Is Commercial Chocolate Still Chocolate?

Chocolate is many things. Sensuous. Decadent. Sinful. But perhaps best of all, chocolate is good for you. When it's actually chocolate

Credit: Flickr/Lulu Witch

Is it chocolate or is it chemical?

It’s well documented that chocolate is good for you. Like blueberries and green tea, chocolate is full of antioxidants. But there’s a darker side to commercial chocolate

Chocolate is many things. Sensuous. Decadent. Sinful. It also contains an endogenous neuroamine called Phenylethylamine or PEA, which is a mood-enhancer, sometimes called the “love drug.”

As one of nature’s most concentrated forms of theobromine, chocolate, or at least the cacao seed from which it is derived, is highly medicinal

Theobromine is used in modern medicine as a vasodilator, diuretic and heart stimulant. Its use in cancer prevention has already been patented but historically, it was used to treat edema and angina, as well as circulatory diseases like hypertension.

In Mesoamerica, Mayan and Aztec priests believed that the cacoa bean was magical. Bitter beer-like drinks were prepared from cacao and served during sacred and religious rituals. The cacao beans were also used as currency. A slave cost 100 beans and for 12, you could buy the services of a courtesan.

When the Spanish defeated the Aztecs, in the 16th century, chocolate, still in its beverage form, made its way to Europe where it became a favourite of Ferdinand and Isabella. Sugar and milk, two ingredients unknown to the Aztecs and Mayans, were added to adjust the flavour for European tastes. In the 17th century, the first chocolate shop opened in London.

Is it Still Chocolate?

The addition of sugar and milk, along with the emulsification process, changed chocolate but one of the biggest changes since then has happened in the last few years. Since 2006, commercial chocolate companies have been replacing cocoa with Polyglycerol polyricinoleate (PGPR), an emulsifier made from castor bean oils. 

A quick search reveals that a series of toxicology studies have been conducted on PGPR, starting as early as the 1950s. While many studies show that PGPR is not bad for you, when PGPR replaces cocoa butter, the antioxidants and other medicinal properties present in the cacao bean disappear.

Food is a complex mix of global economics. As the food industry continues to add chemical preservatives into food, it is increasingly important to know what we are consuming and why.

Quite simply, PGPR is cheaper than cocoa. Most cocoa is produced in Western Africa, with the Ivory Coast being the world’s biggest producer. In the late ’90s, reports started to surface revealing corruption and human rights abuses associated with cocoa. These include child labour. The economics of chocolate is not a sweet story and the human cost of consumption is bittersweet.   
Since arriving in Europe in the 16th century, chocolate has become big business. Only four companies dominate the commercial world of chocolate: Nestle, Mars, the new conglomerate of Cadbury/Kraft, and Ferrero, makers of Kinder surprises and related confectionary.

The bigger the business, the more important the bottom dollar. The longer shelf life required at the corner store, the more likely you are to find ingredients in your food that you cannot pronounce, identify or decipher.

So before you bite in, read the fine print and find out if what you are about to eat is actually what you think it is.