Remember how you felt after finding out Santa wasn’t the one delivering your presents, or that what goes into flavored coffee is actually really gross? Brace yourself, because that delicious-looking rabbit hiding out in your Easter basket could be hiding a secret, too.
You only have to take a look at the label to determine whether or not your chocolate bunny is actually chocolate—or just a mix of sugar, oils and emulsifiers masquerading as such. Before you go checking out your treats, though, you first need to understand what chocolate is, and what it’s not.
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There are two main types of chocolate, says Shelly Toombs, pastry chef at The Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg, Oregon. While both are marketed as chocolate, they’re very different products.
Couverture chocolate is the higher-quality chocolate, says Toombs. It’s already tempered (meaning it’s heated, then cooled, to stabilize it for baking, candy making and other uses), so it will have a high-gloss appearance and a nice, crisp break when you snap it.
Higher-quality chocolate is made with ingredients derived straight from the cacao bean known as cocoa solids: a mix of cocoa liquor (chocolate) and cocoa butter (fat) on the ingredient list, says Toombs.
A good indication that chocolate is couverture is the presence of a percentage on the label (for example, 70% dark chocolate) out of 100, which refers to the intensity of the chocolate; the remainder of that will be added sugar and milk. Basically, “the higher the percentage, the less sweet it’s going to be, and the more intense flavor you’re going to get,” says Toombs.
Valhrona, a favorite brand of Toombs and many pastry chefs, is a great example of couverture chocolate, but it can be on the expensive side—think $7 or more per 70-gram bar. Slightly more affordable brands like Lindt and Ghirardelli are usually easy to find in the grocery store.
The second type of chocolate, considered lower quality, is called compound chocolate. While it varies from company to company, this type—used by many popular mass-producing candy companies—can have very small ratios of cocoa solids in the recipe.
“Compound chocolate is basically a combination of vegetable fats and sweeteners,” says Toombs. “Some brands will use these along with emulsifiers, because they’re low-cost ingredients, compared to using cocoa butter.”
While milk and dark chocolate products can be compound, white chocolate is especially common in this category—it tends to have no cocoa butter at all, and tastes gritty or waxy, says Toombs. (On the other hand, Valhrona makes a high-quality white chocolate that does contain cocoa butter, which gives it a silky mouthfeel.)
Those emulsifiers (i.e., additives that stabilize processed foods) can be a little sketchy. A common one called polyglycerol polyricinoleate, or PGPR, is derived from castor beans (yep, the same ones used to make castor oil). A cheap alternative to cocoa butter, it’s used by candy companies to avoid the cost of actually putting real chocolate—aka cocoa solids—in their chocolate products, and also to extend their shelf life.
You don’t have to take our word for it. Pick up a package of M&Ms, a Hershey bar or even a bag of Nestle chocolate chips and flip it over: The first ingredient is likely sugar, or something like “milk chocolate” followed by a long list of ingredients in parentheses (their recipe for “chocolate,” with the first one again being sugar).
While additives like PGPR are “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily healthy.
“Some people will get an upset stomach from eating too much compound chocolate,” says Toombs. “If you’ve ever eaten a lot of Hershey Kisses in one sitting, you don’t feel so great, [whereas] you can eat quite a bit of high quality chocolate and not even feel that full.”
Then there’s yet another kind of product on the market that isn’t actually chocolate at all. At a chocolate tasting seminar held at The Allison last month, Toombs held up what appeared to be a chocolate bunny—but if you looked closely, it was actually labeled “chocolatey bunny.” That’s because the ingredient list didn’t contain any cocoa solids at all, but instead was a mix of sugar, vegetable oils, and artificial “chocolatey flavoring.”
The good news: While products like this were everywhere 15 years ago, they’re becoming more rare, says Toombs. Yet that doesn’t mean they’re not still lurking on some store shelves, especially at discount stores.
While buying a couverture bunny or bar may hurt your wallet more than a $1 Hershey bar, in this case, more expensive chocolate almost always guarantees better quality.
“Look for chocolate bars with higher price points that have the source of the beans [and] a higher percentage of cocoa,” says Santosh Tiptur, the chef and chocolatier behind The Conche restaurant in Loudoun, Virginia. “It’s not a requirement to post on the label the source of the cacao and origin, but if they have those facts, that’s a good sign.”
Even if you only indulge occasionally and decide you don’t care that much about the ingredients, know that you’re missing out on all the health benefits of some chocolate by eating compound chocolate, because “you’re basically eating more sugar than anything,” says Toombs.
And it goes without saying that the pleasure of eating chocolate is lessened with the lower-quality bars. Just like with coffee and wine, once you’ve tasted the good stuff, you may have trouble going back.
“Enjoying chocolate is all about taste, texture and experience,” says Anette Madsen-Yazidi, owner of Anette’s Chocolates in Napa, California. “As you venture out and taste the vast array of artisan chocolates, the more the nuances between chocolates will become apparent.”
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