Be sure to read the ingredients list on your chocolate as this is one of the easiest ways to spot poor quality. Generally speaking, the shorter the list, the better. The only necessary ingredients in chocolate are cacao and sugar, with perhaps a little added cocoa butter and milk if it’s a milk chocolate. The inclusions of ingredients like fruit and nuts or spices is obviously fine but avoid any alternative fats like vegetable fat or palm oil, and steer clear of unnecessary preservatives and E numbers. Also, pay attention to the order the ingredients are listed in - if milk or sugar is the first ingredient, it tends to suggest a lower quality chocolate.
How much information is offered on the packaging? The more the better! Is the origin of the cacao provided? If it just gives you the country it will often be a blend - ideally you want the specific region or plantation/cooperative. The strain of cacao is also good information to have, and something that - in general - only quality producers would indicate.
The more transparent the company, the more trustworthy it tends to be. Look for information about how the cacao is traded - is it fair or direct trade? Is it organic or non-GMO certified? All of these things are desirable, though fair trade and organic does not always mean high quality. It’s a complex thing and all the factors of this guide should be taken into consideration.
Take a bit of time to research who makes your chocolate. It’s good to know more about what’s going on behind the scenes so that you can build a level of trust with each company. Find out how big the company is - are they mass producing chocolate on an industrial scale or are they a small scale craft producer? Do they offer information on their website about how their cacao beans are traded, and perhaps have photos of them visiting the farms?
Another key thing to find out is whether or not they are producing from bean to bar. If they make chocolate from the bean they have complete control over the flavour of the chocolate and will have mastered every step of the process, including the roasting, winnowing and conching. If they are using couverture from another company and melting it down, which company is it and how high quality is the chocolate they produce?
4. Flavour vs. Percentage
Don’t get too hung up on percentage. With the growth of craft chocolate you will find all kinds of different cacao varieties with varying tastes and levels of sweetness, so how ‘dark’ a chocolate is doesn’t tell you that much about how it will taste.
Check out our previous blog piece to learn more about this.
6. Beware of chocolate marketed as a health product
Although there are some health benefits to darker chocolates with less sugar and some excellent nutritional values in cacao, chocolate is not really a health product and should be considered a treat. Even your average 70% dark chocolate contains around 30% sugar, which is fine if it’s part of a balanced diet but it’s not something that should be considered medicinal. Often companies that market themselves this way are charging over the odds for lesser quality chocolate.
Be cautious of chocolate that describes itself as ‘raw’, as this is often misleading. The temperatures reached during fermentation of cacao usually exceed what can still be considered raw, plus the amount of machinery and processing involved in turning the cacao into chocolate is not really in line with the ethos of the raw food movement. Also, be especially careful to check the ingredient list on ‘raw’ chocolate - some of them are made by mixing together cocoa powder and cocoa butter - rather than grinding cacao nibs - which is not what we would consider to be real chocolate.
7. Be willing to pay more for quality
We’ve grown up with the idea that a bar of chocolate should cost three or four dollars and it can be hard to break that mould. As you develop the knowledge and learn to spot high quality chocolate when you see/taste it, hopefully you will begin to understand why it costs more. The kind of chocolate we sell at The Chocolate Bar is made with rare varieties of high quality cacao that is ethically traded. Dedicated artisans then craft these beans and bring out incredible flavours, using a huge range of skills and a whole heap of time and love. Obviously this has relative costs, but once you’ve tasted the good stuff it’s easy to understand why it comes with the increase in price.