Chocolate Taste Test: Battle of the Bars

Chocolate Taste Test: Battle of the Bars
If you grew up in the United States, your image of a chocolate bar is likely the one wrapped in a dark brown label with silver block lettering across the front.  While you might prefer a Snicker’s bar, Hershey’s has ruled supreme as the classic American chocolate bar for generations. If you’re a self-admitted chocolate snob, however, or you’ve given chocolate a prominent position in your food pyramid, you may have selected one of the approximately dozen superior tasting brands that are offered at most natural foods stores as your most coveted. So, what makes these premium bars special, and are they truly worth the extra price?

To understand what distinguishes one chocolate brand from another requires a better understanding of the ingredients and the process that creates such a divine taste. Chocolate comes from the amazing cacao bean (note: this immature bean is not yet considered a cocoa bean), a product of the cacao tree that grows in equatorial countries like the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Venezuela and the Ivory Coast.  While there are several different types of beans, the three main beans are Criollo, Fostero (most common), and Trinitario. Chocolate manufacturers typically blend these different beans, the flavors for which vary significantly depending on how they are processed, including the length of fermentation, roasting, and conching (a grinding process that makes chocolate smoother. Higher quality chocolates are conched for as long as 72 hours whereas large American chocolatiers only conch their beans for 4-6 hours). The fermentation process darkens cacao beans and, along with roasting, evokes the chocolate aroma and flavor that we adore and categorize as cocoa beans.

Chocolate liquor, or unsweetened chocolate, is created by roasting and grinding cacao beans. There are two distinct components of ground cacao beans: Cocoa is the ground solids and cocoa butter is the extracted fat. The percentage number on the wrapper of a chocolate bar is the sum of the two (chocolate liquor = cocoa + cocoa butter). Milk chocolate is defined by the FDA as containing a minimum of 10% chocolate liquor and at least 12% total milk ingredients whereas dark chocolate, by law, must contain at least 35% chocolate liquor. Surprisingly, the minimum level in Europe for chocolate is 1% chocolate liquor, necessitating that manufacturers display the percentage prominently on the wrapper.

You may never have noticed this percentage before. In fact nowhere on the label does Hershey’s indicate that its milk chocolate contains only 11% chocolate liquor. By comparison, the five premium milk chocolate brands that we tasted in our informal tasting all contained at least 33%. Is a higher chocolate liquor percentage really important? The answer is yes if you’re looking for more real chocolate in your chocolate bar.  If you’re interested in the antioxidants and the other potentially beneficial compounds found in this remarkable plant food, then knowing how much actual chocolate you are getting is definitely pertinent.

Health Benefits

I was initially skeptical about the marketing hype extolling the health benefits of chocolate. Not because I doubt the value of eating the cacao bean (which contains over 600 different compounds) but for the reason that we add several teaspoons of sugar to cocoa to create the kind of chocolate suitable to our palates. That withstanding, a small serving of dark chocolate (110 calories – see label) packs the same level of antioxidants (flavonoids in chocolate) as a 5-ounce glass of wine (125 calories). Pay attention to how much chocolate is consumed in studies showing health benefits (the latest study gave subjects 3.5-ounces of dark chocolate or nearly 600 calories worth). The majority of commercially available dark and milk chocolate products, however, have low flavonoid levels because of “dutching,” a common practice that uses an alkaline compound to reduce bitterness. Premium chocolatiers (see below) use a longer fermentation process without dutching to mellow the chocolate while still preserving the valuable antioxidants.

Marketers make the mistake of trying to sell chocolate as a real health food, comparing the antioxidant levels of chocolate to green tea and blueberries. A more accurate portrayal, and one that considers all aspects of nutrition, is that chocolate is an amazing food, emotionally satisfying, and a delicious treat that offers real health benefits IF it has a high cocoa percentage and was processed properly.

Ethical/Environmental Issues

I had no idea until recently that children are routinely sold into slavery to sustain the cocoa industry, particularly in West Africa where 70% of the world’s cocoa supply is produced. In fact, The U.S. State Department estimates that 15,000 child slaves are used on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast alone.

“Surely, most of your customers would be outraged to learn that the sweetness of their favorite chocolate is tainted with the bitterness of slavery and worker exploitation.”

Fair Trade Symbol

A bill passed the US House in 2001 requiring chocolate manufacturers to label their chocolate bars “free of slave labor.” Before the bill reached the senate, however, the industry agreed to a voluntary measure – called the Harkin-Engel Protocol - to end forced child labor on cocoa farms by July 1, 2005. As you might guess, without a labeling law to uphold, the cocoa industry has made very little progress on this voluntary measure. What is promising, however, is that more consumers are buying Fair Trade certified chocolate.

Buying chocolate Fair Trade certified is the best way to ensure that your dollar is not contributing to child slavery and poverty. Fair Trade prohibits abusive forms of child labor and guarantees farmers a minimum price for their cocoa harvest. Over 90% of the world’s cocoa production is produced by small farmers, making the Fair Trade cooperatives an ideal program on two conditions: the consumer market for Fair Trade chocolate continues to expand and more farmers understand that producing higher quality beans will command a much higher price. Currently, cocoa farmers receive only a penny for the cocoa contained in a regular candy bar. More info on Fair Trade.

Since cocoa production is a major threat to the existing rainforest, sustainable practices are increasingly more important. Cacao trees are ideally grown under the shade of the canopy of the existing tropical forests. Most farmers opt for full-sun cocoa production, a choice that produces greater yields but requires more chemicals and destroys the flora and fauna that makes up the tropical forest. Fair Trade cocoa supports the preservation of this canopy, thereby protecting wildlife and nesting birds. In addition, almost 50% of Fair Trade cocoa is grown organically. Organic chocolate sales have skyrocketed in the past couple of years. If you’re wondering, organic cocoa is “slave-free” as farms are subject to an independent monitoring system that prohibits abusive labor practices.

When you buy Fair Trade certified chocolate, you’re buying higher quality cocoa produced using sustainable practices without slave labor that is shade-grown and bird-friendly. Fair Trade chocolate is profitable for farmers and their families.

Important information: Companies that are NOT buying Fair Trade or organic chocolate include Hershey’s, Lindt, M&M/Mars, Nestle, Russell Stover, Ritter, Cote D’or, Guylian, Godiva, Ghirardelli, Toblerone, and other leading brands.


Chocolate Taste Test: The Battle of the Bars - June 2005

These are the bars we chose, not for any particularly reason other than they are five popular bars. Several are our proclaimed favorites and are found in most natural food stores across the country.

1) Chocolove – Fair Trade; not currently organic

2) Dagoba – Fair Trade; organic

3) Endangered Species – Fair Trade; only Baby Bars (1.4 ounces), Bug Bites and Chimp Mints are organic

4) Green & Black – Fair Trade; organic

5) Rapunzel – Fair Trade; organic

We conducted blind taste tests in Boulder, CO and Asheville, NC. All told, there were fourteen participants, many claiming to be chocolate snobs, that rated both the milk and dark chocolates on a scale of 1= favorite to 5=least favorite.

Results

Milk Chocolate

Cocoa %

Rank

Avg

Dagoba

37%

5

1

5

5

4

1

1

1

2

2

1

4

1

1

2.4

Endangered Species

52%

3

2

2

3

3

2

2

4

1

4

2

2

4

5

2.8

Rapunzel

36%

2

3

1

1

1

5

5

5

4

3

5

1

5

2

3.1

Chocolove

33%

4

4

3

2

5

3

3

3

3

1

4

3

3

3

3.1

Green & Black

34%

1

5

4

4

2

4

4

2

5

5

3

5

2

4

3.6

Dark Chocolate

Cocoa %

Rank

Avg

Endangered Species

75%

1

1

1

1

2

1

1

2

1

1

2

1

2

2

1.4

Chocolove

70%

2

2

2

2

1

2

4

4

2

2

3

2

4

4

2.6

Rapunzel

70%

5

4

5

4

3

3

5

3

4

4

1

5

3

1

3.6

Dagoba

74%

3

5

4

5

4

4

2

5

3

3

4

4

1

5

3.8

Green & Black

70%

4

3

3

3

5

5

3

1

5

5

5

3

5

3

3.8

Comments

While it’s clear that not all chocolate tastes the same, I was surprised by how varied the responses were. Dagoba was the winner of the milk chocolate and yet three participants ranked it last. Endangered Species blew away the field in the dark category. They both, however, are the sweetest in their respective categories:

Milk Chocolate

Grams sugar per ounce

Dagoba

15

Endangered Species

14

Rapunzel

13

Chocolove

15

Green & Black

13

Dark Chocolate

Grams sugar per ounce

Endangered Species

10.5

Chocolove

7.5

Rapunzel

7.5

Dagoba

8

Green & Black

10

Translation: Dagoba and Chocolove have ½ teaspoon more sugar* per ounce than both Rapunzel and Green & Black and for dark chocolates, Endangered Species has ¾ teaspoon more sugar* per ounce than both Rapunzel and Chocolove.

*(See label: 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon; serving sizes are different)

Rapunzel uses a different type of sugar called Rapadura (an evaporated cane juice that contains molasses) that gives the chocolate a slightly different taste. As you can see from the results, people either liked it or they didn’t.

There are a selection of other quality chocolates to choose from at natural food markets, including Scharffen Berger, Cloud 9, Sunspire, Newman’s Organic, Tropical Source, Equal Exchange, Terra Nostra, and Ecco Bella.

Hippie Wisdom Buying Tips for Premium Chocolate

Milk chocolate:

  • Fair Trade certified and/or Organic (containing organic dairy)
  • 30% or greater cocoa percentage
  • No artificial flavors
  • No coconut palm, or hydrogenated oils*
*The fat in quality chocolate comes from cocoa butter not added oils.

Dark chocolate:

  • Fair Trade certified and/or Organic
  • 70% or greater cocoa percentage
  • No artificial flavors
  • No coconut, palm, or hydrogenated oils

Calorie-for-calorie, I consider chocolate far more satisfying than the equivalent amount of calories from other desserts. Be aware, however, that a standard 3-ounce bar packs a surprising 450 – 500 calories! As a mindful eating practice, see how satisfied you can be with a serving of chocolate that is 200 calories or fewer.

I had no idea that chocolate is produced with slave labor until I did the research for this article. Please pass this information along to your chocolate-loving friends.

If you conduct your own blind chocolate tasting (it’s a blast) and email your results (greg@bestnaturalfoods.com), we’ll report them in a future Hippie Wisdom newsletter.

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