Cuckoo for Cocoa Fat, Part 2

Goodness gracious it’s been a big couple of weeks for the Keepin’ it Real Lobby. I may not agree with’em, but you’ve got to hand it to them, they’ve been flooding the zone like pros. First there was the LA Times editorial, then the NPR radio spot, then the Washington Post article, the Bloomberg piece, the Huffington Post, the list goes on.

I wasn’t planning on wading into this topic again, since these kinds of fever-pitch conversations have a way of not being conversations at all. Push somebody’s button by telling them that big bad corporate America wants to take their chocolate away, and you’ve pretty much ended any hope of an actual discussion. But then that’s how the game of lobbying is played, or if you’re Guittard, the game of protecting your market.

A particularly nice touch, I thought, was Guittard’s injection of trans fats into the issue. If there was ever any glimmer of hope for real dialogue on the FDA rules change, Guittard’s wild speculation that big chocolate makers might use the rules change to put trans fats in their chocolate extinguished it in a red hot second. As if any chocolate maker would dream of substituting trans fatty acids for cocoa butter at a time when food companies are virtually stampeding over each other to erase trans fats from their labels.

“Gee Bill, we’re really taking a hammering in the press on this fat substitution thing.”

“We sure are Bob.”

“Whaddya say we just put a bullet in the brain of this company right now and put trans fats in our chocolate?”

“Sounds good to me Bob, I was getting tired of this hollow sham that I call a life anyway. Do you want to call the Sacramento Bee or shall I?”

Pretty darn game of them. But like I said, common sense left this conversation a long time ago. Too many folks out there in the foodie community are too willing to believe that every time a big food maker does anything it’s in order to screw us. Either to squeeze a few extra cents out of a product in the name of the demon god Mammon, or to pour more industrial effluent down our throats because, well, that’s how they get their sick kicks, the bastards.

Food company communicators are too smart to engage in a debate that they’ve lost before they can even open their mouths. But hell I’m not, so in the interests of getting some of the actual issues onto a table that’s crowded with rhetoric, let me try to explain what this proposed FDA rules change is about.

It’s not about “fooling” anyone. Food makers are acutely aware of how sophisticated today’s consumers are. They know that any attempt to substitute a cheap, inferior fat for cocoa butter would be hopeless. No amount of marketing could ever convince consumers that a bar chocolate with the texture of bar soap is the real thing. Only one thing has the melt point and consistency of cocoa butter, and that’s cocoa butter. We know it and they know it.

It’s not about saving money. One of the cardinal rules of selling food is that you don’t have to squeeze cost out of a product people are willing to pay for. People want the finest ingredients in their chocolates and chocolate makers are only too happy too oblige. Premium products after all bring premium prices, and everyone is happy with that.

It’s not about making chocolate “less natural”. There are chocolate products in organic bonbons that aren’t technically allowed to be called “chocolate” because they contain fats like organic palm oil instead of cocoa butter. You could use the world’s highest quality ingredients and still not meet the FDA’s strictures.

Alright, so what is it all about then Mr. Smartguy? The FDA rules change is about labels. And why is that? Because over the last few years consumers have actually started to read them, and that’s changed the packaged foods industry fundamentally. Nowadays, every packaged food maker is rushing to remove anything that doesn’t sound even remotely “real” or “natural” from their packaging. Conversely, they’re dying to be able to brag when there’s an ingredient in their products they think consumers will be excited about. And what’s more a more exciting ingredient than chocolate?

This cuts right to the heart of the issue, since for years now confection and sweet makers (notably candy makers) have been using every last bit of the cocoa bean in their products but the cocoa fat. Why? Because the fat would either melt, “bloom” (i.e. create that white fat crystal film that you see sometimes on chocolate bars), or go rancid. Thus instead of blending cocoa butter into their chocolate coatings they’ve used things like vegetable oil. Yet this has prevented them (because of FDA regulation) from touting the fact that they use real chocolate.

“Contains Real Chocolate Flavor!” is one of the ways they’ve tried to express the idea over the years. “With Real Cocoa Solids!” is another. Yet consumers have become so suspicious of so-called “big food” over the years that any such heavily word-smithed claim evokes notions of radioactive isotopes and petrochemical sludge. Packaging claims like that are self-defeating, and food makers know it. Nothing says real chocolate like the words “real chocolate”, which is why they’re in conversations with the FDA to be able to use them.

And I wish we were privy to those discussions, since I’ve had my fill of conspiracy, vitriol and hysteria these last few weeks. Yet that will continue to be just a wish, since nothing tamps down a good old-fashioned freak-out like an actual discussion of the facts. Guittard knows that, so they’re going to stoke the furnace of hysteria as best they can. They have much to lose from their B2B ingredients trade should they have to go head-to-head with the likes of Hershey’s. What they’re executing is a time-tested small-guy strategy for dealing with big-company competition. In other words, it’s darn good marketing. So bully for them! Too bad a lot of the rest of the folks on the bandwagon don’t seem to realize they’re being taken for a ride.

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