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