Buying a bar of chocolate shouldn't be an academic exercise, but with the maze of labels available these days, it's hard not to stand dumbfounded in the chocolate aisle. Not to worry! Here's a cheat sheet that will help you look like a bona fide chocolate expert.
Bean to Bar
If your label says bean to bar, it means that the maker has taken whole cacao beans and roasted, ground, and smoothed them into chocolate from scratch. If it doesn’t say those words, they’ve most likely bought pre-made chocolate, melted it down, and added other ingredients to make their own signature bar (see Inclusion Bars).
Read More About Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: Should You Care if Your Chocolate Is Labeled Bean to Bar?
Say your bar has 70 percent printed on the label. That means 70 percent of the bar consists of cocoa mass — cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The remaining 30 percent consists of other ingredients, typically sugar and vanilla, but also almonds, coconut, raspberries, and so on. As a rule, dark chocolate contains higher percentages of cacao than milk chocolate, and to be called chocolate in the U.S., it must contain a minimum of just 10 percent cacao.
Many artisan makers use just two ingredients: cacao beans and sugar. But in a lot of chocolate, you’ll also find ingredients like cocoa butter and soy lecithin to improve texture, as well as vanilla for taste. Whether these additions are good or bad is a matter of opinion, but here’s the bottom line: If your bar contains non-cocoa butter fats (like vegetable oil), artificial sweeteners, or milk substitutes, it isn’t considered chocolate at all, and the label will say “chocolatey” or “made with chocolate.”
Fair trade. Rainforest Alliance. Direct trade. There are so many designations and certifications these days that it’s hard to keep track. Put all of them aside for the moment. The more information the label contains about the beans and the farmer, the better chance that the chocolate is made ethically and conscientiously.
You may have noticed the names of countries like Madagascar, Ecuador, and Peru on your chocolate labels. That means that the chocolate bar is made using cacao from that country and only from that country. (It does not mean, however, that it was produced in that country).
Like most food, chocolate can expire. But what does it mean for chocolate to go bad? The cocoa butter separates from the cocoa solids – this is called blooming — and the bar starts to turn white. Pay attention to the expiration date in the store to make sure you’re not buying a stale bar, and then eat it before the date passes. This is almost never a problem.
Inclusion is just a fancy way of saying the bar has extra goodies added into it for texture or flavor (think sea salt, almonds, toffee, pretzels, raspberries, peppermint, and so on). Lately chocolate makers have gotten super experimental and are even adding ingredients like Pop Rocks!
(Image credits: Courtesy of Ritual Chocolate)