Why spend £6 on a bar of chocolate when you could buy a bar for less than half that price in your local supermarket or corner shop? Good quality chocolate and the cheap stuff are worlds apart, as you’ll soon discover when you look at the ingredients, learn a bit about how they are made, and compare how they taste.
Let’s start with the taste: mass-produced cheap chocolate tends to contain high amounts of preservatives to lengthen the shelf-life of the product as well as refined sugar, vanilla, and emulsifiers to create consistency of taste. If you’re picking up a bar of Dairy Milk, for example, you’d expect it to taste like every other Dairy Milk you have ever eaten or will ever eat, anywhere in the world. This can also make it quite bland. In general, cocoa content will be low and sugar content high, and the beans used to make the chocolate are probably of poor quality and a mixture of beans from various different origins.
Craft chocolate, on the other hand, puts the cocoa front and centre. As Lara Messer, co-founder of Scottish bean-to-bar brand Bare Bones, explains, “Chocolate is like wine; where the cacao is grown, the variety and genetics of the cacao, as well as the fermentation process, all affect the taste of the chocolate so much.” Ideally, the ingredients list should be pretty short for good quality chocolate, with cocoa dominating. Keeping that focus allows the rich flavours of the bean to shine through, making for a completely different chocolate-eating experience. Craft chocolate also has the advantage of being healthier than regular chocolate because it has a higher cocoa content, less sugar, and fewer preservatives.
Crucially, craft chocolate also tends to be more ethical, with a lower environmental impact than it’s cheaper and less conscientious standard supermarket counterparts. The global chocolate market is forecast to reach almost $140 billion USD by 2024, but the average African cacao farmer still makes around $0.50-$0.84 a day. The fact is, if you’re buying cheap chocolate, the farmers are paying the price for your cravings.
The market rate for cacao beans would keep farmers well below the poverty line, so if a company is claiming to be ethical, they should be paying above the market rate; inevitably, this is reflected in a higher price for the consumer. If you find this fact hard to swallow, it’s worth remembering that as farmers become more desperate to make a living, many turn to deforestation so that they can grow a higher quantity of crops; cheap chocolate doesn’t just keep farmers in poverty, it also impoverishes the planet.
How to identify and appreciate high-quality chocolate
Phil Landers, founder of Hackney-based bean-to-bar chocolate brand Land, recommends not being too influenced by the percentage on a bar of chocolate as where the cacao was grown affects the taste a lot more than the percentage. “I’ve tasted 80 per cent dark chocolate which tastes sweeter than a 70 per cent dark chocolate,” he says. “Also, the percentage isn’t a sign of increased quality. Some of the best chocolate I’ve tried has been around the mid 50s and quite sweet, but still with a crazy array of natural flavour to it, and totally unique.”
Landers also recommends being wary of dark chocolate that has vanilla listed as an added ingredient: “If a dark chocolate has vanilla in it, then often you can assume they’re trying to hide bad cocoa. This isn’t always the case, but it’s a tactic that’s used quite a bit.”