Posted on Leave a comment

Is this a pepper or a chilli?

(the answer is neither: it’s a pink pepper)

To any of you who have ever wondered:

  • How did we come to MIX peppers, chilli peppers and peppermint with chocolate (and why these combinations can be such fun)?
  • Why are the names of peppers, chilli peppers and peppermint so easy to MIX UP in almost every language (except Nahuatl)?

… well we have some answers, and we’ve highlighted some great bars (including a bundle to try them all out at once!).

Read on for a quick history of peppers, chillies and peppermint. You’ll also find out how and why they work so well with chocolate (and why they aren’t a taste or flavour, and why birds LOVE chillies…).  Or just skip below for some great bars from Bertil Åkesson, Georgia Ramon and Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé (and our special themed bundle).

A History of Chilli and Chocolate

As many of us learnt at school, the discovery of America was an accident. 

Christopher Columbus was not looking for a new continent. Rather he was looking for a simple route to sail to, and trade with, India.  Hence the nomenclature of ‘West Indies’, ‘American Indians’ etc., as Columbus et al. thought they were in India, meeting Indians, etc.

The term “chilli pepper” is the result of a similar accident (and possibly deliberate confusion).

Columbus was searching for a new route to India as he wanted to disrupt the Venetian monopoly of the spice trade, and in particular their control over ‘black gold’; or black pepper.  But he didn’t find black pepper on any of his voyages.  However, he did come across what the Aztecs called in their language (Nahuatl) chīlli (or xilli or even Chilpoctli, Chiltecpin or Chiltepin), which he initially mistook for cinnamon, another coveted spice.  

Realising that both black pepper and chilli ‘spice up’ food and drink, and given that Columbus was desperate to showcase the commercial potential of the lands he’d reached, he decided to call these spices “chilli peppers”. The result has been ENDLESS confusion. (If you want more on the etymology of chocolate; it’s more complicated; see here.)

The Aztecs clearly adored chilli, mixing it with all their foods and drinks (including drinking chocolate). Indeed, so much did they enjoy chilli that their definition of fasting didn’t mean not to eat or drink, but rather that they’d not add chilli to their food and drinking chocolate!

Chilli’s Origins

Quite where the chilli plant originated (or indeed which of the five different genera of chilli plant came first) isn’t clear. However, robust claims are made by Bolivia, Ecuador, and Mexico. And archaeologists have found evidence of chilli farming as far back as 8,000 BC, in what is modern-day Mexico. Chilli cultivation has also been uncovered in Ecuador as far back as 6,000 BC (so unlike chocolate, where Ecuador appears to be ‘ground zero’ for chocolate cultivation, Mexico is winning the claim for the first country to cultivate chillies).

The reason chilli was able to spread far and wide (and why it’s so hard to pin down its origins) is thanks to its attractiveness to birds. Unlike other animals, birds don’t feel the capsaicin in chilli that gives it its ‘kick’ and ‘spiciness’. This lack, combined with chillies’ bright colours, leads to extensive snacking by birds who, having digested the chilli seeds, then spread these, flying far and wide and defecating as they go. By contrast, chocolate had to rely on humans for much of its dissemination, and hence its slower spread.

Whether the Aztecs were the first to combine chilli and chocolate isn’t clear (it may well be that the Olmecs did this too, and possibly even earlier). But the combination is clearly popular. Indeed it’s worth noting that when the chocolate drinks ‘marketed’ by the Jesuits (and endorsed later by the Papacy) took off in late-1600s Europe, the recipes used were very similar to those used by the Aztecs; that is to say, the chocolate was spiced up with chilli and/or vanilla and sugar (sugar was substituted for different indigenous sweeteners like honey). And many of today’s most popular bars follow still these recipes.

The History of Black Pepper

Black pepper (technically Piper nigrum), flowers on vines (similar to grapes) and is believed to have originated on the Malabar coast of India. Its history as a spice enjoyed by humans goes back to at least 2,000 BC and it was clearly traded in antiquity (peppercorns were found stuffed and preserved in the nostrils of the mummy of Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of Egypt from 1303-1213 BC).

The Romans were fond of pepper, and there are extensive suggestions, recipes, and menus that attest to its use. Its popularity spread even to Rome’s enemies: Alaric, King of the Visigoths, was (initially) persuaded not to sack Rome for a payment that included 3000 pounds of pepper. And despite the various sackings of Rome by his successors, including the Ostrogoths, Vandals and then the Normans, black pepper’s popularity and usage continued in medieval Europe.

Quite when, who, or how chocolate makers and cooks figured out that black pepper combines well with chocolate we’ve not (yet) had much luck in tracking down (please do send in any old recipes or ideas!).

But, clearly, black pepper works really well with chocolate. See below for a great example: Bertil Åkesson’s wild Voatsiperifery black pepper dark chocolate bar from Madagascar.

There are now estimated to be over 2000 different forms of black pepper, including white, green, and red variants depending on how and when the black pepper is picked and processed. However, PINK PEPPER, (including the Åkesson one below) is a completely different berry, from the Schinus molle shrub, commonly called the Peruvian Peppertree (but until Bertil, we’re not aware of anyone else combining it with chocolate).

…And Peppermint?

Peppermint can be dated back, again, to the Romans (Pliny wrote a history of it), and possibly even further back to the Egyptians (Mentha piperita and dried leaves have been discovered in several pyramids). But we’re not really sure that what Pliny et al. referred to as ‘peppermint’ is the same herb that we now enjoy, with claims being made that what we now call peppermint is a hybrid of water mint and spearmint (Mentha aquatica and Mentha spicata) crossed in 17th-century England.

The benefits attributed to peppermint are extensive; for example, it’s been widely used in Eastern and Western traditional medicine as an aromatic, antispasmodic and antiseptic to deal with indigestion, nausea, sore throat, colds, toothaches, cramps, cancers, gout and much more! And its palatability enabled it to make the jump into confectionery (it is now the number one flavour for non-chocolate, hard candies in the US) and indeed into chocolate (although this is relatively recent; ‘After 8s’ were invented only in 1962, versus 1932 for the ‘Chocolate Orange’).

Intriguingly there is some evidence that the Aztecs, and their predecessors in Mesoamerica, used another pepper, mecaxóchitl (aka Mexican pepperleaf) in their drinking chocolate. And this mecaxóchit spice is known for its eucalyptus and minty notes; so perhaps the Aztecs also invented ‘peppermint’ chocolate?

So what’s so special about chilli pepper, black pepper, and peppermint?

Chilli, pepper, and peppermint are neither tastes nor flavours. They work by a process called “chemesthesis”; that is to say they stimulate chemical reactions on our skin and mucous membranes. In particular, there are a series of nerves running from your eye down to your mouth called the trigeminal nerve, which reacts to the likes of capsaicin, piperine and menthol. And these spices and herbs stimulate nervous reactions similar to that when you touch something hot (TRPV1 for chilli with capsaicin and peppers with piperine) or when you touch something cool (TRPM8 for mint and menthol).

We know that (most) other animals detect and dislike spiciness, hence why cats, dogs, etc. won’t (normally) eat chillies. And we also know birds lack these trigeminal reactions and hence why they have no problem consuming and spreading chillies as they migrate. 

What’s more puzzling is why we humans often have such a desire to try super spicy foods. There are lots of theories about why humans enjoy “risk-taking”, and if you’d like to put them to the test, we HEARTILY recommend you brave Georgia Ramon’s “Carolina Reaper” which really is a super spicy bar. Alternatively, try one of Bertil’s Pepper bars, or Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé with peppermint.  Or try all with this bundle (and save 15% on the normal retail price).

Posted on Leave a comment

Why You Should Always Have Room For Craft Chocolate

Ever felt really full after the main course of a meal… and then suddenly some ice cream, chocolate cake, or other dessert is offered and magically somehow you are hungry again?

You aren’t alone in this. Indeed, scientists have studied this and come up with a scientific explanation for the condition that’s called “sensory specific satiety”. Or less technically, but more graphically, “the second stomach (or dessert stomach)”.

Read on to discover why savouring some craft chocolate at the end of the meal will not only make you feel better (it aids digestion if done in moderation), but is also healthier.

And it’s also worth understanding how sensory specific satiety is (ab)used by ultra-processed mass-produced foods (including chocolate confectionery) to make us scoff more, more, and more.

Note: Many (most?) of the claims for chocolate as a miracle food and for its health benefits are somewhat suspect. Basically, the sample sizes of most studies are too small. And the companies financing the studies don’t inspire confidence. However, the logic and case for some craft chocolate at the end of the meal seems far stronger. And we do strongly recommend that you try some of the bars below after a meal in the interest of scientific research!

Why do we feel full?

Explaining why we feel full is intuitive. At its most basic, we feel full because our stomach sends messages to our brain saying “enough” (this happens as hormones are released when our stomach absorbs nutrients and our stomach and intestines become “constricted”, i.e. full).

And as we all know, there is generally a lag between our brains receiving this message, so we often over consume and feel very full. The Japanese have a great expression here; “harahachibu”; eat until you feel your stomach (hara) is 80% (hachibu) full. And then by the time your stomach has communicated with your brain, you will feel full, but not stuffed.

…So why do we suddenly feel ‘hungry’ again at the sight of ice cream and pudding?

Almost all of us, even when we’ve eaten ‘well’, will find that we suddenly have room for our favourite pudding or dessert. And most of the time this favourite next course will be sweet.

Scientists suggest that this is the result of nature wanting us to eat a variety of different foods. You may well be full of beans, fish, meat, etc. But nature knows that in addition to, for example, protein and carbohydrates, you also need fibre and other nutrients.

So, to stop us ‘just’ eating one food, we are psychologically and physically pre-programmed to become satiated by foods that have the same flavour, textures, mouthfeels and sensations. We feel, and become, ‘sated’.

But becoming full isn’t the same as being “sated”. Sated can also be a sign of being bored. And, back in 1956, a French physiologist, Jacques Le Magned, described how humans became bored and dissatisfied if they only consumed one food, but regained their appetite if they were offered new flavours, textures and sensations. In 1981 Barbara and Edmund gave this description a name “sensory specific satiety“.

Scientists suggest that this sensory specific satiety is key to our good health. As Russel Keast, trained chef, professor of food science, and director of Deakin University in Australia notes:

In evolutionary history, variety was important … different foods provided a variety of nutrients, which helped us survive by providing everything we need for normal function”.

So you can argue that eating a sweet food after a main course is just part of human nature. It’s all part of adding variety to our meals.

And sweet foods have a trick to get around us feeling full. Sweet foods actually cause our stomachs to ‘relax’ and make more room (or rather feel less constricted) as we eat them. Indeed, even the sight and smell of a favourite pudding (or craft chocolate bar), can cause our stomachs to relax.

As Arnold Berstad and Jørgen Valeur from Lovisenberg Diakonale Hospital in Norway put it:

If you eat dessert after you’re actually feeling stuffed you’re tricking your normal sensation of being full … if you think of, and then eat, something sweet your stomach relaxes through three collaborating factors:

  • First of all, the sight and smell of food and the process of chewing and swallowing it have an effect.
  • Secondly, the pressure of food against the stomach has its important impact.
  • And thirdly, the duodenum ‘tastes’ the components of the food”.

And this is where sweets and deserts play a trump card.

Sweet desserts stimulate this relaxation reflex … it can decrease the pressure on the stomach and reduce the sensation of being full. A sweet dessert allows the stomach to make room for more food” (Again, Berstad and Valeu).

Additional advice. And the case for craft chocolate:

These Danish researchers also have some additional advice; you do need to beware eating too much dessert. In their opinion (and we concur):

The problem is that you don’t know when to stop eating dessert. The brakes on carbohydrate consumption are five metres further down, at the lower end of the small intestine … fat, however, is absorbed higher up in the system and triggers a high-placed brake. It makes you quickly full”.
The optimal use of dessert is really a question of moderation … the best thing to do is to limit your consumption of dessert to just a taste of something sweet. This won’t split your gut, and at the same time the small dose of sugar will trigger the desert expansion. The result will probably be that you feel a little less full after your meal”.

Sounds like a recipe for savouring some craft chocolate at the end of a meal? Cocoa butter after all is one of nature’s most amazing ‘fats’.

Too good to be true? The evidence:

The studies to test sensory specific satiety have been very creative. Here are a few:

  1. The first studies were done in the 1980s by simulating buffet-style meals. Participants were fed four meals that included sausages, bread and butter, chocolate dessert, and bananas along with a variety of other foods. They were then supplied with four courses comprising just one of these foods (i.e. just sausages with nothing else, just bananas, etc.). The results are perhaps unsurprising to all of us who have “over done it” at a buffet. Those offered the variety of the buffet were found to eat over 40% more than those given only one option per course.
  2. Another study compared how much ice cream people will eat if they are only given one flavour versus three flavours. They discovered that people will eat A LOT more if you’ve three different flavour scoops rather than one (now you know why you are also encouraged to mix and match in an ice cream store…).
  3. And the Japanese have even shown this on live TV. The cult Japanese TV show Kaitai Shin broadcast an episode where a gastrointestinal specialist, Shigeki Koyama, gave two people a superabundance of French cuisine. He then placed both subjects into an MRI machine and showed them a piece of cake. Amazingly, just the sight and smell of the cake caused massive changes in the shape of their stomachs, essentially making room for the cake even before the cake was eaten, squeezing and contorting itself to find room. Truly a “second stomach” (setsubara in Japanese).
Diagram of stomach before and after dessert

The dark side: How sensory satiety is abused:

This sensory specific satiety (i.e. nature’s way of telling us to try lots of different things) combined with nature telling us to gorge on sweet foods (which historically have been full of nutrients and energy) unfortunately can be, and indeed is, abused by ultra-processed food and mass-produced chocolate companies. Ever wondered why there are so many variants of classic mass-produced confectionery, and why they contain so many different textures and bits? Look no further.

To quote Michael Moss, author of “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us”:

Junk food makers have perfected a process known as subverting ‘sensory-specific satiety’ … (they) owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating”.

Try to describe the flavours, tastes and textures of a mass-produced chocolate bar. Sure; it’s sweet, and smooth, and consistent; but there really isn’t much development or room for savouring. It’s incredibly easy just to scoff a bar in one go.

By contrast, a craft chocolate bar cries out to be savoured. The complexity of texture, tastes and flavour don’t make you want to scoff more and more. You want to savour and enjoy. It doesn’t take much to be sated and your senses delighted.

Break out your craft chocolate bars and truffles.

So the bottom line is: Next time you feel like having seconds of pudding (or maybe even firsts…) instead break out some craft chocolate. Savour it. Hopefully, it will relax your stomach. And it’ll satiate your urge for too much pudding.

Below, we’ve suggested some bars (and truffles) to savour; and please, in the interests of scientific research, do experiment as to how they delight and satisfy you after different meals.

Posted on Leave a comment

Ultra Processed Food

The likes of Nestlé and Callebaut have started developing and marketing “whole fruit chocolate”; bars which are made without added sugar but made with ‘unsweetened cacao pulp’. This is truly inspired marketing.

…But it’s a bit misleading too. Chocolate is more than the sum of its ingredients; it’s about the quality of the cocoa and the way the bar is crafted (or, see below, ultra-processed).

And it is a great segue into another topical issue: The difference between ‘ultra-processed’ and ‘processed’ foods.

For a quick definition on what is meant by ultra-processed foods, and why this is so important, please see below. But just to whet your appetite (and encourage you to read on), here are a couple of observations:

  • More than 50% of the calories consumed by people in the UK now come from ultra-processed foods.
  • More than 80% of the ‘foods’ available in some convenience stores are now ultra-processed (including, of course, mass-produced chocolate and confectionery).
  • More and more research links the ultra-processing of foods to over-consumption, obesity and all sorts of health issues (see below for some really sobering studies in France, Brazil, the US and Australia).

Identifying ultra-processed foods is not always easy. Terms like “whole fruit chocolate” and “unsweetened cocoa pulp” are intentionally obscure. But these “whole fruit chocolates” are still ultra-processed and mass-produced chocolate sweetened with “unsweetened cocoa pulp” still have LOTS of sugar.

Please read on for a great framework and set of tools to differentiate between “processed” and “ultra-processed” foods (including craft versus mass-produced chocolate).

History and Definitions of Ultra-Processed Foods

The term ‘ultra-processed foods’ is based on more than a decade of work by Dr Carlos Monteiro and his team at the University of São Paulo, Brazil.  After seeing that huge spikes in Brazilian consumption of fast foods, sodas, etc., were accompanied by an explosion of obesity across all ages, he suggested that:

 …”the issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing (in these fast foods and sodas)”, and; “…from the point of view of human health, at present, the most salient division of food and drinks is in terms of their type, degree, and purpose of processing”.

And Dr Monteiro, along with a team of epidemiologists and nutritionists all over the globe, has developed an elegant four-part classification of foods to describe this trend.  It’s generally referred to as NOVA (as in new star), and it’s a great framework to think about what we purchase and eat.  And it’s also very helpful in separating craft from mainstream chocolate.

See below for more details and links to some great podcasts on NOVA. But here is a quick summary of the four groups they classify:

Group one: Unprocessed and minimally processed foods and drinks:

  1. Examples: fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, beans, pulses and natural animal products such as eggs, fish and milk.
  2. Minimally processed foods may have been dried, crushed, roasted, frozen, boiled or pasteurised, but contain no added ingredients.
  3. Most of this ‘minimal processing’ can be done at home.

 Group two: Processed culinary ingredients:

  1. Examples: olive oil, butter, sugar, salt and vinegar.
  2. These foods are not meant to be eaten alone, but usually with the foods in group one. 
  3. Most kitchens contain these ingredients, and most people’s grandmothers would recognise them!

Group three: Processed foods:

  1. Examples: homemade bread (and biscuits), smoked and cured meats, cheeses, fresh bread, bacon, salted nuts, poached fruit, beer and CRAFT CHOCOLATE.
  2. The main purpose of the processing is to create a more exciting product and/or extend a food’s life. 
  3. Again, most kitchens contain the ‘kit’ (ovens, jars, etc.), foods (from group one) and ingredients (from group two) to make these ‘processed’ foods.

Group four: Ultra-processed foods:

  1. Examples: Industrialised bread (and biscuits, cakes, etc.), pre-packaged meals (ready meals), breakfast cereals (including most granolas), reconstituted meat products (like industrial sausages), soft drinks, confectionery and MASS-PRODUCED CHOCOLATE.
  2. The critical differences are:
    • The way these foods are processed: Various industrial processes such as hydrogenation, hydrolysis, extruding and preprocessing via frying and baking. You can’t do this sort of processing at home (even if you have a sous vide, air fryer or pressure cooker).
    • The number and type of ingredients used and added aren’t ones that many people will have at home (we all have sugar and salt, but very few of us will have the likes of palm oil, trans-fats, hydrogenated fats, invert sugar, maltodextrin, insoluble fibre, PGPR, modified starches, etc.).
    • The focus is on “bliss point” tastes, rather than ‘savouring the flavour’. Once you pop, you can’t stop with ultra-processed foods (and drinks; how else can you consume 10+ teaspoons of sugar other than in a can of soft drink).

So as Dr Monteiro urges, we need to look beyond the simple nutritional components (i.e. how many calories, how much protein, how much salt, sugar etc.) and the cheap prices (cheapness is all too often expensive, both environmentally and socially).

Why is ultra-processed food bad for you?

There is more and more evidence that diets containing A LOT of ultra-processed foods are really bad for people.   Bottom line: It’s increasingly clear that consuming the same nutrients and calories via ultra-processed foods and drinks leads to weight gain, and a whole set of chronic, non-communicable conditions including diabetes, hypertension, heart diseases and more (see below for some of the studies on these).

Quite why ultra-processed foods have these consequences is still a matter for debate. Fast food companies argue it’s “correlation not causation”, but the studies and evidence are pretty incontrovertible

And there are some intriguing pointers as to the WHY.

  • Ultra-processed foods encourage scoffing and eating faster as they optimise “bliss point” tastes, and they require less chewing than home-cooked foods.
  • Ultra-processed foods leave people feeling unsatisfied and wanting more, again because of the “bliss point” combination of sugar, salt and fat, for most of us “once you pop you can’t stop”.
  • Ultra-processed foods play havoc with our gut and microbiome (see any of the research done by Tim Spector and the team at ZOE, or just watch ‘Supersize Me’).

Above and beyond this, more and more foodies and food geeks are looking beyond the nutrients in any food. The USDA and international research databases track about 150 nutritional components out of more than 25,000 biochemicals known to be in food. And ultra-processing food transforms and destroys many of these biochemicals.

Note: I’m not saying “all additives are bad”. Craft truffles are GREAT, and adding nutrients, vitamins, specific minerals, etc. can be a good thing. And very often these are in ultra-processed foods. But these additives can also be added to home-cooked (i.e. processed) meals.

How does this apply to chocolate?

Chocolate provides a classic example of the difference between ‘craft’ processes and ‘mass-produced’ ultra-processed confectionery.

Craft chocolate is a processed food (group 3):  

  1. The ingredients are simple (cocoa beans, cocoa butter and sugar for dark bars, with milk powder for milk bars). 
  2. Almost all the kit you need to make a craft chocolate bar exists in your kitchen (oven to roast, hairdryer to help winnow, table to temper on. And the melanger to grind and conche is based on the spice/lentil grinder found in many Indian households). We (and definitely I) don’t have the skill to craft chocolate in our kitchens, but this was how the vast majority of makers started; ask Isobel and Karen from Dormouse; look at the early ‘kitchen’ of Omnom in their repurposed gas station; check out Plaq in Paris etc.
  3. It’s all about savouring, it’s all about extracting the flavour from the bean.

Mass-produced chocolate (and most confectionery) is largely ultra-processed (group 4):

  1. The ingredients list is full of stuff few of us can understand (PGPR!?), or have in our kitchen cupboards at home, (palm oil anyone?). And what are all those stabilisers, flavouring agents, E-numbers and the like?
  2. The processes for making mass-produced chocolate are very different to craft chocolate. And mass-produced chocolate involves machinery that definitely doesn’t exist in any normal home kitchen. For example, a craft chocolate maker will sort and roast the whole beans and then winnow (remove the shells). This optimises the flavour. By contrast, mass-produced chocolate production uses huge pressure (via large steamers) to remove the shell of the bean before it is roasted as this is more efficient. This saves money, but it harms flavour.
  3. Mass-produced chocolate adds taste to make up for these ‘efficiencies’ and to create a consistent experience. They do this by leveraging our ‘bliss point’ response to the combination of sugar, salt and fatty tastes. And these bliss point tastes encourage gorging and scoffing. Have you ever tried to wrap up an unfinished mass-produced chocolate bar or confectionery? You can’t! Contrast this with, for example, Pump Street bars that are very moreish, but their packaging enables and encourages you to save some chocolate for the next day.

Mass-produced chocolate companies are also BRILLIANT at marketing. “Whole Fruit Chocolate” anyone? Chocolate made with “unsweetened cocoa pulp” rather than “refined cane sugar”? Low GI coconut blossom sugar (…this one really needs to be put to rest).

Further Reading



Posted on Leave a comment

Vanilla vs Vanillin

Natural vs. Artificial Flavourings

The distinct flavour which we know as vanilla may not be as straightforward as you think. Its popularity is evident in its staggering rise in price from $20 a kilo to over $600 in the space of a decade. However, the image of natural dried vanilla pods adorning packaging may not reflect its content. This commonplace, warm and aromatic flavour has a synthetic counterpart; vanillin. 

There are strong cases to be made for ‘artificial vanillin’ and vanilla in milk and white chocolate, but eyebrows can be raised with dark chocolate. In fact, some synthetic vanillins may be better environmentally and flavour-wise than natural vanilla flavouring. 

The Origins of Vanillin

While the production of vanilla was booming in the Indian Ocean with huge exports from Reunion and Madagascar, the rise in popularity of foodstuff drove scientists to work on ways to artificially create its flavour. Vanilla pods have hundreds of flavour compounds (estimates range from 250 to 500). But there is one critical flavour note called vanillin (or 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, as it’s known to its friends), which creates most of the magic vanilla flavour.

4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde (or “vanillin”)

In 1858 a French pharmacist, Nicolas-Theodore Gobley, synthesised these vanillin crystals, kicking off an ongoing quest to discover new ways to grow, produce, and create this magic flavour.

First past the post were Ferdinand Tiemann and Willhelm Haarman in the 1860s, who worked out how to synthesize vanillin from pine tree sap (bizarrely, they failed to make any money from their discovery). But since then many more, and very lucrative, approaches to creating vanillin have been developed, including:

  • From lignin; a natural polymer found in wood, and a by-product of making paper (only used for perfume as the process is judged toxic to eat),
  • From clove oil and guaiacol (a cheaper alternative to pine tree sap that was created initially from wood and coal pyrolysis),
  • From petrochemicals (which can also be used to create guaiacol),
  • From castoreum secreted from the anal glands of beavers (note: this is not a widely used source of vanillin!),
  • From yeast cells where common sugar feedstocks are fermented via gene editing techniques.

Today, over 99% of ‘vanilla’ products are made with vanillin created via one of these approaches. Only 1% of vanilla products are flavoured from vanilla pods grown on the vanilla orchid.

“Artificial” vs. “Natural” Vanilla

Labelling here becomes distinctly tricky. 

The 1% of products (like MenakaoFruitionSolstice, and some other milk chocolates) that are made with Madagascan Vanilla (for example) are easy to identify.

However ‘artificial’ vs. ‘natural’ vs. ‘synthetic’ vanilla FLAVOURINGS are more tricky. The US FDA broadly defines “natural flavors” as those derived from “a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material … whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional”.

So vanilla flavouring (vanillin) made from lignin or clove oil is “natural” but vanillin made from guaiacol, which is safer to eat than lignin, is “artificial”. And it’s not at all clear where new bio techniques such as gene edited yeasts come in (technically they may well be GMOs too).

Even natural vanilla has problems. Much of the world’s natural vanilla comes from Madagascar. However, vanilla’s scarcity and extreme light weight has led to multiple stories of dried vanilla being used by criminal gangs and drug smugglers to launder money. And this, in turn, has encouraged theft and violence towards the vanilla farmers as prices of vanilla have skyrocketed from $20 to over $500 per kilo. 

The situation has become so bad that ‘real’ vanilla is being compared to the likes of blood diamonds.

So, just as with craft chocolate, you need to be conscious of where your real vanilla is being sourced from, and the situation for the farmers.

Posted on Leave a comment

Is Chocolate Addictive?

Chocolate is NOT addictive.

Unlike the likes of caffeine, alcohol and other drugs, theobromine (the primary stimulant in chocolate) doesn’t meet any of the standard definitions for addiction.

But various ingredients can be added to your chocolate bar that ARE highly addictive. Top of the list of these additives is sugar, especially if combined with a little salt and fat (e.g. cocoa butter, milk, etc.). And in excess, this added sugar creates highs, and lows, which are much faster-acting than caffeine, nicotine, theobromine, cocaine or alcohol; and addictive.

At the same time, sugar helps make chocolate palatable and reveals the myriad flavours in the cocoa bean. For most of us chocolate is too bitter and astringent to enjoy without some sugar (although come to a virtual tasting to explore how you can learn to handle the astringency of a 100% cocoa chocolate very easily).

To showcase how sugar (and salt) can enhance and reveal the flavours in cocoa, we’ve highlighted a few new bars (including some 100%s) below. And there is also a whole range of different sweeteners for chocolate bars, including the likes of dates, maple syrup and a few that don’t use anything other than milk to caramelise the chocolate.

What is addiction?

For a word that is bandied around so much, addiction is hard to pin down. The UK’s NHS offers a simple definition:

Addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you. …There are lots of reasons why addictions begin. In the case of drugs, alcohol and nicotine, these substances affect the way you feel, both physically and mentally. These feelings can be enjoyable and create a powerful urge to use the substances again.

The American definition (DSM-5) is more complicated, and more granular, with 11 components. It differentiates “addiction” from “dependency” which can be confusing as (arguably) these two states are two sides of the same coin.

On a practical level, it’s helpful to see how industry experts approach addiction; for example, to quote Michael Szymanczyk, the CEO of tobacco giant Philip Morris:

My definition of addiction is a repetitive behavior that some people find difficult to quit”.

Or as his chief lawyer, Steven C. Parrish, says:

“…it’s easier …to quit (my) company’s cigarettes than it is chocolate cookies”. (For more on this, please see Michael Moss’ new book Hooked).

So when you can’t stop eating those chocolate biscuits, and really crave the sugar rush (or sugar, salt and fat “bliss point”) of mass market confectionery, you need to beware of ‘addiction’.

But it’s not chocolate itself that is addictive; it’s what is added to chocolate that is addictive. In particular when sugar becomes a, if not the, primary ingredient.

What is going on with chocolate?

Neither theobromine nor caffeine create an immediate craving for another fix. They don’t make you seek out that second slice of cake.

However, caffeine can create a dependency and addiction. For example, just one cup of coffee (100g of caffeine) taken daily for a few weeks can leave many people with withdrawal symptoms including headaches, irritability etc. without their daily fix. By comparison, scientists have tried to find how much theobromine humans would need to eat to start to develop withdrawal symptoms and estimate this to be over 1 kg (i.e. ten BIG bars) of 70% dark chocolate eaten daily for two weeks before you’d get cravings.

Note: Chocolate does also contain small amounts of caffeine (about a tenth of the amount of theobromine in the bar), and if you take a 70% dark chocolate bar of 70g, even if you ate the whole bar in one go, this would be less than chewing 3 coffee beans.

All chocolate contains some sugar (even 100% bars), and it’s in how much sugar, and how the sugar is being used, that the problems and crucial differences emerge.

Sugar’s Unique Qualities

From birth, humans are attracted to sweetness, and we recoil at the other basic tastes of bitterness and sourness (saltiness is more complex, and astringency, spiciness etc. aren’t ‘tastes’).

Sweetness is a way for humans to identify foods that are full of energy (like ripe fruit, cooked meats, etc). And our brains are hardwired to respond to sugar in foods with an immediate craving for MORE. We are evolved to gorge on these sweet foods until we are full of things like ripe bananas, for example. Our penchant for sweet and sugary foods helped us to find calories and survive.

For most of human history our craving for more sugar and sweetness hasn’t been a problem. There really wasn’t much sugar, let alone added sugar, in our diets until the modern era. In 1700s Britain the average sugar consumption per capita per year was less than 2kg. By 1850 this had doubled to 5kg. It’s now over 75kg!

But today the uses (and abuses) of sugar are becoming more and more problematic. Sugar is very cheap. It’s a great preservative. And it’s hard to resist when ‘gamified’ in ultra-processed foods, drinks and chocolate bars.

And the way sugar is used in modern day foods like breakfast cereals, biscuits, cakes and mass market chocolate bars is very different to the way sweetness in fruits etc. encouraged us to seek out these foods. The sugar in ultra-processed junk foods make us eat more and binge. We just want to eat more and more until the bag, bar, bowl is finished (and even then we may well come for more).

We don’t get sated in the same way as we do from eating a piece of fruit (or savouring a craft chocolate bar). We’re being ‘gamed’ via practices like the ‘bliss point’ where sugar is combined with salt and fat to the extent that it really is harming our health.

Sugar’s Highs and Lows

Sugar is remarkable for the the speed at which it gives us a ‘high’ followed by a ‘low’. And these attributes can be (ab)used to encourage scoffing and binge eating. Compare the speed at which sugar gives us a ‘buzz’ or ‘hit’ relative to other stimulants; along with how long it stays in our system to other addictive substances:

  1. Sugar takes between 6/10ths of a second to one second to “register and reward”, and then within another 10-30 minutes it will start to give you a ‘sugar high’ and energised feeling. Thereafter (normally 30-60 minutes later) you’ll get a sugar crash, and a craving for more sugar (note: this is highly dependent on the amount of sugar you consume),
  2. Tobacco (via a cigarette) takes 5-10 seconds to hit, and it has a relatively short half life of 2 hours (i.e. the amount of time the nicotine is still in your system is relatively short you’ll want another fix relatively soon, but not as immediately as sugar),
  3. Coffee (e.g. an espresso) requires 5-10 minutes to perk you up, and has a half life (i.e. half the caffeine is still in your system) of 4-6 hours, so you don’t get the same cravings for another fix as fast,
  4. Alcohol (e.g. a glass of wine) is a bit more complex and depends on lots of factors (what you’ve eaten, your size etc.) as after a drink is swallowed, the alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the blood (20% through the stomach and 80% through the small intestine). And the first effects are felt within 5 to 10 minutes after drinking, with the peak after 30-90 minutes and wearing off after 3-4 hours (again, depending on how much you’ve drunk).

Note: Theobromine (the stimulant in chocolate) is harder to find details for as it’s studied far less. However whereas caffeine peaks in the blood 30–40 minutes after ingestion, and has a half-life of 2.5–5 hours, theobromine attains peak blood concentration 2–3 hours after ingestion, and has an estimated half-life of 7–12 hours (which is why it keeps you feeling full for so long).

Mass Produced Chocolate Bars

The predominant ingredient of mass-produced confectionery chocolate is SUGAR. And it’s this predominance, combined with the bliss point, that creates problems, including addiction.

For example, a snack, pocket-sized Dairy Milk that is 45g contains 25g of sugar and 1g of salt. And it only has 20% cocoa in the bar. The Dairy Milk’s standard 85g bar contains 48g of sugar (12 teaspoons of sugar). And the so called ‘dark’ Dairy Milk 85g bar (which is still only 39% cocoa) contains 42g of sugar (10.5 teaspoons of added sugar).

A standard 100g bar of Bournville Dark Chocolate contains 58g of sugar (16 teaspoons of sugar), so if you compare this to an 85g bar of dark Dairy Milk it actually contains MORE sugar than a dairy milk (49 vs 48g).

And the main pleasure or ‘hit’ from these bars is their sugar rush and familiarity. There really isn’t that much to savour. It’s all about the dopamine ‘fix’ from that hit of sugar. And just as with caffeine (or alcohol or tobacco), you can become habituated to this fix. At the same time the sugar fix encourages binge eating to the point that people know they shouldn’t be consuming so much. And so sadly for some, the sugar in mass market chocolate can become addictive.

Hint: Look at the Packaging (and Check the Ingredients)

If you look at the packaging of mass market chocolate it’s not designed to be resealable. You can’t save the bar for later. The bars are all packaged with the expectation that you’ll eat them in one go. It’s about scoffing and bingeing.

In comparison craft chocolate makers use boxes and packaging that is resealable. They want you to savour their bars over a few sessions. And that’s why we send out resealable pouches with your first subscription kit (and following requests from subscribers, we’re going to include one of these every 3 months from now on, not just with your first box).

Sugar and Craft Chocolate

To be very pedantic, all chocolate bars (including craft ones) will contain some sugar. Even 100% bars. This is because there is a small amount of natural sugars in cocoa beans (depending on the bean, this varies between 0.2-0.7g per 100g of chocolate).

Thanks to the work of Martin Christie and his Seventy% club, most chocolate aficionados argue that dark chocolate bars should contain at least 70% cocoa and then 30% “other stuff” (which is generally refined cane sugar that is responsibly sourced). Milk chocolate bars are more complex; the vast majority of the milk chocolate bars we sell contain over 40% cocoa, and what we call “dark milk” chocolate bars contain more than 50% cocoa. And there are some dark milk chocolates where the main sweetener is the milk, not added sugar (note: milk contains lactose a sugar).

Important side note: These percentage rules are “there to be broken”. As many chocolate makers will tell you; the exact percentage they choose is dependent on the bean, its fermentation, roast, conche, and how the makers want to showcase the flavours of the bean (see below for some great exceptions from Bare Bones and Chocolate Makers).

Putting this into context, the amount of added sugar in an ‘average’ (i.e. 65g bar that is 70% dark) is 21g, or about 4 teaspoonfuls of sugar.

4 teaspoons of sugar is quite a lot. It’s not insignificant given NHS guidelines are to eat less than 30g of sugar per day.

But very few people want to eat a whole bar of craft chocolate in one go. Most people savour the flavour in their craft chocolate bars. And there is a LOT of protein, carbohydrates and fibre in a craft chocolate bar. And this is very filling. So rarely does anyone scoff a full bar in one go.

Most people report being sated with 15-30g of craft chocolate (i.e. 4-8 squares). That’s about 5-10g of sugar, or 1-2 teaspoons of sugar. To put this in context, a low fat vanilla yogurt contains 6-7g of added sugar. Or a small glass of dessert wine contains 6-7g of sugar.

Bottom line: People aren’t savouring craft chocolate for the sugar fix. Hopefully you’ll fall in love with craft chocolate. But you won’t get addicted to it.

Posted on Leave a comment

Breaking the (Chocolate) Mould

At Cocoa Runners, we champion makers who value quality and provenance, are committed to their craft and, above all, love what they do. We can’t over-emphasise how intricate and time-consuming the chocolate making process is: “bean to bar” simplifies years of hard work! It comes as no surprise, then, that our markers pay serious attention to one of the final stages in creating a bar: choosing its mould.

How Moulds Enhance the Chocolate Tasting Experience

The choice of mould defines how the finished chocolate bar is going to be experienced. Chocolate moulds have a similar status to wine glasses, where the shape of the bowl and the thickness of the rim affect how the wine is enjoyed (see companies like Riedel who design glasses to enhance specific grape varieties). Thinner bars (for example Franceschi’s Venezuela 70% shareable pieces) melt quicker, so their flavour profile presents itself immediately. Chunkier bars (like Pump Street’s signature thick rectangles) melt more slowly, revealing their flavour notes more gradually.

Sensory science can also be considered when selecting a mould. Different shapes and patterns can evoke particular olfactory or gustatory responses, and craft chocolate makers can manipulate this when moulding their bars. A bar with intense citrus notes or a bright, vibrant profile might be echoed through a sharp, perpendicular design. On the other hand, a bar with a more rounded flavour profile (think whole milk or potato), could be circular with fluid edges.

This association between taste and shape reminds us of the Bouba/Kiki effect (see below). In studies, people link the word ‘bouba’ to a round shape, and ‘kiki’ to a more jagged form. The effect demonstrates links between sound and shape, similar to those between taste, texture, and visual design. (See our article on how this works for vanilla for more on how this ‘cross-modal’ effect relates to taste!) The look of a chocolate bar creates expectations for its taste; knowing this, makers can twist the rules and design a mould that ‘contradicts’ the bar’s tasting notes. Moulds are a space in which makers’ creativity and sense of fun can really shine.

kiki (left) and bouba (right)
Given the nonsense words ‘bouba’ and ‘kiki’, people assigned the name ‘kiki’ to the spiked shape on the left, and ‘bouba’ to the rounded shape on the right.

If moulds can change the way we taste chocolate, they can also implicitly influence eaters to share their chocolate or (understandably) to be a little more selfish. Bare Bones’ chocolates, with their neat, dividable squares, invite customers to savour the bars’ wonderfully clean snap, breaking them up into pieces to share with friends and family. Chocolate MakersTres Hombres mini bar inspires the same generosity on a smaller scale; it’s a tiny 12g bar divided into 24 even tinier pieces, a miniature feast. Zotter’s butter caramel bar, on the other hand, a uniform slab of almond praline and luscious caramel wrapped in milk chocolate, feels slightly harder to share.

Because of the impact that moulds can have on the effect of a finished chocolate bar, makers take great care in this difficult final step. It takes meticulous precision to even pour the chocolate into the mould. Smudges or water (melted chocolate’s sworn enemy) on the mould can spoil the chocolate at the last hurdle. Many of the makers we work with at Cocoa Runners pour the chocolate into their moulds by hand, so they have to take account of the mould’s material, and how difficult or easy the shape is to fill.

How Moulds Tell a Story

Craft chocolate makers have fascinating stories to tell. It is impossible to communicate a brand’s story completely in one go, from the initial idea to the bean selection to the chocolate making process. Still, the bar itself can be a great tool to begin this conversation.

Nods to a makers’ origin story can be engraved onto the finished product through mould designs. These designs make for beautiful, unique chocolate bars which are also especially meaningful. Moulds can invite us into a maker’s origin story.

For example, Dick Taylor’s exquisite bar design contains curlicues which replicate the look of intricately carved wood. This mould references the fact these makers are, in their own words, ‘deeply rooted in a background of woodworking and boat building’. Meanwhile Friis Holm’s precise rectangular bars, with their perfectly uniform squares, feel to us like a sly salute to Danish minimalism.

There is also something satisfying about a mould that proudly references the maker’s name. Many of our makers adopt this approach, including Bonnat, Åkesson’s, Ritual, and Duffy’s to name a few). Stamping the brand’s name into the bar marks the chocolate with a symbol of its identity and origins. It’s the ultimate personal touch.

How Two Makers Chose Their Moulds

We had the pleasure of speaking to two of our craft chocolate makers about the designs for their moulds. The two makers are very different. Hogarth are New Zealand makers inspired by South America. Their seaside factory creates bars which reference the flavours of New Zealand, including prized Manuka honey, and locally-grown sweet potato. Katya and Armin of Karuna, meanwhile, hail from Austria, but draw inspiration from their time in India. While Hogarth takes its name from its founder, Karl Hogarth, Karuna’s name comes from the Sanskrit word for compassion. Karuna’s bars often take flavours from the wild, with inclusions like sea buckthorn and blackcurrants. What unites these two makers is the tastiness of their chocolate, their commitment to the process of craft chocolate making — and their beautiful moulds.

Hogarth’s Wave Design

We had the pleasure of speaking to Karl Hogarth about his wonderful mould design. Karl wanted his design to ‘show commitment’, ‘make a statement’, and be ‘instantly recognisable’; an aim he has undoubtedly achieved! He told us that he had to make a choice between an easily divisible bar or something more unconventional. In his own words, he decided ‘to take the risk and do something special and unique’.

At first, Hogarth planned on inscribing the initial design (see below) onto the bar, to give a shallower engraved effect. However, one of their designers, Danny, envisioned it as a 3D model, with the waves overlapping each other. After creating a CAD (computer aided design) file and sending this to the Chocolate World in Belgium, the mould came to life.

The original design for Hogarth’s wave mould

These 3D waves are not only beautiful: they’re personal to Karl, representing his background as a fisherman, sailor, and surfer. They also nod to cacao’s maritime journey to reach Hogarth’s factory in New Zealand (which is only 60 metres away from the sea). Others have commented that the design resembles artwork associated with the Tangata Whenua (Tarn-a-ta Fen-u-a) or Maori people, another link to Hogarth’s proud heritage.

This design perfectly exemplifies how meaning can be quite literally poured into each bar of delicious craft chocolate. We particularly love the bar’s thick border: a fitting frame for such a work of art!

Karuna’s Botanical Swirls

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of eating one of Karuna’s award-winning chocolates (see below), you’ll have been struck by their intricate bar design. We spoke to co-founder Armin about the decisions behind this mould, designed by his younger brother Lorenz. Armin wished to acknowledge cacao’s origin as well as Karuna’s Indian connection.

karuna chocolate bars with beautiful mould design

The result is a bar with stylised fruits and leaves which recreate a traditional Indian paisley motif with a twist. By including natural shapes, Karuna pay homage to the trees from which cocoa pods grow. This emphasises the importance to craft chocolate of cocoa growing and the preservation of natural ecosystems. (It also feels apt, given Karuna’s bars often include delicious fruity flavours.) Armin commented: ‘we really loved that it linked to our origin. In the sense where it all began. In India.’ Karuna’s mould design references the business’s very first inspiration, condensing years of hard work into the material form of the chocolate bar.

Incorporating the cocoa pod’s origin also reflects farmers’ hard work over centuries of growing this extraordinary fruit. The design concentrates the long history of cocoa cultivation into a single pattern. Chocolarder adopt a similar approach, engraving a larger cocoa pod on each of their bars. Chocolarder’s design honours the raw material and reflect their commitment to the use of single origin cocoa.

Final Thoughts

Chocolate is the perfect material to mould. Its melting point is just below body temperature, so it’s easy to manipulate and can take on almost any shape. See here for some extreme examples! Moulding gives makers more artistic freedom than enrobing, where the chocolate is simply draped over a product. We hope you can now appreciate how our craft chocolate makers have taken advantage of this opportunity. Not only do these artisans craft delicious tasting bars, they turn them into works of art.

We have also put together a list highlighting some wonderful bars that use moulds to enhance the tasting experience. These moulds create intricate visual effects and beautiful textures. This list is incomplete and inexhaustive: we’ve missed out many fantastic chocolate bars. For more gorgeous moulds, check out our list of 10 wonderful chocolate moulds. After moulding and the decoration of the bar, the next step is packaging. To find out more about the possibilities of chocolate wrappers and the like, read our follow-on post here.

Posted on Leave a comment

Theobromine Versus Caffeine

Back in 1841 the Russian chemist Alekasandr Voskresensky discovered an alkaloid in the fruit of Theobroma cacao (aka the cacao/cocoa tree). And he called it ‘theobromine’, reflecting the etymology of “food of the goods” (aka, the cocoa tree; called “Theobroma cacao” by Carl Linnaeus).

This discovery was part of a line of remarkable alkaloid discoveries starting with morphine (1804) that went on to include a range of other interesting stimulants and drugs such as caffeine (1820), nicotine (1828), and cocaine (1860).

Theobromine is one of the reasons why chocolate is so delightful and so stimulating. But despite being remarkably similar in composition to caffeine (see image the above), theobromine’s ‘stimulation’ is quite different. Unlike other alkaloids, theobromine is not addictive, you won’t get withdrawal symptoms from missing your daily fix but at the same time, it does wonders for your heart, blood pressure and general mood.

How do Theobromine and Caffeine Differ?

Theobromine is found in a number of plants and fruits; most notably in cocoa and chocolate, and also in tea (Camellia sinensis), carob, guarana, and yerba mate.

Caffeine is also found in a number of plants and fruits; in particular coffee, and also trace elements of caffeine are in cocoa and chocolate.

Chemically these two alkaloids are remarkably similar (see the above image). Theobromine is technically C7H8N4O2. And caffeine is C8H10N4O2.

Caffeine contains one more ‘methyl group’ than theobromine.  And this extra methyl group is hugely significant.

How do Theobromine and Caffeine Work?

Caffeine, thanks to its third methyl group, can cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to adenosine receptors. Caffeine blocks these adenosine receptors, stopping one feeling drowsy and boosting adrenaline. This is why caffeine “peps” one up; making one more alert and perkier (hence why it’s great for sports like cycling). It can also make you jittery as it promotes an adrenaline surge, and if you consume a reasonable amount regularly you may suffer withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking coffee/taking caffeine.

Theobromine does not cross the blood-brain barrier. It doesn’t boost adrenaline production or block adenosine reactors. So it doesn’t cause any jitteriness. And you don’t get any withdrawal symptoms (the cravings people have for mass produced chocolate confectionery is from the sugar).

As theobromine is absorbed in our bodies it stimulates the release of nitric oxide, and these in turn reduce enzymes in the blood that constrict our blood vessels. And as a consequence, theobromine causes our blood pressure to decline (note: This may also be due to phosphoesterase inhibition).

At the same time, theobromine interacts with enzymes in our heart and lungs promoting vasodilation and bronchodilation. And this is one reason why dark chocolate is often recommended to help asthmatics breathe more easily.

Theobromine (and caffeine) are also diuretics (or, more graphically; they encourage you to pee). Indeed back in the early 1900s chocolate was regularly prescribed as a diuretic and way to treat edemas (i.e. fluid build ups in the legs, hands, etc.).

Note: Many of the benefits that you get from theobromine you also get from caffeine as the body breaks down caffeine into theobromine. But given that only 10-15% of caffeine is converted to theobromine (the majority is converted into paraxanthine as well as theophylline), the magical impact of chocolate and cocoa as vasodilator, diuretic, etc. are a bit less.

Is Theobromine Poisonous?

At  very high doses, theobromine has been blamed for sweating, trembling and severe headaches in some cases. But it’s very hard to find large studies on this, and even anecdotal evidence here seems very rare.

However, there are some suggestions that for some (unlucky) people, over indulging in chocolate in massive binges may also cause heartburn as theobromine causes the oesophageal sphincter to relax and so some stomach acids go “the wrong way” (so you’ll need some antacids etc.).

More importantly for dogs (and cats), theobromine is far more dangerous because they metabolize it far slower than humans (humans metabolize theobromine over 5-8 hours versus three to five times this for dogs). So if you do have pets (especially dogs as they, unlike cats, have an affinity for sugar and sweetness), keep the chocolate out of the way.

Note: If you are one of those people who believes that dark chocolate etc. causes you headaches, it may well be that you are allergic to PEA (phenylethylamine; another chemical in cocoa/chocolate) rather than theobromine.

How can I access some these wonderful benefits from theobromine?

So the simple answer here is “eat some dark craft chocolate”. Or you can drink some good quality craft drinking chocolate where the prime ingredient isn’t sugar. Or you can add some cocoa nibs to your smoothie, porridge or whatever. And indeed you can even have a good craft chocolate milk bar (especially if it’s a ‘dark milk’ like Krak’s award winning bar below, as the high content of chocolate in these bars ensures the presence of lots of theobromine). And please see below for some suggestions of some great drinking chocolate and bars.

As you try the recommendations below, remember that there are also a host of other great benefits from savouring craft chocolate; everything from satisfying the second stomach so you’ll gorge less, to accessing valuable minerals like magnesium, zinc, selenium etc., whilst also releasing all sorts of wonders like serotonin, phenylethylamine, etc., which make you feel GREAT! And it’s far better for the farmers and planet.

Delight and relax without any jitteriness. Thank you THEOBROMINE: Food, and alkaloid, of the gods.

Posted on Leave a comment

Too Good to be True? The Story of Leptin and Ghrelin

Chocolate shot to success in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe thanks to being both “delicious” and “nutritious and filling” (and if you want to hear more about how smart marketing by the Jesuits and Papacy made drinking chocolate take off around Europe, please come to a virtual tasting).

Fast forward to today, and more and more nutritional wonders are being claimed for chocolate. Many of these studies are based on the discovery of hormones that sound a little like characters from The Hobbit, ‘ghrelin’ and ‘leptin’. Leptin was isolated by Douglas Coleman and Jeffery Friedman in 1994 and helps explain why we feel satiated and full (and then stop eating). Ghrelin was isolated a few years later in 1999 by Masayasu Kojima and Kenji Kangawa and is critical in determining how, and when, we feel hungry (and start eating). And there’s also glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP1), peptide YY, oxyntomodulin (OXM), orexin, glucagon and a bunch of others (hat tip to Professor Peter Goodfellow for extending this list).

Researchers have performed all sorts of further studies based off these discoveries; measuring for example how just sniffing foods like chocolate impacts leptin and ghrelin levels. See below for a few examples that sound “too good to be true”, and why some scepticism may be called for (hint: check the sample size).  

Plus we’ve details on ZOE, the company running the world’s largest nutrition study (and also the world’s largest Covid 19 study), where you can do your own personal experiments on chocolate (and much else).

Too Good to Be True?

Since the discoveries of ghrelin and leptin (and other hormones impacting hunger), scientists have had great fun designing various experiments, including:

  • Researchers in Denmark produced a paper suggesting that merely smelling dark chocolate can “increase satiety” (i.e. make you feel full) and decrease ghrelin levels. They also reported that the reduction in your ghrelin level was the same whether you ate, or merely smelled, the chocolate. Sadly the study didn’t show that you can double your feeling of satiety by first sniffing and then savouring your chocolate, although this is still the way we’d recommend enjoying your craft chocolate.
  • Another study, this time of US college students, revealed that describing the same 380 calorie milkshake as either “a 620-calorie “indulgent” shake” or a “140-calorie “sensible” shake” dramatically impacted how full participants felt, and how much ghrelin they produced. That is to say even though the two milkshakes were exactly the same, how full people felt, and how much their ghrelin levels declined, was driven by being told whether the items were low or high in calories and nutritional content. So even though these sadly there weren’t chocolate milkshakes, it does argue that you should luxuriate in the richness, the calories, and all the nutritional benefits of your chocolate as this will both psychologically and physiologically benefit you.

One of the major problems with both of these studies is their small sample size. The Danish study on smelling versus savouring chocolate had 12 subjects. And the milkshake study had 46. To be fair, it’s mainly the media reporting of these studies that have ‘hyped’ the results. For example the milkshake study conclusion reads “The effect of food consumption on ghrelin may be psychologically mediated, and mindset meaningfully affects physiological responses to food”, which I suspect most of us would agree with … once we’ve read this a couple of times.

Sample Size

Small sample sizes are, as any good scientist will testify, the Achilles’ heel of much research. For more on this, in particular with sugar, see an upcoming email where we’ll debunk the claims for coconut blossom sugar being healthier and a whole lot of other bunkum on ‘alternative sugars’ (see HERE for a teaser).

There are HUGE variations in how different people respond to different products depending on all sorts of personal, and environmental, factors (e.g., time of day, tiredness etc.). So it’s hard to rely on such small numbers.

What we really need are bigger studies. And more personalisation.

Personalised Nutrition

As in many other spheres ‘big data’ is trying to address these challenges, making waves not just in food but many aspects of health. For example, the covid 19 app launched by Professor Tim Spector and the ZOE team has hugely helped, and sped up, the understanding of covid by assembling millions of people to report regularly on their covid status and symptoms.

The ZOE team was originally set up to provide insights into “how your gut, blood sugar and blood fat respond to different foods” (including chocolate). The science is based on thousands of individual  studies (including 12,000 identical twins to understand the impact of DNA). And it’s highly personalised. For example, I took part in an early pilot a few years ago and amongst other insights, I was delighted to discover that consuming dark chocolate (in moderation, i.e. 5-6 squares at a time) doesn’t cause my blood sugar levels to ‘spike’, and definitely does satiate me.  On the less good side coffee (black or with milk) causes my blood sugar levels to spike.

For more on the ZOE study (and how to sign up), please see HERE.

And for those interested, yes, we are planning more ‘Craft Chocolate Conversation‘ sessions with Tim (register your interest HERE). Jonathan, one of Tim’s co-founders and ZOE’s CEO, has also done a podcast/YouTube interview with Tim and I. And Jonathan has a great interview podcast with Azeem Azhar explaining ZOE.


While you wait for your personalised nutrition plan, please don’t believe everything you read about chocolate (or any other food). Check out the sample sizes behind any studies whose results are “too good to be true”. 

And learn from the lessons of history. For the past 400+ years in Europe and 4,000+ years in South America, we’ve learnt that chocolate is delicious and filling. And it doesn’t need loads of sugar and additives to be delicious (in fact if sugar is the first ingredient listed on the label, we’d STRONGLY advise putting the bar back on the shelf).

To paraphrase the great Michael Pollan “eat craft chocolate, not too much, mostly dark”. And if you want great flavour, remember to check out the source of the beans, as without great beans (or grapes), you can’t make a great chocolate (or wine).

Below are a bunch of favourite bars from the team for you to experiment with. See if you find that smelling them really fills you up as much as savouring them. And remember, craft chocolate is nutritionally dense (and not full of sugar), so relax and delight in savouring them; keep thinking how filling they are…

Posted on Leave a comment

Getting ‘In Synch’ via Craft Chocolate

We’d like to suggest how craft chocolate, and the stories of the farmers and makers, will make your consumption of craft chocolate more synchronised, stimulating and sensual,  via two “Ms” (not M&Ms!):

  • Mimetic Behaviour
  • Mirroring

Some of this may seem a bit theoretical. But hopefully it’ll provide some food for thought. And some fun experiments.

Mimetic Behaviour

Ever wondered what’s really happening when suddenly everyone around you is fascinated by a song, planning to run a marathon, wearing a certain colour, reading an author, or eating salted caramels? Or at a more visceral level, have you ever wondered why when one child is interested in ‘toy A’ in the playbox suddenly all the other children want the same toy? Or what is really happening with FOMO (fear of missing out)?

Back in the 1960s, Rene Girard, a French polymath, published a theory of human behaviour based off reading Cervantes, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoevsky, etc. that offered an intriguing answer. He suggested that “we desire according to the desire of the other … we rely on mediators or models to help us understand who and what to desire”. Put another way, when we see others taking enjoyment from something, we want to ‘mimic’ that. And when we see someone else getting pleasure from the same thing we enjoy, this also gives us a psychological ‘boost’.

Many of the conclusions Girard came to from applying this idea are pessimistic and controversial (for example, his theory on scapegoats and it being easier to agree on what we stand against rather than believe in).

But he also applied his insight to explain the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of feeling a connection to, for example, someone at a concert who is smiling at the same bits of music as we enjoy them too, and how this “establishes a bond”. And it also offers an intriguing insight as to how we learn the ‘instinct’ of disgust (which may not be instinctual…) and why this is so different across cultures, and why the look of disgust is the same one we make when we eat something bitter.

Applying Mimesis to Craft Chocolate

Craft chocolate is one of those things that (almost) everyone enjoys. And savouring craft chocolate is a great way of synchronising your delight and emotions. Sure you can share your passion for a piece of music. But how many of your friends, or indeed partners, have the same music ‘tastes’? The same is true of books (and that’s why book clubs are still so popular). 

So whilst you may have to compromise on what music to listen to or film to view with people you love, craft chocolate shouldn’t be a compromise. (Almost) everyone loves chocolate, especially craft chocolate. Sure you may have individual favourites. But that’s part of the fun. It’s like discussing which song from your favourite artist you like most with a fellow fan. It’s not like debating punk versus classical music.

At our tastings, it’s wonderful to see how craft chocolate is a common bond and source of delight. Indeed one of the most uplifting parts of our virtual tastings is witnessing the enjoyment of people (anonymously) sharing one another’s descriptions and delights (note: this obviously isn’t true of some of the ‘challenging’ bars like the 100%, but that’s still fun). Craft chocolate’s flavours, textures, sensuality, and depths provide a great bridge to bond and enjoy together.

If you don’t believe this; try it. Try any number of our craft chocolate bars, and savour it together. As you find chocolates you both enjoy, it’ll showcase the psychological power of mimesis. And it’s fun. And stimulating. (And potentially sensual!).

 And come to a virtual tasting session! See HERE for the reviews.


What’s really extraordinary is that, in the last few years, neuroscientists have started to back up Girard’s theories with experiments that show how shared experiences and narratives bring people together not just psychologically but also physiologically. Literally people’s heart rates, breathing, pupil dilations, hormone releases, etc. will synchronise as they read (or see) the same stories. 

To read more about this, please see some interesting articles and podcasts below, with links to the original research by Perez et al. (and it’s their image above in the header): (hard going!)

If you are into book clubs, you’ll already instinctively understand this. You can explore the work we’re doing on book clubs HERE.

But if you want to take your craft chocolate savouring to a new level, why not also read the stories of the farmers and makers in the chocolates you are enjoying with your partner at the same time? Unlike mass produced chocolate and confectionery, we know where the beans come from and where they are crafted for every bar (and bonbon) we sell. And on the website and bar pages, we’ve the stories that explain the inspiration behind all our makers, and more, and more of the farmers, co-operatives and NGOs with whom they are working.

Posted on Leave a comment

Why We SHOULD Add (a little) Sugar to Chocolate

spoon full of sugar

Sweetness and sugar are hugely complicated. And they are also hugely controversial.

As far as chocolate is concerned, Epicurus was right. As he advised: “Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance”. The addition of sugar to chocolate IN MODERATION can be wonderful.

But too much sugar (as in most ultra-processed, mainstream chocolate) is really, really bad, and addictive.

There is also a huge amount of nonsense talked about some sugars (and artificial sweeteners) being ‘better’, causing lower ‘sugar spikes’ etc. that should be debunked (‘hat tip’ to Professor Tim Spector, who covers this in his book, and who will be joining us for another Craft Chocolate in Conversation session).

So whilst you read this post (and apologies for the length), please do try some bars sweetened with alternatives to refined cane sugar. And do try some approachable 100% bars too. Savour them from a texture, flavour and taste perspective. Revel in being moderate.

What is sugar?

To quote from Wikipedia: “Sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. Table sugar, granulated sugar, or regular sugar, refers to sucrose, a disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose”.

So far, so simple.

Historically most of the refined sugar we’ve added to our foods we’ve extracted from sugar cane and, more recently, sugar beet. These two plants contain 14g and 17g of sugar per 100g; not much more than mangoes, for example, which contain 12g, and even oranges with around 8g per 100g. Of course consuming refined sugar is very different from eating fruit; all the fibre, protein, etc. is removed as sugar is extracted from sugar cane/beet. However, until recently, adding refined sugar to our foods and drinks was a luxury and didn’t cause huge problems.

This has dramatically changed in the last few decades with a series of scientific developments, in particular:

  1. Innovations and new techniques for processing sugar from unexpected sources (in particular something called “high fructose corn syrup”), combined with continuing subsidies for refining sugar (not just from sugar beet and sugar cane, but also now corn),
  2. The discovery of new lower-calorie sweeteners from coal tar and chlorine (via accidents involving poor hygiene and scientists not washing their hands before eating!),
  3. The development of ultra-processed foods and the ‘bliss point‘. It’s the bliss point that underpins the explosion of junk food and why we just can’t put down foods that are engineered with additions of fats, salts and SUGARS to make them irresistible.

What’s the difference between sugars and other sweeteners?

This gets a little more complicated. Many things can be sweet (e.g. the amylase in your saliva can make bread taste ‘sweet’ as it breaks down starch into sugars). So for the purpose of simplicity, we’re going to talk about ‘sweetener’ additives, like sugar, that are combined with chocolate, and many (most?) other foods and drinks, to make them sweeter (and also cheaper, last longer, have different textures, etc.).

The NHS suggests a couple of ways to segment “sweeteners”:

One way is to loosely group sweeteners as: sugar or sugar substitutes … One of the most useful ways of grouping sweeteners is to look at those that have nutritive value, i.e. nutritive sweeteners, and those without nutritive value, i.e. non-nutritive or ‘low-calorie’ sweeteners”.

And here is how the NHS further breaks down different types of sugars and sweeteners:

  • Nutritive sweeteners are defined as sweeteners containing carbohydrate and provide calories”. Think of these as sugars.
    • The largest category here is what most people think of as sugars; e.g. glucose, fructose, sucrose (a combination of sucrose and fructose, and basically the sugar we buy in the supermarket), maltose, lactose, honey and maple syrup, etc. (note: this isn’t an exhaustive list), etc.
    • Over the last few decades scientists have also bioengineered new low calorie “sugars” that have fewer carbohydrates, especially a category known as polyols or sugar alcohols. When you read a label and see ingredients like erythritol, isomalt, maltitol (see the sugar-free bar from La Reine Astrid), mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, you are experimenting with these ‘low calorie’ sugars.
  • Then there are ‘non-nutritive’ sweeteners, i.e. sweet tasting additives that have no (or very few low) calories, carbohydrates or much else.
    • The first of these sweeteners, saccharine, was discovered by a university student way back in 1897 who, after experimenting with coal tar, forgot to wash his hands. And when he licked his fingers was amazed by how sweet they tasted, and realised this was from the coal tar (bizarrely cyclamate a.k.a. Sweet’N Low, and aspartame, were also discovered after similar accidents).
    • Most of these no calorie sweeteners are chemically and biologically synthesised from the likes of coal tar, chlorine, etc. But recently scientists have managed to extract a plant based non-nutritive sweetener called stevia from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. So just to add to the confusion there are some “plant based, natural” “non-nutritive” sweeteners too!

Why do we like sugar (and sweetness in general)?

Returning to why we like sweetness; from birth humans are genetically wired to enjoy the sweetness in our mother’s milk, and as we get older we seek out ripe fruit, cooked meat and vegetables (they are sweeter), etc.

Evolutionary biologists suggest that this is because sweetness is a great predictor of calories (a.k.a. energy) in food. And most of human history has been about getting enough calories to survive and reproduce. At the same time most foods with lots of sugar have many other nutrients and benefits (vitamins, fibre, etc.).

Until very recently indulging our sweet tooth hasn’t caused many health problems (although it has caused many socio-economic issues, read elsewhere in our blog for more on the very dark history of sugar and slavery). Indeed even today hunter gatherer tribes like the Hazda in Tanzania obtain 15% plus of their annual calories from honey (far higher than any Western dietician would recommend).

But as we’ve created more and more sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners for lower and lower costs this has caused massive problems. We are now gorging on ultra processed breakfast cereals, confectionery and mass produced chocolate. Our sweet tooth is now helping fuel an obesity epidemic. We are eating more and more calories from natural and artificial sugars added to foods which are designed to make us want to gorge more, more and more.

So, is it bad that we add sugar, and other sweeteners, to craft chocolate?

Having said all this, a little sugar can be a great addition. And we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water in our disdain for sugar while also being very sceptical about ‘miracle’ new sugars.

As with many matters concerning food and cooking, Brillat Savarin, almost 200 years ago, hit the nail on the head:

The centuries last passed have also given the taste important extension; the discovery of sugar, and its different preparations, … have given us flavors hitherto unknown“.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste.

We add sugar to craft chocolate as it helps us appreciate the myriad of flavours in a craft chocolate bar. As anyone who has tried a fresh cocoa seed, or indeed a 100% chocolate bar, can attest there are A LOT of tannins in chocolate. And these tannins are very bitter and very astringent. Adding sugar counters astringency and bitterness. It makes the chocolate more palatable. And it’s like adding salt, or umami, to meat; it brings out the flavour. Without the sweetener, most of us only experience bitterness and astringency. We can miss the amazing variety of flavour brought out by fermentation, roasting, conching, tempering, and of course the beans themselves because we are so overwhelmed by the astringency.

Side note on 100% bars: Most people can learn to appreciate (and even love) craft chocolate which doesn’t have any added sugar (indeed we even have a 100% subscription offering). Coffee provides a great parallel: The first time most people drink an espresso or a black coffee they too are overpowered by the tannins. But you can get used to it. Hence why so many people come to love espresso and black coffee. And as anyone who has been to a virtual tasting can testify, chew on a coffee bean and then trying some 100% completely changes the experience. Astringency is something that the brain can switch on and off. Try some great 100% bars below from Firetree and Karuna. Try them over a few days. Possibly after chewing a coffee bean. They are amazing!

Why sugar added to mass produced chocolate isn’t such a good thing:

Sugar in mass produced confectionery is added for very different reasons.

Firstly, sugar is not added to enhance the flavour of the underlying chocolate in a mass produced chocolate bar (or chocolate confectionery). Sugar is added to make the mass produced candy and ultra-processed chocolate sweet. These are then marketed as a sweet treat and reward that act as a pick me up (sadly also with a sugar crash).

Secondly, sugar is also added as it’s an incredibly cheap ingredient. Given all the health issues too much sugar is now seen as causing, this is ironic as sugar’s cheapness is in part thanks to massive government subsidies coupled with new technologies. Indeed, sugar is far cheaper than the chocolate in any mass processed bar. And far cheaper even than ultra-processed, artificial sweeteners. To quote the R&D Department of Callebaut in North America:

Any [sugar] replacement or change in sweetening…typically will mean a cost increase with the raw materials … polyols such as the low-calorie sugar alcohols erythritol and maltitol are more expensive than cane sugar”.

That’s why when you check the ingredients of many mass produced bars, sugar is the primary ingredient (for example; a snack sized 45g of Dairy Milk contains 25g of sugar).

What are the consequences of adding sugar and sweeteners to mass produced chocolate?

Put our desire for sweetness together with this cheap added sugar and it’s a problem. For the first time in human history many of us have too many calories and not enough fibre, protein and nutrients in our diet.

Ironically ‘calorie counting’ doesn’t help here: It over simplifies how nutrition works at both an individual and general level.

For example, refined sugar has less calories than the chocolate it is added to. Craft chocolate contains lots of carbohydrates, fats, minerals and even fibre (cocoa is after all a fruit). So if you just look at the calorie count, gram per gram, a mass produced chocolate bar will have LESS calories than e.g., a 100% or even 70% craft chocolate bar.

But this is very misleading.

Craft chocolate is about savouring. The fibre, carbohydrates and fat in dark chocolate are all REALLY filling. Especially if you savour SLOWLY. You rarely eat that much craft chocolate in one go; say 4-6 squares, or around 20g. Come to a virtual tasting and you’ll be sated, but you’ll have savoured less than a third of a full bar of chocolate.

By contrast, sugar is what is often described as an ’empty calorie’. In its refined form, sugar packs a lot of calories and is a great source of immediate energy. But refined sugar doesn’t have any nutrients. And sugar isn’t very filling. Its sweetness means that when you add it to cereals, biscuits, or mass chocolate bars, you want to eat more. And more. Indeed, for most people they keep eating more of a sugar filled mass produced chocolate bar until it’s all been scoffed (hence the packaging, which we’ve discussed before).

And sugar can become addictive, and this helps sales.

Does the type of sweetener (and sugar) make a difference?

So the simple answer here is YES. The type of sugar added will change flavour, mouthfeel and taste. And the source of the sugar also makes a HUGE socio-economic difference (see the our article on sugar and slavery).

But it’s far more complicated to answer whether any sweeteners are ‘healthier’. Honey has been shown by more and more studies to have various health benefits. And eating sugary fruits (like figs, oranges, apples, etc.) is clearly healthy.

But the suggestion that some refined sugars are healthier than others is, to put it mildly, unproven. In particular claims that certain added sugars (e.g., coconut sugar) cause a lower ‘GI spike’ (sugar rush) have never stood up to scrutiny (the original study was done by the Philippine Coconut Sugar Marketing board on only 11 people, and never been replicated). And different peoples’ blood sugar is impacted dramatically differently by different products. In Tim Spector’s upcoming book he points out that:

  • My blood sugar hardly moved with a bowl of white rice which has a GI of 95/100 and shot up to the diabetic range with ten red grapes which have a GI of only 46/100. I tested my long suffering wife, and she had the opposite result .. studies from … our UK twins are showing that our individuality in the gut microbiome determines how quickly we absorb glucose and the speed of our insulin response. Microbes were much more important than carb content or GI index”.
  • Note: I used a blood sugar monitor to experiment on myself a few months ago and was delighted to discover that chocolate and red wine DON’T cause my blood sugar to spike. But sadly black coffee does cause huge spikes.

And the idea that artificial (or natural) sweeteners are healthier is also under increasing challenge from discoveries about how we taste. Again, Tim’s upcoming book has more on this, but one intriguing insight from Tim’s work is that we have taste receptors not just in our mouth, but also all the way through our gut. So while you can fool the receptors on your tongue with the likes of aspartame and stevia, your gut isn’t as fooled, and so it may well rumble and demand more (if you have some maltodextrin, which is a sugar but doesn’t taste sweet, that will satiate your stomach, but it causes other issues).

How do sugars and sweeteners impact mouthfeel, flavour and taste?

The GREAT attribute about refined sugar is that it has no flavour. It’s just a sweet taste.

This changes when sugar is heated above a certain level; it then caramelises, and develops various flavours (note: this is at high temperatures, above 320 degrees Fahrenheit). So refined sugar’s great asset for the craft chocolate maker is that when properly applied, the sugar is flavourless and allows the complexities of the bean, fermentation, conching and tempering to shine through. ‘Fancy’ sugars (like coconut blossom sugar, lacuna, or honey, maple syrup, etc.) are not just a sweet taste, they also have flavour which, to purists, diminishes the flavour of the bean.

This isn’t to say don’t try some sugars refined from the likes of dates or mango, or with maple syrup (see Raaka’s bar below, or some of Zotter‘s new range). But as you try these chocolates, you may want to go in thinking of them as more like an inclusion bar.

Indeed to expand your horizons, try some bars that are sweetened using lower calorie sugars such as La Reine Astrid’s sugar-free milk bar which uses maltitol; it’s very distinctive.

Then try some chocolate bars which are sweetened with milk. The natural sweetness of the milk, plus it’s texture, gives them an intriguing mouthfeel and temper (see below for bars from Chocolat Madagascar and Zotter).

Finally do try the eminently approachable and intriguing 100% bars from Firetree and Karuna.