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The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.
Today, we’re talking about organic chocolate on the Organic Living Journey. I was inspired to learn a little bit more about conventional vs. organic chocolate while reading over the ingredients on a chocolate bar wrapper…which I totally bought just for research purposes, I swear. I’m not going to try to pass off chocolate bars as a health food or a good choice for a healthy snack. It’s candy. But sometimes, we need a little candy in our life. When you find the need for a little candy in your life, what do you reach for?
For the occasional sweet treat, I like organic dark chocolate. (A little piece every night counts as “occasional”, right?) But do I need to be choosing organic? I tend to default to the organic option when I don’t feel educated enough to know whether or not the “organic” label makes a significant difference in a product.
Today, we’re going to look at the differences you’ll see in conventional vs. organic chocolate candies. Hopefully, this will give you a little helpful information to make your own decision when it comes to buying that “occasional” sweet treat, or at least make you sound super smart and knowledgeable at parties.
What’s in your candy?
The FDA has rules regarding what constitutes a “chocolate”. You can read the very long and incredibly (not) interesting report on the FDA site for specific details, but here’s the important stuff: for a food product to be considered “chocolate” it must contain a specified percentage of pure chocolate and real cocoa butter (the naturally occurring fat in the cacao bean). Without the addition of cocoa butter, the product must be labeled as “chocolate flavored” or something along those lines. Sneaky, huh?
Last week, we talked about how chocolate is made. The two big players are the cacao and the cocoa butter. During chocolate production, these two components are separated. The chocolate portion can go on to become cocoa powder or gets mixed into chocolates. The cocoa butter gets mixed back into chocolate (at different concentrations to create light or dark chocolates), or it gets sold to other industries for non-food uses, such as cosmetics. Thanks to cocoa butter’s many talents, it is a highly valuable ingredient and, therefore, expensive.
What’s the difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate? What’s semi-sweet chocolate?
Baking Chocolate: this is simply the ground up, melted, and reformed state of the cacao nib (broken up cacao bean). It is unsweetened.
Dark Chocolate: Cocoa + sugar + cocoa butter. Contains no, or very little, milk. Typically, at least 35% cocoa.
Semisweet Chocolate: a type of dark chocolate. At least 2 parts cacao to 1 part sugar.
Bittersweet Chocolate: a type of dark chocolate. At least 3 parts cacao to 1 part sugar, may also include extra cocoa butter and vanilla.
Couverture Chocolate: a chocolate with a high cocoa butter percentage about 35%+. Used as a chocolate coating in “high-end” chocolates.
Milk Chocolate: sweetened chocolate with added milk, milk solids, or evaporated milk. Can contain as little as 12% cocoa.
White Chocolate: sugar, cocoa butter, and a form of milk. Does not contain cocoa.
Let’s look at the ingredients in a few common chocolate bars…
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate: Milk Chocolate (sugar, milk, chocolate, cocoa butter, lactose, milk fat, soy lecithin, PGPR, vanillin, artificial flavor)
Dove Dark Chocolate Promises: Sweet chocolate (sugar, chocolate, chocolate processed with alkali, cocoa butter, skim milk, milkfat, lactose, soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavors).
Ghiradelli 60% Cacao Chocolate Squares: Unsweetened chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, milk fat, soy lecithin, vanilla.
Theo Pure 70% Dark Chocolate: Organic cocoa beans, organic sugar, organic cocoa butter, ground organic vanilla bean.
Theo Pure 45% Milk Chocolate: Organic sugar, organic cocoa beans, organic cocoa butter, organic milk powder, ground organic vanilla bean.
You’ll see some similarities between these different chocolate bars: chocolate, cocoa butter, sugar. You’ll also see some differences: the use of soy lecithin, PGPR, vanillin (vs. vanilla), and flavorings. What are these ingredients? Why are they in our chocolate?
This ingredient is added as an emulsifier to help the fat and non-fat substances in your chocolate bar to stay stable. Is it necessary? No. It’s added to provide a creamy texture to our chocolate and helps prevent “blooming” on the store shelves overtime (when the chocolate looks whitish). Is soy lecithin dangerous? That depends on your feelings about soy, GMOs, and toxic solvents. Soy lecithin is made via a fairly toxic process involving lots of toxic solvents. It’s source, soy, is almost always a GMO (genetically modified organism), unless your product specifies organic soy lecithin.
You know it’s not good news when an ingredient is just initials. PGPR is no exception. “PGPR” is polyglycerol polyricinoleate, another emulsifier. It is a yellowish, thick liquid composed of polyglycerol esters of polycondensed fatty acids from castor oil. Yummy, right? This emulsifier is mostly used as a substitute for expensive cocoa butter, and it also has a lower fat content than real cocoa butter. When a chocolate manufacturer wants to cut costs, PGPR is added. Instead of a naturally creamy chocolate, you’re getting a chemical trick. PGPR is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA in small doses and has only recently (since 2006) been added to our foods. Large doses have shown liver damage in some animal studies, but there’s no consensus on what effects long-term exposure can have on humans.
Why not use PGPR? When you replace cocoa butter, you’re also losing a lot of the chocolate’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that the polyphenols in cocoa butter have cancer-preventing properties when applied on the skin and, when ingested, prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol). By using PGPR in place of cocoa butter, manufacturers are removing a lot of your chocolate’s health benefits. Not all brands use PGPR, but it is becoming more common…and it will become “the norm” unless concerned consumers voice their disapproval. Check your labels and know what you’re paying for. Personally, I’m avoiding PGPR. How do you feel about it?
Vanillin is “phenolic aldehyde”, chemically speaking. Another cost-cutting ingredient. Instead of using expensive natural vanilla or vanilla extract, vanillin is a synthetic flavoring made from wood creosote, a byproduct of the pulp industry. [In 2007, a scientist extracted vanilla fragrance and flavoring from cow dung. I’m hoping that product won’t find it’s way into food any time soon.] Vanillin can cause allergic reactions in sensitive people (seasonal or tree allergies), and it may trigger migraines in some people. Vanillin is not in all chocolate; check your labels if you want to avoid it.
Artificial and Natural Flavorings
“Flavorings” (natural or artificial) are chemicals added to food to create specific flavors. What’s the difference between these two categories? Both flavorings are created in a laboratory by a professional flavorist. They may even both use the same chemicals. The difference lies in the source of these chemicals. Natural flavor chemicals are extracted from something natural. A spice, fruit, vegetable, yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf, meat, seafood, poultry, egg, dairy product, etc. will be heated/roasted/distilled or whatever it takes to extract the flavor-bearing chemicals. Artificial flavorings skip the natural source and just synthetically produce the flavor-bearing chemicals. (You can read more about these distinctions on the FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations.) Which is better for you? Um, neither. Both are highly processed and made in a lab. A pure spice, extract, whole ingredient will always be a better option than “flavoring”.
How are organic chocolate candies different?
For a chocolate (or any food product) to be legally labelled as “organic” a product must meet these criteria:
-all agricultural ingredients must be certified organic
–some non-organic ingredients may be used (up to 5%, excluding salt and water)
-product label must state the name of the certifying agent
Choosing an organic chocolate will give you three big benefits:
no questionable additives
no toxins from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers
lower glycemic index
Organic chocolates will omit a lot of the questionable additives we mentioned above, and all the cocoa, cocoa butter, and sugar will be organic. By using these organic ingredients, organic chocolates will not have the same residual toxins (from pesticides and fertilizers) as conventional chocolates. No toxins is definitely a good thing. In addition, organic sugar has a lower glycemic index than conventional, refined sugar. If watching your blood sugar levels is a priority, and you want a chocolate treat, organic chocolate is a great option!
What about the taste?
Chocolate aficionados say that organic chocolate tastes a lot better than conventional chocolates. Is that true? There are some amazing, non-organic chocolate companies that use clean, all-natural, ethically-sourced ingredients to produce a delicious product. There are also some organic chocolates that taste “ok”. I think the taste of a great chocolate is most dependent on the quality of the ingredients used.
Buying Organic (and non-organic) Chocolates
Here’s the fun part. Everyone’s taste in what makes a “great” chocolate differs, so take my recommendations with a grain of salt. Here are a few of my all-time favorite chocolates (husband, this would be good information to write down):
1. Santosha Chocolates – I recently discovered this brand and fell in love. Santosha chocolates are very unique: they use 100% organic raw cacao beans (not cocoa powder, like most chocolates), they use raw organic coconut sugar in place of cane sugar, and all their products are dairy free, soy free, nut free, raw, and vegan. Most importantly…they taste amazing. I mean…AMAZING. These chocolates are not very sweet though, so if you’re coming off a Hershey’s high, this will seem very bitter to you. If you love a strong dark chocolate, you will be in heaven. Each bar costs about $4 for a small serving so hide it from the kids and co-workers.
2. Theo Organic – some of their bars are too sweet for my tastes, but their seasonal Coconut Mint Milk Chocolate is beautiful. You still taste a great, quality chocolate through the subtle mint and coconut flavors. Theo chocolates are usually available at your local stores; I’ve seen them at Target and Whole Foods.
3. Askinosie Chocolate – Askinosie is not organic, but they make chocolates that are so excellent, and I have to include them based on taste alone. They make “bean-to-bar” chocolates, meaning that their manufacturing process begins with cacao beans, not cocoa powder. Their white chocolate is made with pure cocoa butter, sugar, and goat’s milk powder. It sounds strange, but it’s wonderful!
What are some other chocolates you’ve tried and liked? Some you’ve tried and disliked?
Chocolate candy is probably more of a “treat” in your diet than a staple. Do you need to choose organic chocolate? Personally, I think it is most important to check your labels and avoid additives (like PGPR and artificial flavors). For me, I will continue to choose organic chocolates, because I prefer the taste, and I like the lower glycemic index they offer. What are your thoughts?
To finish off our chocolate research, we’re going make an organic chocolate fudge sauce from scratch and learn how to hack Starbucks’ Peppermint Mocha! We’ll make an organic version with better flavor at less than half the price.