listed on packaging. If there isn’t an ingredient list, you should wonder why. Ask the chocolatier or retailer for the ingredients.
For instance, premium dark chocolate should be made of cocoa mass and cocoa butter (both of which are naturally found in the cacao bean), sugar, vanilla (not vanillin, which is synthetic, and as a result, is cheaper), and soy lecithin, which is added in trace amounts to improve the fluidity of chocolate when it’s melted. But some chocolate manufacturers replace a large portion of the cocoa butter with vegetable oil(s), such as coconut oil and palm oil, because cocoa butter, particularly high quality cocoa butter, costs significantly more than vegetable oil.
Even more problematic is that chocolate manufacturers who use palm oil have a negative impact on the environment. Palm oil is an ingredient in many food products, including some chocolate, and to satisfy the demand for palm oil, rain forests have been destroyed to convert them to palm oil plantations, resulting in the loss of wild animals. Some chocolate manufacturers may say they use vegetable oil(s), but may not specify whether the oil used is palm oil.
A food can’t meet the definition of chocolate according to the FDA if the cocoa butter has been removed, so there are chocolate manufacturers who have made subtle changes to packaging, perhaps labeling their products as “chocolate candy.” I’ll call these products “imitation chocolate.”
The difference in taste between high quality chocolate and imitation chocolate is jaw-dropping. Do your own taste test. Imitation chocolate leaves your mouth feeling waxy, whereas premium chocolate has a creamy, smooth taste. Imitation chocolate also doesn’t give you the satisfaction of having eaten chocolate. A person could easily eat a large amount of imitation chocolate without feeling sated; whereas, premium chocolate is so naturally rich that after a small amount, you feel sated. The same can be said for chocolate made with low quality cacao beans—the contrast is remarkable.
In the end, it matters to me to team up with chocolate makers who take great care in producing high quality chocolate, not just because I’m working with their chocolate to offer you premium confections, but because I’m eating those confections, too.