Cuckoo for Cocoa Fat

Looking around the food blogosphere this morning, it seems a few of my fellow bloggers are working up quite a lather over what is apparently an attempt by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association to lobby the FDA into changing rules that dictate what is and what is not allowed to be called “chocolate”. The apparent issue (and I say that because I’ve not seen much actual documentation on this) is the desire of some chocolate manufacturers to substitute different fats for cocoa butter when formulating certain chocolate products. As things stand, when a chocolate maker swaps out cocoa butter for say, vegetable oil, they’re not allowed to call what results “chocolate”. The rules change would allow that.

This seems to be causing no small amount of hysteria among the foodie community, who are interpreting the move as yet another wanton adulteration of our precious foodstuffs by greedy/evil (greedeevil?) megacorporations, all for the sake of profit.

Yet what most people don’t realize about cocoa butter is that it has no flavor of its own. Once it’s separated out from the raw cocoa solids (and it always is in the chocolate manufacturing process), it’s simply a plain-tasting plant fat. The thing it has going for it is its melting point, which is just below body temperature. This special property renders it a near perfect medium for cocoa flavors, since it liquifies on contact with the tongue, giving gourmet choco-treats their unctuous, creamy quality (it also makes it great for cosmetics like body rubs).

The thing that’s so easily forgotten when news turns to hysteria is that not all chocolates, and in fact a minority of chocolates, are made to be eaten by themselves. The vast majority are made as ingredients, and it’s in this area that manufacturers presumably want some labeling flexibility. As things stand now, if instead of blending 100% cocoa butter back into their chocolate liquor, a manufacturer used vegetable oil (even a 100% organic vegetable oil) that product cannot legally be called chocolate. It has to be called something else. “Imitation” chocolate perhaps or “chocolate-flavored confection”. Yet food manufacturers know that today the food business is all about labeling. Whole foods advocates have been so effective at tarring the image of large-scale manufacturers that today anything called “chocolate-flavored syrup” is instantly thought to be the brainchild of the Dow Chemical board of directors, a cousin to Agent Orange. Well, we can’t drop the stuff on the Vietnamese anymore. What are our options for using it as a cheap chocolate substitute? Bill?

But what are the uses of a chocolate with, say, palm oil as its primary fat? As it turns out, many. As a coating, for one. And in fact chocolates that don’t contain cocoa butter are indispensable in the candy making world. Otherwise expensive truffles would liquify in the box if you tried to bring them home on a warm day. But then non-cocoa butter chocolates are more than merely functional. Manipulating fats and melting points is how chocolatiers create a wide variety of pleasurable effects in the mouth.

So you see that changing labeling standards isn’t necessarily about “putting one over on us”. And anyway food manufacturers aren’t stupid enough to try to pass off ersatz cocoa butter as the real thing. They know very well how sophisticated today’s consumers are. They can’t package fertilizer under the brand name “Perfume” and expect anyone to buy it. Anyone who thinks big chocolate makers are that dumb is living in a conspiratorial fantasyland.

So how do I personally feel about all this? Well, considering I don’t know the particulars I hazard to venture an opinion. I have to admit that leaving the standards as they are has an intuitive logic to it, since it means pretty much leaving what came in the chocolate pod in the chocolate. On the other hand current standards allow all sorts of things in chocolate from dairy products to flavorings, sweeteners and emulsifiers. None of those come in the pod as far as I know. Changing the definition would allow for an awful lot of other types of chocolate concoctions (many of which could be fairly called “chocolate”) into the official chocolate arena, and that might be a very good thing. Hm. It’s so hard to say, I’ll have to keep thinking on it.

Hat Tip: Sally C. at Tip of the Iceberg. Thanks Sally!

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