Have you ever found yourself staring at two bars of chocolate and trying to work out why one is £1 and the other over £5? And if it’s really worth spending more? The aim of this post is to help you make an informed choice by giving you some insider tips on what to look for, and what to beware of, on a chocolate bar label.
With many products, you can look at them and immediately see the difference. Roast chicken and chicken nuggets are clearly not the same thing. The same can be said for processed orange squash and freshly squeezed orange juice, processed cheese and artisan cheese. Unfortunately, when it comes to chocolate bars, the difference between industrial, mass-produced chocolate and craft, bean to bar chocolate is less perceptible – marketing tactics carried out by industrial chocolate makers masquerading as ‘artisan’ and better quality doesn’t help either.
To make it simple, we’ve developed a five point checklist that should help you make an informed decision.
When it comes to chocolate, less really is more. If you turn the bar over and look at the ingredients on the back, you’ll realise it’s much easier than you think to identify real craft chocolate. There should be no more than 3 ingredients (4 if you’re buying milk chocolate):
Sometimes it’s even simpler – cocoa beans and sugar
Take a look at this Pump Street Chocolate bar ingredients label and you’ll realise how simple good quality chocolate really is.
If you see ingredients other than these, think again. If you see ingredients that you, or your grandmother, wouldn’t recognise, think REALLY hard about whether you truly want to eat it…
Vegetable fats, E numbers, artificial flavourings, soy lecithin, PGPR, Vanillin and Emulsifiers are all tell-tale signs of generic, mass produced chocolate. Take a look at the ingredients label below of a chocolate bar produced by a well known market leader. You’ll immediately notice a lack of actual cocoa.
However, in craft chocolate, cacao will always take centre stage. Which actually helps explain why some of our chocolate makers often make a conscious decision to use sunflower lecithin. To reduce the viscosity of their chocolate, makers will add sunflower lecithin (rather than add too much cocoa butter) so the true flavour of the cacao bean is not masked.
Furthermore, if you see bars with ingredients that read, for example: raw cacao powder, raw cacao butter, coconut blossom sugar – think twice. It almost resembles what chicken nuggets is to roast chicken, it is simply reconstituted “chocolate”. Cocoa beans should always be the first ingredient, not powder. Likewise, if other fats and syrups have been used instead of cocoa butter and dried sugars, for example using coconut oil and/or agave syrup, it is not real chocolate.
Does the label tell you where the beans were grown and harvested? The key is to look for the name of an estate, farm, co-operative or farmer. Transparency is key.
Be wary if it just says, “percentage X” or “country Y”- that isn’t actually telling you the origins of the beans at all. Also remember that percentage is only an indicator of the amount of cocoa solids in a bar, it is not an indicator of quality.
Bars that give this type of vague information will never be able to provide the same tasting experience as a craft chocolate bar, nor will it provide the same transparency in sourcing of its ingredients, so put it back.
True craft chocolate will proudly tell you the origins of the beans down to the farmer, co-operative and village (just like wine, coffee, cheese, etc.)
Look at these bars from Askinosie, it shows us right on the very front of the label the regions (not just country) where the beans were grown. Askinosie also shows us a picture of the actual farmers who grown and harvest the cacao.
Look for details of the maker, and if you can’t see an address – think again.
Also, don’t be fooled by the “branding” of some countries, for example Swiss or Belgian chocolate. This doesn’t really mean anything, as there is no legal regulation of the use of these terms. Under EU law you don’t need to say where you create (grind, refine and conche) mass produced chocolate, so it’s possible that your “Swiss” or “Belgian” chocolate might be mass-manufactured outside its inferred country.
In contrast, Menakao, for example, produces its chocolate in the same country as where it sources its cacao from – Madagascar. Working like this provides a substantial economic benefit to the communities in the country of cocoa origins, as the cocoa value chains are reduced and enriched.
Don’t be fooled by pretty pictures of sentimental chocolate artisans hard at work…
When learning about how the bar in your hands has been crafted, look for specific details about the process. Craft chocolate makers tend to be very detail orientated and experimental, so our buzz words include:
Check the labels of Fresco, Conexión and Chocolarder. You can see the details of the roast, grind, conche and ageing times, as well as the batch number amongst many other details:
On a side note, one thing to be super sceptical of is if a bar says “raw”. “Raw” chocolate should only be used to refer to cacao beans that have not been roasted (or simply flash-roasted). During fermentation of cacao and during the grinding and conching processes of chocolate making, temperatures will reach well above what is considered “raw”.
The choices you make when buying a chocolate bar have far greater consequences than you might imagine. Whilst mass-produced chocolate has its dark side – multinationals fined over slavery and child labour – craft chocolate, in contrast, paints a very different picture.
Craft makers are keen to share the work they do to help those farming the cacao at origin. Their websites often include transparency and sustainability reports and we’re seeing an increasing number of makers make mention of their efforts on their packaging. For example, buying a bar of Original Beans plants a tree in the rainforest. Or look at Askinosie, who profit shares with its cacao farmers, dependent on the sales of products made with those beans, which in turn encourages farmers to produce the highest quality cocoa beans.
If when you pick up a bar and it costs less than say £3-4, it’s probably remoulded from mass-produced chocolate (maybe even remoulded “Belgian” chocolate), rather than being crafted from bean to bar. At that kind of price, its flavour (or lack of) will more likely come from additives than from being coaxed from rare and awesome beans.
If the price is suspiciously cheap (say less than £3 per 100g), someone must be paying for it somewhere else down the line. But it’s also worth noting that paying top dollar doesn’t always equal top quality.
Beyond our five point checklist, one other set of suggestions for customers and makers (hat tip to Sharon Terenzi) is to make allergen and dietary information super clear. Sadly not all customers realise that, for example, dark chocolate bars are vegan as they don’t contain milk. Similarly, it’s worth reassuring customers if a bar is gluten free. So, if you pick up a craft chocolate bar that, for example, contains just: cocoa beans, sugar and cocoa butter, yes it is DAIRY FREE and yes it is GLUTEN FREE. All plain dark chocolate bars should be dairy and gluten free.
We hope that our checklist has helped demystify chocolate bar labels, and we hope that we have encouraged you to now think twice about what chocolate you choose to buy. If ever in doubt, check our Craft Chocolate Library