Cocoa mass, cocoa butter, and a little sugar. These are the ingredients that created the first chocolate bars that Europeans fell in love with.
Of course, chocolate in the form of natural raw and roasted cacao had been enjoyed by Southern American civilisations for hundreds of years before this. These ancient people believed in the healing and strengthening powers of the cacao bean. They had been consuming it as a strong bitter drink long before travelling Europeans ever had a taste, let alone had a chance to mass produce it into a titan of confectionary.
For many years, cocoa was enjoyed on European soil as a beverage, before being turned into something closer to the bars we know today. Over time, new ingredients were added to make the bars more palatable and to make them more affordable as consumer demand surged. Sugar was becoming cheaper and more readily available, perhaps this will help the product go further? Why not add some milk to appeal to mothers of young children?
The mass produced chocolate of today is a world apart from the dark drink savoured by the Mayans. Chocolate is now white, blonde, ruby, milk, dark, plain, semisweet, bittersweet, and many other things. It is no longer a blend of humble ingredients turned into luxury or medicine, but a concoction of cheap stuff formulated to make it affordable and addictive.
In this post I want to highlight 5 trashy ingredients that are added to your chocolate by big modern companies. The things ruining the human experience with this delicious treat, and the ways you can make an informed choice to get more for your money.
1) Excess Sugar
This one is obvious. It’s the main reason that chocolate has a bad reputation. Many people think of chocolate as synonymous with junk food, causing us all to become slaves to weight gain. This is untrue, but big chocolate brands are rapidly fuelling this bad PR.
Let us begin by stating that sugar, and sugar in chocolate, is not inherently a bad thing. Sugar is used in cooking to mitigate bitterness or acidity. This was, and should still be, the main purpose of adding sugar to chocolate.
Much like stirring a sprinkling of sugar into an espresso, sugar should be a tool to balance flavour. It should not be a device to over-sweeten chocolate, and it certainly should not be the main ingredient in a bar. Sadly, this is often the case. Huge confectionary corporations such as Mars, Mondelez and Hershey’s use more sugar than any other ingredient. Making one wonder if they should really even be allowed to name their products “chocolate” in the first place.
The reasons that these giant companies add so much sugar are threefold:
- Sugar is cheaper than cocoa mass or cocoa butter, the two main components of chocolate as we know it.
- Sugar covers up the bad flavour of their poor quality, over-roasted cocoa that has been created with very little care or attention.
- Sugar added to the fat contained in chocolate creates an addictive form of calorific energy that the human body is wired to crave more of. This results in more consumption and, of course, more sales.
A bar of good quality chocolate (i.e. made by passionate craftsmen rather than corporate monsters mentioned above) often contains less sugar than a serving of breakfast cereal or even our favourite carb-rich alcoholic drinks. Keep this in mind next time you pick up a bar.
2) Palm Oil
Palm oil, and other saturated vegetable oils, are regularly added to mass produced chocolate.
This is most often used as a means of keeping production costs low. Palm oil is much more affordable and readily available than cocoa butter. Chocolate’s natural silky melt comes from cocoa butter, and care taken when conching the melted chocolate to break down any rough texture. Big corporations skip the lengthy conching and instead add palm oil to provide an (unnatural) easy road to smoothness and good melting quality in their bars.
Sadly, as has already been reported en masse, palm oil is a problematic crop. The farming and harvesting of palm oil is generally terrible for the environment. It is a leading cause of deforestation in the countries in which it is grown. It can force farmers off of land. It can be disastrous for biodiversity and regularly destroys the natural habitat of indigenous animals.
Cocoa butter can be found naturally within the same pod that the essential cocoa mass comes from. There is truly no justification for the use of palm oil in chocolate, even for those greedy for more profit.
We all love a flavoured chocolate bar. A bit of orange zest, a sprinkling of ground coffee, or a handful of crushed hazelnuts can add lovely layers of flavour to a good bar of chocolate.
The flavourings I refer to here are those that are too common, and less than desirable.
In speaking of a flavouring that is too common, I refer to vanilla. Vanilla is a childhood favourite for many of us. It brings to mind ice cream, milkshakes, cheesecakes, delicious desserts that carry the exotic bean’s flavour beautifully.
Vanilla pairs very well with chocolate. However, it is a flavour used all too often in chocolate to mask bad flavour. The addition of cosy, innocent, familiar vanilla can sweeten and flavour a (likely poor quality) chocolate bar. It also has the unfortunate effect of making every mass-produced chocolate bar taste very very similar. Ever wondered how off-brand or supermarket branded chocolate bars kinda taste the same? Vanilla flavouring may be the culprit.
Even worse, companies who don’t go to the effort of using actual vanilla flavouring settle for an artificial alternative.
Vanillin is a common example of this. Vanillin is a flavour compound found in (and named alongside) the vanilla bean. However, this compound is often created synthetically from the byproducts of the wood and paper industry. Mmm, tasty!
Other man-made artificial flavours can also be added to chocolate. These are not seen everywhere in the world, the EU for example has strict food regulations which do not allow some. The USA, on the other hand, is rife with these artificial flavourings, packages beaming with disclaimers of their synthetic contents. While these are not to be entirely condemned, they are likely a sign that the chocolate they are hiding is of poor quality and bad taste without them.
4) Whey Powder
Yes, the kind you find in protein shakes.
Whey powder is used in some chocolate bars for various reasons. One of these is that it is a cheap way to add a creamy or distinctly milky flavour. For this reason you will often see it used in white chocolate or low-cocoa milk chocolate.
Similarly, using whey powder is a cheap way to pad out a generic chocolate bar without the expense of cocoa mass or cocoa butter.
The most blatant reason that whey powder is used in chocolate bars is to reduce calories and add protein content. Some big name brands have released “healthier” low calorie bars. In fact, some brands actually carve their entire USP around the high-protein concept. Yikes.
Typically, no matter the reason that whey powder is used, it results in a tragic texture. A powdery, chalky, tragic texture that fails to melt in the mouth into anything other than a gritty paste.
5) Artificial Sweeteners
A relatively new addition to the trashy mainstream chocolate market is the artificial sweetener. These are not common everywhere in the world, but have certainly been making their presence known on UK confectionary shelves.
Hot on the back of the Sugar Tax and the focus on the increasing obese population within the nation, artificial sweeteners are a product of both government and consumer demand. These sweeteners, such as xylitol, are usually added alongside chocolate rather than instead of it (as usually only seen in diabetic chocolate). The aim is to provide the same sweetness as sugar while reducing the bar’s calorie content. Realistically speaking, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to just remove some of the sugar without replacing it.
We are all still fairly unsure of the long-term effects of the consumption of these sweeteners. However, many of us are likely at least aware of their short-term effects on the digestive system. Consuming even a small amount of chocolate that contains certain artificial sweeteners can have a laxative effect. No one needs that kind of stress when trying to enjoy some chocolate.
Similarly, it is no secret that products with sugar replacements are often much less satisfying than the real thing. Instead of being able to fully enjoy a small portion of good quality chocolate on a regular basis, these kinds of cheap products train us to eat larger amounts and still feel unsatisfied. Because of this, the whole lower-calorie thing is pretty redundant.
In terms of flavour, these sweeteners are wholly undesirable. Chocolate that contains them may be similar in the first second or two of tasting. Afterwards, there is usually either a bitter or generally synthetic flavour that lingers at the back of your tongue.
When spending your hard-earned money on an edible treat, you shouldn’t have to feel short-changed on flavour or satisfaction.
Hopefully this post on 5 trashy ingredients that are added to your chocolate will help open your eyes to the modern chocolate industry. This is by no means a lecture on what you should or should not eat, simply a piece to make you think before you buy. None of us are innocent in our ethical decisions, or flawless in our pursuit of health, but it always helps to know how we can be better in achievable and enjoyable ways.
Go forth, eat chocolate.