At the time, I didn’t know why the industrial chocolate giants were agitating for this dubious cause. Now I think I know: cocoa-bean prices rose abruptly last year, pushed up by strong global demand and bad weather and political unrest in the Ivory Coast, the world’s most prolific cocoa-producing nation.
By scheming to substitute hydrogenated fat for cocoa butter, the chocolate giants are plotting more than just a con job on U.S. consumers. They’re also angling to deny cocoa growers the benefit of higher prices.
By definition, chocolate consists of cocoa butter and chocolate liquor, the substances that result from the grinding and processing of cocoa beans; beyond that, manufacturers can add sweetener and flavorings such as vanilla and emulsifiers. (Milk chocolate, of course, can contain milk.)
Since the mid-1970s, cocoa prices have been generally low, for two basic reasons: 1) cocoa-bean production more than doubled between 1971 and 2004, as growers moved to more intensive (and less sustainable) growing practices; 2) the processing industry has become increasingly dominated by a few players, giving them leverage to dictate prices.
According to a 2004 FAO report:
In cocoa, the number of trading houses in London shrank from 30 in 1980 to around ten in 1999. Similarly, the six largest chocolate manufacturers account for 50 percent of world sales.
Rock-bottom cocoa prices spelled robust profits for the chocolate giants — and a nightmare for growers.
Now, with cocoa prices up, the manufacturers are evidently seeking to maintain their profit margins by stretching the cocoa they buy as far as they can. Substituting cheap, heart-ruining hydrogenated fat for cocoa butter is one way to accomplish that. (Chocolate-making titans Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill are also among the world’s dominant vegetable oil producers.)
The U.S. artificial-flavor company David Michaels is pushing another, evidently already legal solution. This one involves cocoa powder, another substance produced in the milling of cocoa beans.
According to a recent press release, the company is pushing “a line of cocoa extenders and replacers, [which] are designed to allow for savings during times of high cocoa prices.”
According to the company, manufacturers using its “Cocoa-Mate” line of artificial ingredients can cut their use of real cocoa powder by as much as 30 percent. And it’s “adaptable for use in a number of applications, including ice cream, yogurt, beverages, puddings, toppings, and bakery goods.”