Still enjoying that leftover Easter chocolate? You might be less enthusiastic about it if you knew more about the questionable labor practices behind much of what’s in the candy aisle, or if you realized that a lot of your favorite bars might not technically be chocolate at all.
But let’s assume that you want to eat something that is actually chocolate, and that you care about quality. You’re looking beyond those candy-aisle bars of your youth to find something made with higher-quality beans, or with more ethical labor standards, or that’s simply more interesting—and more delicious. Where do you kick off the search?
You might not begin with the fancy seals increasingly seen on chocolate-bar labels, for starters. “We look for chocolate made by thoughtful makers that represent a good understanding of the equipment, the raw materials, and the marketplace for fine chocolate.” said Aubrey Lindley of Cacao in Portland, Oregon. “The stamps and certifications labels are simply not useful to us. There are almost no regulations controlling the information that people put on the label other than the definition of chocolate, and the weight, and the ingredients.”
The chocolate that Cacao seeks out includes bars made by manufacturers like Rogue and Venezuela’s Kakao. Before you do your own shopping—because chocolate-eating season doesn’t end when the Easter Bunny’s work is done—here are seven key terms to become familiar with.
Cacao (or Cocoa) Percentage
“The percentage indicates the amount of cacao—cacao mass, cacao butter—in the bar,” Lindley said. “The rest of the percentage is going to be sugar and whatever else the maker wants to add—vanilla, emulsifiers, nuts, caramel, et cetera.” So the cacao percentage you see on the label refers to the total mass of the ingredients that comes from the cacao bean, which includes the mass (ground-up cacao beans) and the butter (the isolated fat of the cacao bean that’s sometimes added back to the chocolate for a smoother mouth feel). Generally, the higher the cacao percentage, the more intense chocolatey-ness (and less sweetness) you can expect. A higher percentage doesn’t necessarily mean a better-quality bar, or vice versa; it’s just a hint of the kind of flavor you’ll get.
Lindley said his job would be a lot easier if there were words on the ingredient label to immediately indicate that a chocolate is high quality. Plain dark chocolate needs only cacao and sugar, he said, but quality chocolate can have extra ingredients. “Additional ingredients that are common are added cocoa butter, vanilla, and lecithin,” he explained. “None of these ingredients would disqualify a bar from being good quality.” And some bars mix in ingredients like nuts, fruit, and spices to vary the flavor and texture.
“Generally I find there is an inverse relationship between label modifiers and quality—the more stamps and seals and qualifiers it has, the poorer that quality.” Lindley said. “I suspect this typically is a result of larger companies having more money to pay for various certifications and stickers.” Labeling terms that send up red flags for him include all-natural, vegan, non-GMO, gluten free, and fair trade—and he notes that many of the high-end chocolate products he carries do in fact fit those terms, but just don’t have the official seals and labels saying so.
Fair trade certification generally means the base commodity price for cacao was at least $200, Lindley said—a higher selling price for the cacao beans should mean a better price for the farmer, which in turn means the farmer makes a better living. But fair trade isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be, Lindley explained. “This is an extreme simplification of the issues, but generally the conclusion is that fair-trade certification has a very questionable benefit to either the consumer or the farmer,” he said. “High-quality cacao is usually purchased at prices many times over the fair-trade minimum standard. This requires a short communication chain. Truly, the only way to know what is going on is to know the maker, and for them to know the farmer.”
Lindley referred to knowing the maker and the farmer—and this is where direct trade comes in. Direct trade is what it sounds like: a direct relationship between the manufacturer and the farmer, where the beans are purchased directly from the farms where they are produced. This allows the manufacturer to not only ensure the quality of the beans, but also to provide the farmer with a better price for his crop by cutting out the middleman and to have first-hand information about the wages and working conditions for the farm’s employees. Taza Chocolate was an early leader in direct trade for the chocolate industry, and developed its own direct-trade certification program in 2010.
Single source (or single origin) is a selling point for some fans of high-quality coffee—it refers to beans that come from a single source, which can be defined as broadly as a single country or region or as specifically as a single farm. The same is true for chocolate, where single source refers to where the cacao beans were produced and not where the chocolate itself was made. Focusing on beans from a particular region allows for the creation of chocolate that has unique qualities and flavor profiles, thanks to the ways that different growing conditions and techniques can influence the taste of the beans.
However, a chocolate maker’s art and skill of blending cacao beans from several origins to create a consistent flavor profile in a signature chocolate is not to be underestimated. Single-source chocolate isn’t by definition superior to blended chocolate; it’s just a better way to showcase the distinctive qualities of exquisite beans that can stand on their own.
In the United States, a product must meet the FDA’s standards for organic certification to carry the certified organic labeling. However, there are many reasons why a chocolate may fit most—or even all—of the standards but still not have that label. The product could meet nearly all of the standards, for example. Or it could meet them all, but not have the financial means to get the certification. So a product with the FDA-approved organic labeling definitely meets a particular set of standards—but that doesn’t mean a product without that labeling doesn’t.
While there’s a lot of gray area in chocolate terminology, don’t let it overwhelm you. Think of it as an opportunity. If you have a chocolate shop in your area with a passionate, knowledgeable staff, they’ll gladly fill you in on the background of any bar they carry, and help you find chocolates with the flavor profiles you find most pleasing.
Terri Coles is a freelance writer living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She’s a recovering picky eater.