So you have found a beautifully packaged bar of chocolate, the price looks fair and all the familiar lingo is at play in a nice italic font. But you have been here before and you know all too well that ‘made from 45% Ghanian cacao beans’ doesn’t automatically equal craft chocolate and you might be asking yourself, what is the remaining 55%?
Luckily for you, it is mandatory for all food packaging to contain a clear list of every ingredient used. Since 2014 the laws became even more stringent and allergens now need to be in bold so that with a quick glance anybody can decide if a bar is safe for them and their specific dietary requirements.
The order the ingredients are displayed is also important, as they’re categorized in order of quantity. You would expect your chocolate bars first ingredient to be cocoa, what chocolate bars are made from and the only non-negotiable ingredient, but this isn’t always the case.
Cocoa and Sugar
It may surprise you to know that you can make a chocolate bar with very few ingredients. While many are interchangeable and can be tweaked and played with, there’s only one ingredient you cannot make chocolate without and that’s cocoa. It may be labelled as cocoa beans, cocoa mass or cocoa solids. Other than 100% chocolate bars, which are made from pure cocoa beans, you can make a dark chocolate bar with just two ingredients. Cocoa beans and sugar. The percentages of these will vary but the average two ingredient dark chocolate bar will contain a ratio of around 70% cocoa beans and 30% sugar.
Some dark and milk chocolate bars will also contain added cocoa butter, which is the natural fat from the cocoa bean and adds a delicious flavour and creaminess to your bar. The addition of cocoa butter takes your chocolate from two-ingredient to three-ingredients.
Milk chocolate, of course, requires a minimum of three ingredients, with the addition of milk to sugar and cocoa beans. White chocolate, on the other hand, contains no cocoa beans and instead consists of cocoa butter, milk and sugar in its simplest form. As milk is a major allergen, it will be both in bold and then often in parentheses as ‘milk powder’ or ‘dried whole milk’.
So why do we so often see lines and lines of ingredients if we can count the essentials on one hand? There are many more optional ingredients which are added to enhance the flavour and even more which cut down the cost, so let’s take a look.
Something you’ll often find in chocolate is an emulsifier, this is usually soy lecithin but others can also be used. It’s not an essential ingredient but is often the cause for discussion amongst chocolate enthusiasts. The benefits of adding emulsifier include allowing the chocolate to withstand heat better (not usually a friend of chocolate) and it also helps makers avoid blooming. It can also cut costs down when swapped for cocoa butter (which is more expensive) and aide in machine production, making it popular with large manufacturers. Although many craft chocolate makers prefer to keep their ingredients list short and emulsifier-free there is no simple answer to whether it should or shouldn’t be added to fine chocolate.
Vanilla is often added to white and milk chocolate to add a sweet and familiar taste, however, it gets a bad name by many chocolate lovers for being used to mask burnt and off flavours. Real vanilla can be used to compliment the cacao flavours when added with care and expertise but watch out for the many fake vanilla substitutes which crowd the supermarket shelves.
Like vanilla, natural flavourings may be added to a bar for obvious reasons, however, with so many flavours ready to be unlocked in the bean itself many find them unnecessary. Artificial flavourings are commonplace in our childhood favourites and often appear unpronounceable and confusing. Simply put, these are synthetic chemicals made in a science lab to mimic natural flavours and most importantly for large companies, they are cheaper and easier to source.
Many makers add inclusions to their bars which could be anything from cocoa nibs to orange oil to freeze-dried fruit. This should be stated in the name and clearly in the ingredients, and if it’s a flavour combination you enjoy then what could be better?
Not so delicious is the addition of cheaper oils and fats to replace expensive and natural cocoa butter. This is why you’ll often see shea butter, palm fat or vegetable oil in the ingredients list and when you try to melt or bake with lower quality chocolate the mix may separate and become grainy.
Most of us would be horrified if we found out our orange juice had more sugar in than oranges or if there were ingredients hidden inside which we didn’t even recognise, so why do we so often accept this with chocolate? Since we grow up with these bars dominating the market, it becomes normal and expected to not be able to read or understand everything in our food. We think that’s what makes craft chocolate so special and why it’s important to differentiate between the ones doing everything they can to create great tasting chocolate, and the ones simply making as much as they can sell.
So while mainstream chocolate companies may be hijacking phrases such as ‘single origin’ ‘bean to bar’ and adding cacao percentages to the front of their packaging, the biggest teller of whether or not you have a craft chocolate bar is in the ingredients list – where there’s really no room to hide. Craft chocolate makers are proud of their short ingredient lists and spend their efforts unlocking the huge array of flavours inside their precious beans rather than hiding them away, third or fourth down the list.