My sweet tooth once had an open-door policy, but now, I indulge fewer and fewer candies. That’s because many are more chemical than confection.
Can I let you in on a secret about the chocolate candy you have in your desk drawer or pantry right now? It’s likely only technically chocolate.
What do I mean by technically? “Chocolate” candy must have cacao butter (or cocoa butter) in order to meet the Food and Drug Administration’s definition for chocolate. (Even then, they’re notoriously wishy-washy on that interpretation.) Many candies, however, only have cocoa powder. That means it’s not truly chocolate; it’s better identified as “chocolate-flavored.”
But that’s only the beginning of the confusing label terminology. Settle in.
WATCH: What is white chocolate?
Your candies might contain paraffin, a type of edible wax that gives chocolate a smooth, glossy finish without the complicated tempering process. It’s a derivative of petroleum, your body cannot process it, and manufacturers don’t have to list it on the ingredients label.
Your chocolate might also contain lecithin (soy, sunflower, or otherwise). Like paraffin, lecithin is an emulsifier and preservative. It’s actually used in a lot of foods, but it’s not without controversy and health concerns. It just may be less likely to strike fear because it often comes from soy or sunflowers, foods we recognize, and not petroleum.
Artificial flavors are frequently listed in the ingredients, often near the end. Artificial ingredients are, as you might guess, always cheaper than real. This goes for everything from the vanilla extract to the “raspberry” in your raspberry-cream chocolate squares. The chances of there being real raspberry in anything you buy in a big bag is slim.
The FDA doesn’t even have a definition for dark chocolate (you can sign a Change.org petition if you’re particularly passionate about this), which means a lot of companies take advantage of the loophole, labeling their food as dark chocolate and gleefully basking in the associated health halo. Dark chocolate energy bars? Unlikely.
Why are candy makers adding all these odd ingredients? Simple! To cut costs.
Chocolate isn’t exactly cheap, at least not the good stuff.
For example, cocoa butter, which is required in order for something to be labeled as real chocolate, is a rich, luxurious fat that is used to make chocolate smooth and creamy without any teeth-coating waxiness. But cocoa butter isn’t cheap.
Penny-pinching candy manufacturers use hydrogenated oils like palm oil and soy bean oil. They are inexpensive, easy to source, and produce fairly consistent results.
Here’s the worst part: the cheap candy problem is likely to get worse.
As prices for cacao continue to rise, mass-market candy manufacturers will continue to look for ways to cut prices. Meanwhile, smaller brands that are dedicated to producing good candy and chocolate will see their profits shrink.
So how do you get good candy? You’ve got to read—and you’ve got to be willing to spend the money.
Chocolate isn’t exactly cheap, at least not the good stuff. A high-quality chocolate bar with sustainably-sourced cacao is likely to cost more than five bucks. Ridiculous, right?
No. Cacao is like any agricultural product. It has to be grown and harvested by people. That costs money, and the better you treat those people, the more the cacao will cost.
The best bars (such as, the hand-crafted ones you buy at your local farmers’ market) are more costly because the artisan is paying her workers a living wage, she likely uses techniques that are safe for the Earth, she sources cacao from farmers that pay living wages to their employees, and she puts a lot of love and effort into her products.
The big bag of egg-shaped peanut butter cups come off an assembly line.
Plus, mass-market candy companies frequently face human rights issues with their sourcing and production. Just last year, two large corporations were slapped with child labor lawsuits.
Will a crappy chocolate-coated peppermint patty satisfy my chocolate craving in a crunch? Absolutely. But will it be as indulgent and fulfilling as a beautiful bonbon or crispy dark chocolate peanut butter cup? No.
The fact is, high quality ingredients are more flavorful, more intense, and more satisfying. They also happen to be more expensive, but for the sake of the producers—and perhaps to slow my intake—great candies made by good companies are worth the extra dollars at the checkout—at least in my candy-eating experience, and that’s one job I’ve been practicing for many, many years.