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Why are emulsifiers used in chocolate?

Have you ever scanned the back of a chocolate bar and wondered why the ingredients list reminds you of the glossary of your old chemistry textbook?

Lurking behind the cocoa butter, cocoa mass, milk and sugars lies perhaps one of the most controversial ingredients in chocolate making. An emulsifier.

It’s time to investigate what these formidable E-numbers are doing in chocolate bars. Why are they almost everywhere if craft chocolate can manage perfectly well without them?

What do emulsifiers do?

As you may remember from past science lessons, an emulsifier is a substance that binds together two repelling liquids. Usually, oil and water, in creating one united solution, also known as an emulsion.

As chocolate does not, or at least should not, contain water you may wonder why this is applicable. In fact, if you want to sound really clever, chocolate is not actually an emulsion at all, but rather a suspension. The dry solid ingredients (cocoa masses and sugars) are suspended in cocoa butter. However, if there is not enough cocoa butter to compensate for the volume of dry solids, the mixture can split into an unpleasantly thick and grainy consistency.

Enter the emulsifier.

Emulsifiers essentially work to ‘glue’ the dry solids and fat back together. This results in one pool of thin, shiny, spotless and, frankly, heavenly liquid we call melted chocolate.

Smoother, less viscous chocolate is far easier to work with. It allows the molten chocolate to flow freely through factory machinery and simplifies the processes of moulding, coating and tempering. By definition, the emulsificiation process ensures that the ingredients bond together differently, each one is less likely to separate from the other. This also reduces the chance of fat or sugar blooming if the bar is stored incorrectly.

For large-scale chocolate companies, emulsifiers are a commercial lifeline. It allows them to skimp on real, indulgent cocoa butter while creating that same luxurious melt-in-mouth sensation for the consumer. But at what cost?

Lecithins and E-numbers

The emulsifiers most commonly found on chocolate labels are soya or sunflower lecithin (E-322), Monoglycerides and diglycerides of fatty acids (E-471), and ammonium phosphatides (E-442).

Yes, they are just as appealing as they sound!

Lecithin is commonly the by-product of soybeans and sunflowers from the oil extraction process. This makes them relatively inexpensive ingredients and reduces farm waste. Whilst lecithin does not have a distinct flavour, it contributes to the waxy texture that you find in cheaper, big brand chocolate. It also mutes the cocoa flavours that the additional cocoa butter it typically replaces would embolden.

Although lecithin is natural, it is highly processed. It’s often extracted from plant proteins using harsh solvents such as hexane and acetone.

In addition, soybean crops are often genetically modified. Although you can find some organic or GMO-free chocolate products, these are becoming increasingly rare in the mainstream chocolate market.

E-442 and E-471 are a bit more fiendish.

Found in almost every Cadbury product, these emulsifiers are synthetically manufactured from fatty acids, extracted from a mix of vegetable or animal fats, such as rapeseed oil and glycerol.

Unfortunately, large-scale manufacturing of synthetic emulsifiers inhibits the ability to trace the raw materials they originate from. This can allow animal products to slip unannounced into your favourite chocolate bars. Vegans and vegetarians be wary; your chocolate may not be as cruelty-free as the brand it claims to be.

These additives are all approved by the UK Food Standards Agency and are perfectly safe to consume in moderation. Nevertheless, they compromise the integrity and flavour of the chocolate.

Are emulsifiers necessary?

Essentially, no. The practice of chocolate making goes back further than our means of extracting chemical emulsifiers. If we werent using it in the past, then why are we using it now?

An emulsifier’s role is replaceable. Either longer conching, grinding down the dry solid particles to a smoother texture, or the addition of extra cocoa butter for that silky finish. This delicate balance naturally binds solid to liquid without conceding its purity. So most craft chocolate makers eschew the use of emulsifiers with two exceptions. Firstly makers “at origin” (ie where the bean is grown, like Madagascar) can struggle with moisture and their machines “gumming up”, so they may resort to using emulsifiers if their air conditioners break etc. Secondly, makers who are making “couverture” to sell to e.g., cooks and chefs will include emulsifiers to help in baking, cooking, etc. But these are the exceptions.

By contrast, most large chocolate brands make excessive use of emulsifiers as a cost-cutting production measure. You need considerably more cocoa butter to create the same velvety quality achieved by a few drops of emulsifier. And cocoa butter is significantly pricier. This is not to mention the increased precision of temperature, measurements and grinding needed for emulsifier-free chocolate; time, energy and labour resulting in a bill mass chocolate producers simply can’t stomach.

Ultimately, when you find an E-number in your chocolate, you not only have to ask what synthetic chemicals are going into your food, but what key ingredient it is replacing. Leaving you to wonder; how genuine is this chocolate?

1 thought on “Why are emulsifiers used in chocolate?


    It would make more sense to say that the added lecithin in commercial chocolates and most available couverture has become an invisible crotch to cooks and pastry chefs. My analogy would be that of a baker only being able to make all breads with self-raising flour…
    So when selling to these “professionals” who do not even know how one of their prime materials work – its important to make them understand that they can just add the lecithin themselves, IF their recipe does not work without it.
    Its mailnly mousses and airy concoctions that needs the stabilizers… But I think important to add that piece of knowledge – that lecithin can be used and added just like baking soda or similar. The formula Is simple: 0,2-0,5 % added lecithin (no more no less to get the desired effect) weight to weight when melting the chocolate anyway. The latter here I see as important knowledge to get to the chefs and pastry chefs to have them use craft chocolate and understanding quality.

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