How to choose the best chocolate
Does a difference in price mean a difference in quality?
There’s a world of difference between the mass-produced chocolate you find on store shelves and high quality chocolate. From preservatives to added sugars to emulsifiers, artificial colors and hydrogenated oils in place of pure cocoa butter, buying a chocolate bar can be more complicated than you thought.
Just look up your favorite chocolate bar’s ingredients on Google and you might be surprised about all the non-chocolate things they contain. Some bars can’t even legally be labeled as "chocolate" because they don’t contain cocoa mass and cocoa butter!
Is it really worth shelling out the extra cash for high quality chocolate when all you want is an endorphin rush and a little indulgence? Here’s what you need to know before reaching for that $2 bar.
The Art of Chocolate
Big chocolate companies buy cocoa beans from exporters then grind and blend them with oils, inexpensive sugars and preservatives to make what’s essentially diluted chocolate. This lowers the cost for the company and the consumer. Plus, if the beans aren’t the highest quality in the first place (e.g. not organic, poorly fermented), no problem! Because milk powder, emulsifiers, additives and sugars can all help hide imperfections.
Artisanal chocolatiers, however, buy non-diluted, higher quality chocolate. They then carefully temper, sweeten and flavor it themselves. Bean-to-bar artisans have even more work to do, sorting, roasting, breaking, winnowing and grinding the beans themselves before even thinking about tempering. The price is higher for the raw materials and also for the extra work, but you can actually taste the chocolate rather than the filler.
Chocolate should taste like chocolate liquor, which is made of cocoa solids and cocoa butter (the buttery fat that gives the ideal chocolate texture). A cheap substitute for cocoa butter is vegetable oil – palm oil and other hydrogenated oils – that combine with emulsifiers to create a waxy mouthfeel and a bar that won’t melt after sitting on a convenience store shelf for months (you’d melt too if you were stuck in a Montreal dépanneur for the entire month of July!).
It might seem obvious that there are fewer health benefits to a candy bar than a chocolate bar. According to authoritynutrition.com, a single 100-gram chocolate bar with 70-85% cocoa contains 67 per cent of your daily iron, 58 per cent of your magnesium, 89 per cent of your copper and a whopping 98 per cent of your daily manganese requirements.
It also has potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium, it’s full of healthy fats, it’s high in antioxidants and it can lower your blood pressure while improving blood flow. It can also help increase good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol and can even help protect your skin against the sun.
The more you dilute it with sugars, dairy, oils, emulsifiers and preservatives, however, the less goodness goes into your body.
Look out for:
Preservatives, artificial colors and artificial flavors
Even if a bar is labeled preservative-free, there could be unwanted extras hiding in the ingredient list, like TBHQ, a synthetic additive used to delay oxidation that’s potentially dangerous in high doses. While a couple of big name companies stopped using artificial flavors in their bars as recently as 2015, they still use other preservatives as well as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated palm kernel oil and monoglycerides as emulsifiers.
Even some dark chocolate bars thought to be higher end use barley malt flavoring, artificial flavoring (vanillin in place of real vanilla) and vegetable oils. But now that consumers are asking for purer products, bigger companies are offering more expensive, purer bars. You just need to check labels carefully and choose the companies you feel good about supporting.
Besides raw cacao nibs, most chocolate on the market is sweetened with sugar. But there’s a big difference between panela, an unrefined cane sugar made from the juiced and dehydrated sugar cane, and corn syrup, which is the sweetener of choice (or one of) for a lot of bars. Other better choices are organic cane sugar, demerara, muscovado and turbinado sugar, which are refined sugars made from heated, clarified and dehydrated cane juice.
While they all have the same effect on your blood sugar levels, these sugars are made of sucrose, a mix of glucose and fructose. Corn syrup, however, is pure fructose, which can increase your levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. And don’t be fooled by chocolate bars that use cane sugar in the chocolate itself and then add dairy, dried fruits, caramels or other fillings sweetened with corn syrup. Instead, look for options with organic ingredients, cocoa mass and no hidden additives.
The Real Deal
White chocolate vs. dark chocolate
White chocolate is also technically not even chocolate! It’s made from cocoa butter, sugar and milk solids. But without the cocoa solids of dark chocolate, it can’t be called chocolate. Pure chocolate is naturally dairy free and vegan, but milk chocolate can contain milk solids, lactose, whey or other dairy products added to make it creamier.
Chocolate bar vs. candy bar
When bars are made with cocoa and hydrogenated palm kernel or soybean oil rather than cocoa butter and cocoa solids, they legally have to be called a candy bar rather than a chocolate bar. That big-brand chocolate bar you're eyeing while waiting at checkout? That’s probably a candy bar.
…there are other reasons a bar can’t be called a "chocolate bar" that have nothing to do with the quality of the chocolate itself. For example, PRANA's No Mylk'n Chocolate Bark contains dehydrated brown rice syrup to obtain the creamy texture of milk chocolate without the use of dairy. Unfortunately, that ingredient disqualifies it from being called "chocolate". That’s why they’re called "chocolaty bark." The chocolate itself is still made with high quality cocoa mass and isn’t diluted with cocoa powder or hydrogenated oils. It’s also vegan, non-GMO and fair-trade.
Don’t sweat it! Chocolate should be about pleasure. Just remember to read the ingredient list, and if you can’t pronounce it, you might want to think again before eating it. High quality chocolate will cost you more, but it’s an investment in your health. And with all those endorphins rushing through your body, it’s also an investment in your happiness!
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