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Why are emulsifiers used in chocolate?

By Cocoa Runners  ·  24th October 2021  ·  How is Chocolate Made?

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 the one of the most controversial ingredients in chocolate making; emulsifiers.

It’s time to investigate what these formidable E-numbers are doing in chocolate bars, and how craft chocolate (often / normally) manages 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, to create 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, with the dry solid ingredients (such as cocoa masses and sugars) suspended in cocoa butter.

However, when 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 into one pool of thin, shiny, spotless and, frankly, heavenly liquid we call melted chocolate.

Smoother, less viscous chocolate is far easier to work with, allowing the molten chocolate to flow freely through factory machinery and simplifying the processes of moulding, coating and tempering. This also reduces the chance of fat or sugar blooming when the bar is stored incorrectly as each ingredient is less likely to separate from the other.

For large-scale chocolate companies, emulsifiers are a commercial life line. 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!

Soya and sunflower lecithin are extracted from the by-products of farming soyabeans and sunflowers, making them relatively inexpensive ingredients and reducing farm waste. Though lecithin does not have a distinct flavour, it has been known to form that waxy texture you find in cheaper, big brand chocolate. It also mutes the cocoa flavours that the additional cocoa butter it typically replaces would embolden.

Despite deriving from natural ingredients, lecithin is highly processed, often extracted from the plant proteins using harsh solvents such as hexane. Additionally, most soyabean crops are genetically modified and though 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 it wasn’t needed then, true quality chocolate shouldn’t need it now.

The role of the emulsifier can be replaced by a combination of longer conching, grinding down the dry solid particles to a smoother texture, and 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) struggle with heat and their machines “gumming up”, so they may resort to using emulsifiers. Secondly makers who are making “couverture” to sell to e.g., cooks and chefs will include emulsifiers to help the cooks, chefs, etc. in their baking, cooking, etc. But these are the exceptions

By contrast most large chocolate brands make excessive use emulsifiers as a cost-cutting measure as they make production easier and cheaper. Not only do you need considerably more cocoa butter to create the same velvety quality achieved by a few drops of emulsifier, but 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?

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